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No Debating GOP’s Absence From Event

The League of Women Voters debate is moderated by Judy Reynolds, left, and Marcia Merrins last year in Dunkirk City Hall.

State Assemblyman Andrew Goodell was losing his patience. While making a point at an October 2018 League of Women Voters debate, during a rebuttal session with then challenger Judith Einach, moderator Marcia Merrins interjected.

She asked the incumbent to stay on the topic about whether Chautauqua County was in a better position at that time than it was when he served as county executive in the 1990s. Goodell believed he was responding to Einach’s earlier statement. It led to one of the more bizarre moments of the evening.

“We’re off the question now,” Merrins said, which led to a disagreement. Goodell attempted to make the case he was responding to his challenger’s point of more potential funding that could come to the county from a Democrat. Merrins would not have it.

“With all due respect, I don’t need to debate the moderator.” Goodell said.

It was a light moment that brought laughter for many in the audience of the Dunkirk Senior Center. Goodell, however, was frustrated. He sensed a bit of unbalance.

This year, Goodell sent a more brusque message. He declined a Chautauqua County League of Women Voters debate.

In this unprecedented pandemic, he was not alone. Others followed.

U.S. Rep. Tom Reed of the state’s District 23 has only debated once in Chautauqua County through the League in 2016. He’s not doing so again this year.

Interim County Executive PJ Wendel also turned down the opportunity as well. According to Merrins, he had agreed to the event in August if it was in person. She said he declined due to the event being held virtually on Wednesday.

Wendel, in a brief discussion Thursday, confirmed he would rather do the debate in person, not over a Zoom format.

Those declinations, no matter what the reason, come from one party. The Republicans. It also adds to the uphill battle that challengers have faced when taking on those who hold office. Due to COVID-19, there have not been political gatherings or candidates going door-to-door as they have in past campaigns.

Merrins, who has a long history with the state, national and local non-partisan League of Women Voters would not speak for the party. She did, however, address why she believes those in office will not always debate. “Incumbents are never eager to debate,” she said. “This gives the others running for office … some face time.”

Goodell, who is being challenged by Democrat Christina Cardinale, said he turned down the League’s request after agreeing to debates with the Jamestown and Dunkirk radio stations as well as The Post-Journal and the OBSERVER. “I’m working with all the county media,” he said.

Reed won’t be debating locally for the Congressional seat, but two others on the ballot be at the Wednesday event, including Democrat Tracy Mitrano and Libertarian candidate Andrew M. Kolstee. Mitrano, running against Reed for a second time, sent out a press release last week critical of the Corning Republican for only debating Oct. 27 on an Elmira television station. Her news release stated she “offered to debate Reed in late July, asking for multiple face-offs to be held earlier than late October, after some people have started voting. Reed refused.”

Reed, for his part, went on the attack during a Sept. 23 conference call with the media. “This claim that we won’t do a debate … is just consistent with the fact you can’t trust what she says,” he said. “We never said we would not debate Tracy Mitrano.”

All three candidates are at least responding to the League. That’s not the case elsewhere.

According to the Times Union in Albany, state Sen. Daphne Jordan has remained mum on any debate for the 43rd district against her Democratic opponent.

“I started trying in August,” Charlotte Druschel, co-chair of the League’s Voter Services Committee, wrote to the Times Union in an email. “I emailed, left several messages on the campaign phone and also tried to message through the campaign Facebook page. She never responded.”

One Republican, however, will be on hand for the League session. Republican Jason Schmidt who is taking on incumbent county District Attorney Patrick Swanson said he has every intention of participating.

Schmidt and Swanson were at The Post-Journal for debate and discussion last week, which will be featured in our newspapers beginning this weekend. It was a spirited discussion with both candidates making strong points.

That race for district attorney has all indications of being closely contested. Debates do have the ability to change minds of voters.

John D’Agostino is the regional editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and the Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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