CHARLES TOWN – When the NAACP of Jefferson County held one of its annual election forums three weeks ago, Delegate Sammi Brown, a progressive Democrat and an African American, sat alone in fielding questions online for the District 65 delegate race.
“I personally believe this is one of the toughest Q&A forums that we do during the election cycle,” Brown said during the general election forum over Zoom. “I’m proud to be here, and I’m incredibly proud that folks are tuning in tonight.”
However, her challenger, Wayne Clark, a conservative white Republican and a former Charles Town councilman, didn’t participate in the NAACP event. He also passed up a similar candidate forum by the League of Women Voters of Jefferson County.
In the end, the NAACP, the 111-year-old civil rights group, went on with its forum for the 65th district delegate race with just Brown. The League, however, canceled its political face-off between Brown and Clark, as it did for four other question-and-answer events when a candidate from either political side failed to show.
Three League forums attracted both candidates. Those were for the Senatorial District 16 seat and the House of Delegates District 66 ballot spot, as well as all five general election contenders for county sheriff. (Only three sheriff candidates attended a similar NAACP forum.)
“Candidates who agreed to participate but who had a conflict with the proposed forum time were offered alternatives,” the League stated on its Facebook page. “The invitation said the League would not hold a forum where only one of the candidates agreed to participate.”
Clark did not respond to a request for comment from the Spirit of Jefferson. Neither did the League of Women Voters.
For a mix of reasons, campaigning public office seekers make personal choices in picking and choosing which public forums to attend and which to avoid, several current candidates have said. And social media has given public office seekers another opportunity — and sometimes a primary focus and strategy — to get their messages directly to voters beyond the traditional campaign circuit of spaghetti dinners at civic events.
In the past, some League members have expressed concern about how some candidates have successfully run for public office after conducting campaigns mostly over social media.
But almost every person running for public office does his or her own calculus of whether to participate in any given forum, several current candidates agreed. Will the forum be conducted by a known organization that can reach many people — or enough people with open minds? Will questions go against the candidate’s particular political grain — or worse? Would a candidate have more campaign success spending the evening going door to door for one-on-one voter visits — or perhaps would just smiling and waving a campaign sign along the side of the road be more productive?
Busy work and family schedules can easily interfere with an ability to attend a forum, too.
“Time is an extremely important commodity” during campaign season, explained Elliot Simon, a Republican candidate for the District 67 delegate seat for eastern Jefferson County. “It’s critical.”
Simon said he changed his schedule around a conference to attend the NAACP forum, in part because he said he thinks more of the civil rights group’s constituents now have an open mind toward the Republican Party. He couldn’t participate in the League’s forum because his home computer couldn’t download a particular online conferencing platform, he said.
His opponent, incumbent John Doyle, a Democrat who holds his own occasional public town halls, said he would be willing to attend almost any candidate forum. Certain forums, he said, “I’ll figure out a way to get there.”
Doyle said there is one forum he stopped going to, one held by West Virginians for Life. “Used to go to it and I enjoyed it,” he said, “but the thing is, every question they asked, the answer I’m going to give them is one with which they disagree.”
“So I just think it was a waste of their time and mine, but that is an exception.”
Broadcast election forums have been regularly conducted during election seasons by WRNR in Martinsburg, considered by candidates as one of the more balanced venues at which to be seen and heard. The NAACP, the League of Women Voters and the Eastern Panhandle Business Association conduct forums that are posted online.
One candidate, who did not want to be identified, said he would only attend in-person forums, where an opponent would be limited in using notes and couldn’t get help from another person behind the computer screen.
One Jefferson County Commission candidate, Democrat Lanae Johnson, said she would only attend online forums because she has family members who would be especially endangered by a coronavirus infection.
Doyle said he’ll attend forums in person, including conservative-leaning ones, as long as the organization upholds physical distancing and limits the number of other people present as a health safety precaution. He also said he can’t recall any past forums he attended where his opponent didn’t show, but he does remember races involving other candidates when that sometimes occurred.
Nevertheless, a few current candidates said their decisions over whether to attend an election forum were sometimes influenced — and sometimes not — by memories or perceptions of whether candidates were treated unfairly and equally in the past.
The conservative political group We the People of West Virginia, Jefferson County (Tea Party) began holding candidate Q&A discussions and panels. The Tea Party’s forums began in part as an attempt to provide a leveling alternative to overly partisan candidate forums, party members said.
Paul Espinosa, an incumbent Republican candidate for the District 66 delegate representing Jefferson County, participated in the NAACP and the League of Women Voters forums this month and last.
