Shuler – Taylor Debates: What happened?

Joy Franklin, Editorial page Editor, of the Asheville Citizen-Times tries to explain the sequence of events:

Over the last couple of days, supporters of Heath Shuler have flooded my inbox with e-mails that read something like this:

“Your statement that Shuler ‘backed out’ of a debate is deplorable – a misleading assertion – disgraceful. He said many times Sunday was for his family – Republicans, and Republican publications like yours, spew out DECEIT constantly – and you are one of the main reasons this country has suffered under the worst president and the worst ruling majority in the history of the US! The damage is irreparable!”

These irate correspondents are reacting to a story we published Saturday: “Shuler backs out of debate.”

Most had received an e-mail from Shuler telling them that he did not back out of the debate and had, in fact, offered us several dates. The e-mail said we refused to work in good faith with his staff to find an acceptable one.

That e-mail misrepresents our role and I feel compelled to share a more complete account of the negotiations involved in trying to arrange a debate between Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, and Shuler, his Democratic challenger for the 11th District seat in the U.S. Congress.

Early on, the Citizen-Times didn’t pursue a debate because Taylor has not participated in a debate since 1994. In September, our new publisher asked if we could sponsor a debate, so we tried.

Sometimes, timing is everything. Taylor was interested if we had a broadcast partner. We recruited WLOS.

Why was Taylor interested now? Maybe because some polls showed him 8 to 11 points behind, although his campaign insisted its internal polling did not show him behind.

In my first conversation with Shuler’s staff, I asked for a debate Oct. 29 – or any date before. I was told that Shuler set aside Sundays for church and family and that no other date was available. But the staff member I talked with agreed to see if anything could be worked out.

Later, Shuler’s staff members suggested that we attend one of the debates already scheduled by other groups. At one point, Shuler’s campaign director, Hayden Rogers, asked me why they should debate since they were 11 points ahead in the polls. “My job is to elect Heath,” he said.

The message I got from this exchange was that he did not think it was strategically smart to participate in a televised debate – and that they might not be trying all that hard to find a date to make it happen.

Eventually, the campaign offered Nov. 1 as the only date Shuler was available for our debate. Aside from suggesting that we attend other forums already scheduled, Nov. 1 was the only date ever offered.

At about this time, Taylor agreed to debate but rejected Nov. 1 as being too close to the election.

When I went back to the Shuler campaign, his staff said that if they agreed to the format, they would try to find a date to make it happen.

As a result, we reported that both had tentatively agreed.

I sent a format to both campaigns. Taylor accepted the format but wanted the debate on or before Oct. 22 since early voting begins Oct. 19.

Shuler had no problem with the format.

We proposed Oct. 22 – or any date before – for the debate. Shuler’s campaign staff said there was no date available, before or after Oct. 22.

So was his staff sincere when they said they would try to find a date to make it happen? They knew his schedule when they said that.

I respect Shuler’s commitment to his family, but he is asking to be our representative in Congress.

Taking three hours on a Sunday evening – or some other day and time – to participate in a debate that could have been televised and publicized throughout the region would have given virtually everyone in the district an opportunity to evaluate the two candidates.

That would have been a tremendous public service. The vast majority of the district’s voters have not been able to come to any of the other forums and debates in which Shuler has participated.

We reported – and Shuler never disputed – that his staff said he welcomed a debate. But in the end, he could not find time to make it happen.

Since the headline ran, I’ve had lunch with Shuler. The headline wasn’t our main topic of conversation. Instead, it was about integrity. The e-mail he sent out saying that our story misrepresented him was never mentioned.

We regret that the debate did not happen, but I hope this provides a more complete account of the negotiations and gives the public a better understanding of how we ended up publishing the story we did.

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Errington C. Thompson, MD

Dr. Thompson is a surgeon, scholar, full-time sports fan and part-time political activist. He is active in a number of community projects and initiatives. Through medicine, he strives to improve the physical health of all he treats.

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The Thirteeneth Juror

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