OPINION: Bring on the empty lecterns - more incumbents refuse debates

Republican nominee Herschel Walker declined to participate; his absence was noted by the empty lectern on the stage where he would have stood.

Credit: GPB/Atlanta Press Club

Credit: GPB/Atlanta Press Club

Republican nominee Herschel Walker declined to participate; his absence was noted by the empty lectern on the stage where he would have stood.

When Atlanta Press Club members recently finalized their plans to host candidate debates ahead of Georgia’s May 21 primary elections, the journalists in the room realized that, for the first time anyone can remember, no invited incumbent had agreed to participate.

Their reasons for skipping out vary, but the result will be the same — empty lecterns where missing elected officials ought to be.

The two Atlanta-area members of Congress with competitive primaries — Democrats U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath and U.S. Rep. David Scott — were invited to debate their challengers this weekend, but neither accepted the invitation.

McBath is running in the newly redrawn 6th Congressional District against state Rep. Mandisha Thomas and Cobb Commissioner Jerica Richardson. Her campaign team declined to offer a reason for why she won’t be there. And frankly, with sky-high name I.D. and more than $1 million in the bank, no campaign consultant would tell her to take the risk of mixing it up with lesser-known candidates if she doesn’t have to.

But much of the new 6th District has never known McBath as their representative, even if she’s been elected elsewhere in the Atlanta suburbs. How will she represent them specifically? Her competitors would surely have asked.

Likewise, 11-term incumbent Scott has six Democratic candidates running against him, including Marcus Flowers who challenged U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in 2022. But Scott won’t see any of them next Sunday at the Press Club debate either.

While many of Scott’s constituents in the 13th district have known him for decades, they deserve to see if questions raised about his age and fitness are legitimate, or simply political potshots. Several attempts to reach his office to find out why he is not debating did not yield an answer.

Gary Black was elected four times as Georgia’s Agriculture Commissioner. He always debated his opponents, even after he’d been in office for more than a decade.

“Some candidates think their name ID and campaign war chest provides sufficient protection, so why risk a blunder?” he said. “But how can you or should you even think about serving in elected office if you cannot muster the courage to stand for a few questions in a public forum?”

It’s a good question, but the reality is that debates can be huge opportunities for challengers whether their opponents show up or not.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff made national headlines in 2020 when GOP Sen. David Perdue skipped the Press Club’s debate ahead of the November election. Ossoff said Perdue’s absence was proof of cowardice, laziness, or both. News outlets the next day showed Ossoff pointing to Perdue’s empty spot as he asked questions he would have posed to the senator.

That same year, then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler did debate Raphael Warnock. But her strategy to repeat the term “radical liberal Raphael Warnock” more than a dozen times backfired and made the otherwise relaxed Loeffler seem weird and robotic.

The Press Club’s policy of placing an empty lectern in the place of a no-show candidate dates back to a 1998 debate for Labor Commissioner between Michael Thurmond and John Frank Collins. Before then, the policy was to cancel the debate altogether if just one candidate participated.

But veteran journalist Maria Saporta, who co-founded the debate series, argued that the candidates willing to debate should get the chance to be heard — and the ones who didn’t shouldn’t get off the hook. The lonely-podium photo op was born.

Thurmond said he was advised not to debate or run ads with his photograph that year. As a Black candidate, some thought he could hurt himself among white voters who might assume he was white, too. But when he showed up to debate and Collins did not, the opposite turned out to be true.

“It turned the tide for me to tell you the truth,” said Thurmond. “It gave me a boost in the campaign that I eventually won.”

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is another candidate who won’t show up Sunday to face her Democratic opponent, Christian Wise Smith.

She has an unusual reason: Willis is facing a potential gag order from Judge Scott McAfee after using a church speech to accuse her critics of “playing the race card” over her relationship with former social counsel Nathan Wade. One false move or answer to a question on forbidden topics could land her, and her case against former President Donald Trump, in hot water.

“We understand that she cannot insist that panelists and her opponent avoid certain subjects, and consequently, her participation means likely repeatedly being unable to respond to questions, as well as risking saying something that defense counsel could make an issue in ongoing litigation,” a statement from her campaign said.

A final invited incumbent, state Supreme Court Justice Andrew Pinson, is facing John Barrow in the May nonpartisan election. But a Code of Judicial Conduct, created since the last time judicial nominees debated at the Press Club, now means Pinson needs to avoid all topics that could eventually come before the court.

Heath Garrett, a strategist for Pinson’s campaign, said they are still trying to work with the Press Club to find a format other than the traditional candidate back-and-forth.

“We are working with all event sponsors to try and establish a “forum” style event that accounts for the fact that it would be inappropriate for judges or judicial candidates to prejudice themselves by making statements about issues that could come before the Court,” he said

Putting Pinson aside, it’s easy to see why incumbents would take a pass on debates these days. Trump just won his presidential primary without ever being in the same room as his opponents. And with social media, candidates are already getting their message out on their terms. Why give the new guys exposure and a chance to beat up on you in a room you don’t control?

But debates were never meant to be for the candidates. They are for the voters. There’s no substitute for comparing your choices side-by-side, and an empty lectern is no choice at all.

The Atlanta Press Club debates take place Sunday, April 29 and will be broadcast between April 29 and May 2. A full schedule is here. https://atlantapressclub.org/debates/