Espinosa said it’s no secret that different forums are at least influenced by certain points of view on the political spectrum, even those hosted by nonpartisan groups. He pointed out that the NAACP and the League forums will carry more liberal presumptions than the Tea Party and business association forums. He added that candidates all know that beforehand.
“It’s probably not surprising that candidates will typically try to devote their time to those forums where they think they have an opportunity to actually persuade the voters,” Espinosa said. “It’s clear that various candidates, in some cases, gravitate toward those forums where they feel like they will get a more receptive audience.”
During this year’s League forums, state senatorial and delegate candidates were asked whether state sales taxes should be lifted on feminine hygiene products, to help those who have trouble affording those products. They were also asked whether candidates would support a state bill that would bar employers from discriminating against workers based on their hairstyles.
In August, Pete Dougherty, the current sheriff and a former 25-year Jefferson County school board member who is a Democratic candidate for the District 16 state senate seat representing Jefferson County and part of Berkeley County, attended an Eastern Panhandle Business Association forum. In his opening remarks, Dougherty acknowledged the unlikelihood that the association would give him its official endorsement.
“I don’t know that, being involved in politics for a long while, that this is a group that is going to roundly endorse my candidacy, but I will tell you that in every office that I’ve ever been in, and every office that I may get to, I will always come and speak and tell you what I believe I stand for and what I can do for you,” he said.
After the forum, the business association backed his conservative Republican rival, incumbent state Sen. Patricia Rucker.
An incumbent who has won four straight previous elections, Espinosa said he recalled a Democratic challenger in the past who bypassed a forum by the Eastern Panhandle Business Association, which is considered a conservative group.
Espinosa said several other Republican candidates told him that during this general election cycle — particularly with many voters now casting ballots before Election Day through absentee voting — that they’re placing more emphasis on engaging one-on-one with voters, such as through telephone calls and neighborhood door knocks.
“It’s reasonable and understandable, at least from my perspective, for candidates to want to focus their time,” Espinosa said. “Where is your limited campaign time best spent? Is it best spent in front of a partisan audience either in favor or against?
“Or is it out engaging with constituents and prospective voters who perhaps are genuinely undecided or would benefit from meeting a candidate?”
However, Doyle said candidates can typically only address one or two issues during front-stoop discussions with voters. Forums allow office seekers sometimes to hear questions posed in ways that reveal a fresh angle or dimension to an issue, he said.
One Republican incumbent, U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney for West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, has reputation for steering clear of open town halls, debates and forums altogether.
His current challenger, candidate Cathy Kunkel, a progressive Democrat, criticized Mooney for failing to hold any in-person town hall event since he was elected six years ago. The congressman did not respond to a recent invitation to participate in an NAACP general election forum.
Mooney, who has shunned most media interviews often in place of phone calls with constituents screened for party loyalty, has declined to debate Kunkel during this year’s contest.
Dan Taylor, Kunkel’s campaign manager, said Mooney hasn’t acknowledged Kunkel’s requests to hold a debate.
“We would love to have an open debate of ideas and policy on Mr. Mooney’s record while he’s been in Congress,” Taylor said. “He’s not been interested in doing anything like that. I guess he feels he doesn’t need to.”
So, instead, Kunkel has been organizing physical distancing events during the pandemic to meet voters across the congressional district spanning a middle swath of West Virginia. She’s also been attending outdoor community gatherings, such as farmers’ markets.
No response was given to a request for comment left with Mooney’s staff.
Meanwhile, Rucker, the state senate incumbent, has offered a contrasting approach by attending election forums whenever she can. She said she personally believes public office seekers should try to attend a variety of forums to reach a broad range of people.
“Constituents have a right to hear your thoughts, and even if you’re not elected yet they have a right to ask you questions and know where you stand on issues,” she said.
Are Some Debates Skewed?
A first-generation immigrant from Venezuela, Rucker had attended the NAACP’s forums before she first ran for office in 2014. Reached by phone while walking a neighborhood to campaign, she recalled how one NAACP candidate forum she attended as a citizen several years ago treated Republican candidates disrespectfully and unequally.
“You could just tell that there’s a clear bias,” she recalled. “I can tell you that it was very clear and very blatant. They were interrupted. They weren’t allowed to finish what they were saying.”
The treatment Republicans received rankled them so much that no GOP candidate attended the NAACP’s next campaign season’s forums, Rucker said. “They decided that the next time they just weren’t going to go.”
