A week ago it was reported that the 1st District Democrats central committee had scheduled five forums for the three Democratic Congressional candidates. Now? No more, though maybe still one, as the committee announced yesterday morning they would be cancelling the forums due to “scheduling conflicts.”
Few in the 1st District is very happy about the cancellations and campaigns signaled frustration with the process. After speaking with numerous activists and campaign contacts in the 1st District, it appears communications problems and internal disagreements caused those attempting to organize the events to decide it was too much of a hassle.
“There were some conflicts with the schedule and trying also to decide what constitutes a debate and what constitutes a forum,” explained Michael Blackwell, the co-chair of the 1st District Democrats. “Whether candidates could actually pose questions to other candidates, or whether the questions would be primarily by moderators or a panel to the candidates, rather than them exchanging conversation or having dialogue between and among themselves. We opted for having a panel of questioners.”
There were early discussions last year about hosting debates, and an official subcommittee was formed in January, headed up by Kurt Meyer. Several noted it was a relatively short window of time considering they had hoped to schedule at least one forum in March. But they quickly ran into issues over what the format of the forums or debates should look like.
“The subcommittee wanted to have topical debates, with a theme like the economy for one, the environment for another,” Blackwell said. “There was not full agreement on the format.”
Pat Murphy’s campaign preferred debates with a more open format, and was trying to negotiate changes. It’s unclear whether there were any actual negotiations that are typical of debate setups.
One of the biggest problems seemed to result from basic communications issues between the committee and the campaigns. It took some time to determine who to speak with from the three Democrats running for Congress.
“It wasn’t all together clear from the campaigns who was the person to pay attention to,” Blackwell noted, though he wasn’t the one on the committee contacting the campaigns.
“I was getting confused,” Gary Kroeger, one of the 1st District candidates, said of the process. He thought there were five firm dates set, but then started to hear conflicting information from other activists in the district.
In the end the committee decided the problems were too much and called it a day.
“It seemed like some wanted to have as many forums as possible, and some just wanted to have a limited number,” Blackwell said. “So we thought it was just too much uncertainty that was cropping up, so we decided to nix it and just have the one.”
The campaigns and multiple activists within the district, including Meyer, were surprised at the cancellations. They indicated they thought discussions were proceeding decently enough and that the forums would have been able to go forward.
The committee is still looking at hosting one forum the night before the district convention in Vinton in April.
“Pat remains committed to having an open and robust debate. The voters in the first district deserve to have the opportunity to vet all 3 candidates to ensure a proven progressive is sent to Congress,” said Michael McLaughlin of Murphy’s campaign in an email to Starting Line. “Our belief remains that the debates should be open to the public and the press, driven by questions from the audience and allow for a real exchange between the candidates on their views and their record.”
Monica Vernon’s campaign preferred to not issue a statement, but indicated they want to see debates move forward, and had agreed to the ones originally proposed.
The debate issue could prove a particular problem to Kroeger, who has found local support for his progressive message, but who doesn’t have the funds necessary to run a large district-wide advertising campaign.
“The establishment has not been in my corner, and as a result raising money has been hard, and I have to get on television,” Kroeger explained. “My strategy all along has been that these debates would be good for me. I’m optimistic that I would have carved out a very engaging, informed, passionate and relevant candidacy. Without them, I don’t really have the opportunity to do that … I was very much looking forward to these.”
He’s still hopeful that some sort of debate schedule will get cobbled together from organizations in the district.
“I’ve made clear to everyone, I’m fine either way!” Kroeger insisted. “You want a debate, great. You want a forum, great.”
If that doesn’t happen, and Kroeger’s campaign is hamstrung by the lack of media coverage, there might yet be another option for him. There’s been talk in some Democratic circles that Kroeger could run instead for House District 60 against Walt Rogers. Kroeger’s well-known locally and could make a very formidable candidate in a winnable seat, especially in a year where Donald Trump’s candidacy could decimate down-ballot Republicans.
The whole ordeal is not a very encouraging one for Democrats’ efforts in this must-win seat held by Rod Blum, often described by national media as Republicans’ most-endangered incumbent.
Setting up debates really shouldn’t be this hard. And even if they are difficult, you still need to get it done because Democrats need to showcase these candidates. Getting Kroeger, Murphy and Vernon in front of voters, in the press and – most importantly – building up some actual excitement for this otherwise oddly sleepy race is essential. Iowa’s 1st District needs to be held by a Democrat after the 2016 election. Let’s get serious about this, folks.
by Pat Rynard