Opinion: Intelligent voters need and deserve frequent debates

NBC screencap, courtesy of WAMC Northeast Public Radio

Democrat Governor Kathy Hochul is following the infamous Rose Garden Strategy by ignoring underdog Republican challenger Congressmember Lee Zeldin and refusing to schedule a series of public debates between now and Election Day. She did the same for the Democratic Primary by only participating in two debates at the 11th hour with Congressmember Tom Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

With less than eight weeks to go, Hochul’s surrogates will continue to run out the clock in negotiations. They have the goal of agreeing to one or two debates, knowing full well that her election is already preordained. Just look at the voter affiliations and campaign funds. Statewide voter enrollment numbers clearly favor Hochul. As of April 2022, there are 11,905,886 active registered voters. This includes 5,929,375 Democrats, 2,645,799 Republicans, 152,689 Conservatives, 45,093 Working Families 26,462, Other 419,193 and 2,713,757 Blank (no declared party).

Hochul still has $33 million and will easily raise millions more in coming weeks. Zeldin will easily be outspent by Hochul. Albany’s infamous State Street lobbyists who represent various special interest groups will continue “Pay for Play” by providing more campaign contributions to Hochul. It is an investment to stay on her good side. They know that as governor, she will continue “returning the favors” and will deliver over the next four years.

All incumbent elected officials, be they Democrat or Republican on the city, state or federal level, start out with many advantages not available to challengers. During any term of public office, incumbents have daily television, radio and newspaper exposure, press conferences, newsletters, guest columns in newspapers, letters to the editor and speaking engagements on a regular basis. Don’t forget the perks of public office, including announcements of member items (many of which taxpayers consider local pork-barrel projects). These are used to raise name recognition and assist in greasing the wheels of re-election.

Up until the 1980s, both Democratic and Republican candidates participated in numerous television and newspaper editorial board debates. Voters could look beyond the 30- or 60-second TV commercial sound bites to learn about real views and issues among the candidates.

Those candidates who refused to participate in these debates would be subject to critical newspaper editorials. They ended up losing any chance of newspaper endorsements and usually went down to defeat in either the primary or general election.

In the 1980s, a new Rose Garden Strategy emerged. Incumbents or officially designated incumbent candidates of both parties refused to debate lesser-known, under-funded opponents in either the primary or general election. They had no interest in providing a free forum for challengers to get their message directly out to voters. Too many newspapers and good government groups failed to speak up and shame these incumbents into participating in open forums and debates.

They don’t want to provide their respective unknown and under-financed opponents with free forums to explain their positions on issues of the day. It is newspapers who provide a forum at no charge. This affords under financed and lesser known candidates a chance to communicate their views on issues of the day to voters.

Why not participate in debates sponsored by daily newspapers and television stations? Perhaps downstate based Daily News, Post, Times, Newsday, Wall Street Journal, Staten Island Advance, Journal News and Times Herald Record would all be happy to host a debate. Ditto for upstate newspapers and television stations in Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, Ithaca, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Syracuse and Watertown. Let us hope that enlightened newspapers call for an end of incumbents use of the infamous Rose Garden Strategy in future elections. Intelligent voters deserve frequent debates prior to the general election as opposed to canned TV commercials.

If Hochul continues to refuse to participate in series of debates open to full media coverage with her underdog Republican challenger Zeldin, she should be subject to critical newspaper editorials. Hochul should forfeit any chance of endorsements by media outlets.

Larry Penner of Great Neck, New York is a long-time follower of state government and politics