“And that has happened unfortunately at other forums” — describing what she said was biased treatment held by other organizations, she added.
Rucker said the Tea Party, which she cofounded in Jefferson County, began conducting its own forums because of what conservative candidates saw as unfair treatment at election events they attended. “We purposely had forums because we want to have the opportunity to show the way it should be done,” she said. “You treat everybody the same.”
NAACP leaders Rev. Ernest Lyles and George Rutherford adamantly deny that their organization’s forums are biased against candidates of any political bent or view, either conservative or liberal. But Lyles and Rutherford openly acknowledge, and make no apologies for, that many of the organization’s questions to candidates do directly and uniquely focus on racial and social justice issues. Those can include questions fielded from the public.
“We have challenged all candidates, Democrats and Republicans, on the issues,” Rutherford said.
“To assume the NAACP is based to favor Democrats over Republicans is simply not true. … We have had a Democratic candidate walk out of our meeting because of the questions we ask.”
Citizens who do attend the group’s forums will grow impatient with puff answers and platitudes on racial justice questions, Lyles acknowledged. “Some candidates don’t like to respond to those kinds of questions,” he said.
Any candidate who comes to an NAACP forum unprepared or unwilling to seriously and thoughtfully address those topics is unlikely to fare well, Rutherford said. “I can’t recall a question being asked that should not have been asked,” he added.
Lyles added that there’s no excuse, and that it’s insulting to the NAACP, that some candidates have ignored invitations to participate in the organization’s forums. Invitations were sent six to eight weeks before the recently scheduled events, he said.
“Any organization that has a problem with candidates not attending their forums should make that known,” he said.
Going to the Golf Course
Although delegate candidate Clark bypassed the NAACP and the League forums, he did help organize one the Tea Party held on Monday. The event took place at the Locust Hill Golf Course outside Charles Town, a business that Clark owns and operates.
His opponent, Brown, was invited and had planned to attend.
In April, the golf course became a focal point in a dispute between prominent Republicans and some Democrats during Gov. Justice’s mandatory coronavirus shutdowns “non-essential” businesses.
Outraging some Republicans, Dougherty, while serving as sheriff, responded to what he said was guidance from the county’s health officer, Dr. Terrence Reidy, to close the golf course.
The golf course reopened a day later after Reidy worked out specific contagion safety protocols for the course. The Club at Cress Creek, a private golf course in Shepherdstown, was also temporarily closed by the Sheriff’s Office under the same circumstances.
When it was closed, Clark said, Locust Hill had been following all the coronavirus recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and some from the West Virginia Golf Association.
Brown, who fielded concerns from constituents who felt the golf course should be closed as a nonessential business, was targeted on social media over what became a political quarrel.
The quarrel involved differing conservative-versus-liberal views over the acceptable limits on the government’s authority to interfere with personal liberty and choice during a health contagion that threatens overall public safety.
Citing Clark’s ownership of the golf course, Republicans also charged that the course’s temporary closing was a political rather than a public safety act.
Brown had said she would attend the Locust Hill outside event under a tent for safer physical distancing, although admitting she did so with a bit of uneasiness that the event was being held at her opponent’s business. (She accepted the group’s invitation to attend the forum, she said, before the venue was changed to the golf course.)
“I do think it’s kind of my responsibility as an incumbent to make sure that I do forums and that I am fielding questions from folks, and I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone that I’m about to walk into a hostile space, but it’s the job,” Brown said.
Every now and then, Brown said, if a candidate attends a forum hosted by a group with clashing views — as long as the forum remains respectful to participants — sometimes can unexpectedly lead to points of common ground between differing sides.
“I was elected to represent all people [in District 65], and we might not agree on a vast number of issues,” she said, “but I, at the very least, should be present in and around your spaces.”
Brown made that statement before Sunday evening when she declined the Tea Party’s invitation due to concerns that the in-person event — which wasn’t set up to allow for online participation — wouldn’t enforce coronavirus protocols for everyone who attended. Organizers would only “encourage” those attending to wear face masks and to physically distance, according to a summary letter they distributed.
Other Democratic candidates, such as Dougherty and Doyle, turned down invitations to the event for the same reason.
Brown explained that a positive COVID test screening could potentially disrupt or even permanently jeopardize a pending officer’s commission she is seeking with the Air National Guard.
“I’ve had to be incredibly careful during [the] pandemic and campaigning as a result, and very much empathize with folks feeling unsure of best practices during this time,” she wrote a Tea Party leader when she turned down the event at Locust Hill.