Critics contend the Commission, which took over the debates from the nonpartisan League of Women Voters in 1986, is too beholden to corporate donors
October 2, 2012 (Washington D.C.) – In response to an organized email and letter-writing campaign, three of the ten corporations identified as sponsors of the Commission on Presidential Debates have withdrawn their sponsorship.
Over the past week, advertising agency BBH New York, nonprofit organization YWCA, and tech giant Philips North America have terminated their sponsorship as a result of accusations that the Commission is anti-democratic and subservient to the major parties. Never before has a sponsor of the Commission withdrawn its support.
On September 26, Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron, CEO of YWCA, wrote in an email to activists, "As a nonpartisan organization dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all, we have decided to withdraw our sponsorship effective immediately."
On September 28, Mark Stephenson, director of corporate communications for Philips North America, explained, "We respect all points of view and, as a result, want to ensure that Philips doesn't provide even the slightest appearance of supporting partisan politics. As such, no company funds have been or will be used to support the Commission on Presidential Debates."
"This is a triumph for the debate reform movement," said George Farah, executive director of Open Debates, which advocates replacing the Commission with a genuinely nonpartisan debate sponsor. "Increasingly, voters are discovering that the Commission on Presidential Debates is often more concerned with the partisan interests of the major parties than with the democratic interests of the America people, and they are directing their frustration at the institutions that financially and logistically support it."
Since its creation by the Republican and Democratic parties in 1987, the Commission has raised millions of dollars from its corporate sponsors. Anheuser-Busch has been, by far, the largest contributor to the Commission, serving as national sponsor of every debate held since 1996. At the debate themselves, Anheuser-Busch girls have distributed Bud Light and pamphlets denouncing beer taxes to journalists and campaign staff.
The Commission is co-chaired by individuals with loyalties to the major parties and a history of lobbying on behalf of corporations. Co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf is the former chair of the Republican Party and the nation's leading gambling lobbyist, as head of the American Gaming Association. Co-chair Mike McCurry is the former press secretary to President Bill Clinton and has lobbied extensively on behalf of the telecommunications industry.
In 1986, the Republican and Democratic National Committees ratified an agreement "to take over the presidential debates" from the nonpartisan League of Women Voters.
Fifteen months later, then-Republican Party chair Frank Fahrenkopf and then-Democratic Party chair Paul Kirk incorporated the Commission on Presidential Debates, and it has sponsored every presidential debate since.
The Commission exercises a monopoly over the presidential debates and routinely implements and conceals debate contracts that are drafted behind closed-doors by the Republican and Democratic campaigns, according to Open Debates. Those contracts have often contained anti-democratic provisions that sanitize and weaken debate formats, exclude viable third-party candidates and prohibit additional debates from being held.
The seven remaining sponsors supporting the Commission this year are: Anheuser-Busch Companies; The Howard G. Buffet Foundation; Sheldon S. Cohen, Esq.; Crowell & Moring LLP; International Bottled Water Association (IBWA); The Kovler Fund; and Southwest Airlines. Email and letter-writing campaigns organized by Open Debates, Help the Commission and other critics of the presidential debate process are targeting those remaining sponsors.