October 14th, 2011 4:54 pm | by NIGEL JAQUISS News | Posted In: Politics, Congress

CD1 Candidates Debate "Integrity" of Canceled Debate

Suzanne BonamiciSuzanne Bonamici
Tempers in the 1st Congressional District Democratic primary are heating up after two of the candidates backed out of the first scheduled televised debate because of concerns one candidate might have had access to the questions in advance.

The campaigns of state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Beaverton) and state Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie) canceled their plans to participate in the debate, set for Thursday night, because they had received unconfirmed reports that Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian's campaign had been given the questions ahead of time.

The campaign for Avakian denied that, and said Bonamici, his chief rival in the race, was using a rumor as a way to duck facing Avakian in person.

The two campaigns said they had no evidence Avakian's camp had received the debate questions but were relying on reports that reached them.

"I have heard that Avakian had the questions, but I don't know that," says Roger Gray, a consultant to Witt. "I said that this isn't the kind of thing our candidate gets to participate in, unless our candidate gets a fair shake."

As The Oregonian first reported, the first televised debate between Avakian, Bonamici and Witt  that was supposed to be held tonight was abruptly canceled yesterday. Late Thursday afternoon, Washington County Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Packer sent the following email to handful of party leaders:

Dear Chairs, I received this joint statement from the Witt/Bonamici Campaigns a few minutes ago: As you know, tonight’s scheduled 1st Congressional Debate has been canceled. State Senator Suzanne Bonamici and State Representative Brad Witt both had serious concerns regarding the integrity of this debate and the lack of proper communication to the parties involved. Please be assured that this cancellation is in no way a negative reflection on the work done by our core democratic party leaders or their commitment to providing voters a chance to hear directly from the candidates. We are equally dedicated to providing voters every opportunity to make an informed decision in this race, and thank everyone for their continued commitment to keeping this primary a positive example of Democratic values at work.

Gray says although the three candidates have made nine joint appearance, the first televised debate was "a big deal."  He says there was no communication until late this week and the Witt was not invited to participate in conference call to go over ground rules for the debate.

"We felt there was a lack of common protocols and no level playing field," Gray says.

Part of the issue, Gray says, Bonamici's campaign manager, Carol Butler says, is that the man entrusted with gathering debate questions from activists in CD1 is a "committed, active Avakian supporter." That man is David Robinson, a retired Navy officer active in Washington County politics, has endorsed Avakian.

Robinson, who challenged former U.S. Rep. David Wu in the 2010 primary, says such concerns are completely unwarranted. "I received the questions on Friday, October 7 and forwarded them to moderators on Monday October 10," Robinson says. "I guarantee to you that the questions were not shared with the Avakian campaign."

Robinson says that all three candidates got plenty of information about the debate format and says he's puzzled by the cancellation.

Jake Weigler, Avakian's campaign manager says nothing improper occurred and if anything, Bonamici is just ducking Avakian.

"We are concerned that Suzanne Bonamici has now canceled three joint appearances, suggesting there are unstated reasons for backing out of this debate," Weigler says.

Carol Butler, says neither of the joint appearances that Weigler cites—forums tonight in Astoria and over the weekend in Portland—were on Bonamici's calendar.

"The idea that Suzanne is ducking anybody is nonsense," Butler says, noting two polls have shown Bonamici ahead of her rivals by more than 20 percentage points. "We've successfully debated [Avakian] 10 times already and look for ward to three more next week."
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