By Miriam Raftery
March 12, 2012 (San Diego) – What criteria should news outlets use in determining who should be included in political debates—and who should be left out?
Ten candidates have thrown their hats in the ring to seek the newly redrawn 52nd Congressional District seat currently held by Republican Brian Bilbray. But which ones receive a seat at debates to bring their messages to voters has become a key point of contention with some debate sponsors restricting the number of participants.
John Stahl, a self-described conservative business leader, contends that he was unfairly excluded by KPBS from an on-air debate set to take place on March 14. His supporters recently staged a protest outside the studio. Video: http://youtu.be/HWWo-SpIwLw
KPBS has announced plans to include only those candidates who polled above 10% in a poll conducted by the independent national polling Company SurveyUSA, commissioned by KPBS TV partner KGTV Channel 10. Stahl did not make the cut. Congressman Bilbray and two Democratic opponents, former Assemblywoman/educator Lori Saldaña and ex-City Council president/Port Commissioner Scott Peters, are slated to debate.
The survey was done before the filing deadline and included seven candidates. Thus it also did not three late-registering contenders, notably Democrat Jack Doyle, former Mayor of Santee and retired Naval captain.
“Several candidates have expressed their frustration with not being included in the debate,” said Suzanne Marmion, KPBS director of news and editorial strategy. But she added, “In order to have the conversation reach the level of depth on the issues that our audience expects from KPBS, we must limit the number of candidate participants. Using the results of a poll conducted independently by a non-partisan pollster is the most objective criteria.”
Restricting access to debates is not new—and the more candidates enter a race , the more cumbersome public forums can become. Most notoriously, following the recall of Governor Gray Davis, around 100 candidates ran to replace him in the race ultimately won by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But two factors, the rise of the Internet and social media, coupled with the influx of big money in campaigns, make it easier today for lesser known candidates to disseminate their messages.
Stahl argues that poll results should not be the sole criteria, since polls will always favor those with the most name recognition—and since other factors may bear on a candidate’s potential for success at the polls that matter most—those at which voters cast their votes on election day.
“I have more cash on hand than Saldaña and Peters,” Stahl wrote in an e-mail to media members. That includes $100,000 of his own money donated to his campaign—far from pocket change.
Stahl is running to the right of Bilbray, arguing that Bilbray has received less-than-stellar ratings from some conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation. He believes there is room for a conservative Tea Party candidate under the state’s new “top two” primary system in which only the top two vote-getters among all candidates on the June ballot will advance to the November general election.
“None of the invitees have worked at a company that manufactured and shipped a product, nor gathered 3,500 signatures to get on the ballot,” contends Stahl, a former Naval Aviator with a mathematics degree who has served as vice president of worldwide sales for Raytheon Semiconductor in San Diego and for TRW/LSI Products.
“If only the career politicians who got us into this mess are included, where does the solution come from?” he asked. “Is that not the definition of insanity?”
KPBS isn’t the only debate sponsor to spark controversy.
Conservatives for Good Government sponsored a debate in February among candidates in the same 52nd Congressional District. That prompted the following comment from Republican candidate Wayne Iverson, a physician/small businessman.
“It is ironic that an organization going by the name of Conservative Order of Good Government would suppress a full and honest discussion among all the candidates running for Congress in the 52nd District,” Iverson wrote in the comments section of a KPBS article about that debate. “I would have gladly participated but was not given sufficient notice or invited to be there.”
According to the Registrar of Voters, other candidates running in the same district are as follows. Information below was provided to the Registrar by the candidates:
Gene Hamilton Carswell (no details posted yet)
Shirley Decourt-Park (no details posted yet)
Ehab Shehata , Physicians for Veterans,
John Subka, a Fortune 500 consultant
The one-hour KPBS debate of candidates in the 52nd district will air live on KPBS 9.5 FM radio at 12 noon and will be rebroadcast on KPBS-TV at 6 p.m.