Debates Unlikely in 5 Area Contests

Times Staff Writer

Challengers in five area political races have accepted invitations by the League of Women Voters to debate their opponents, but it is unlikely that the debates will ever take place.

Two of the incumbents have declined the invitations, and the three others are expected to follow suit.

Katharine L. Patterson, president of the Pasadena chapter of the league, said the invitations were mailed Sept. 29 after directors became concerned that voters are not informed about local candidates and their views.


“We feel that the general public needs to know who their candidates are,” Patterson said. “We are trying to do anything we can to get more interest aroused and encourage more people to go to the polls.”

But two entrenched Glendale Republicans--Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead and state Sen. Newton R. Russell--have already declined the invitations, saying that with the election just three weeks away, there is no time left to schedule debates.

“We’re right in the middle of this campaign,” said Charles Jelloian, Russell’s campaign manager. “We’ve got the senator scheduled morning, noon and night. I don’t see how it’s feasible to get something worked in at this point in time.”

A spokeswoman for Assembly Republican leader Pat Nolan said the veteran Glendale incumbent will also reject the invitation because he sees no reason to debate a candidate he has resoundingly defeated twice before.

Political observers said the reluctance of local incumbents to debate is typical of entrenched politicians nationwide.

“Many incumbents feel they have nothing to gain and possibly something to lose,” said Carol Federighi, president of the California League of Women Voters. “This certainly seems to be the trend, although a deplorable one.”

Federighi also said politicians who are well-known in their districts fear that a face-to-face confrontation with a challenger “may give more stature to his or her opponent, more free media coverage to an opponent who might not otherwise be able to gain recognition.”

Campaign Differences

Federighi said public debate may be the only opportunity for voters to clearly understand the differences between candidates.

“We think it is extremely important for the voters to see the candidates face to face to distinguish where they differ on issues, to compare their records and to have a chance to see the candidates in an unrehearsed situation.”

But she also said she does not know “of a single case where a candidate suffered badly” by refusing to debate.

John Simmons, a Burbank Democrat who is challenging Moorhead for the second time in the 22nd Congressional District, said, “The record of the congressman in relationship to my proposals is an unknown.”

Simmons charged that Moorhead, who has repeatedly refused to debate, “is wrong on just about every issue--seniors, elderly, education, children, civil rights, peace, the environment. But people don’t know the difference. They don’t know what he stands for. Mr. Moorhead likes to hide instead.”

Sees Little Chance

Simmons admits that he has little chance of competing against a veteran Republican in a district where Republican voters outnumber Democrats 55% to 35%. Moorhead easily defeated Simmons in 1986 by capturing almost 74% of the vote.

Russell also holds a strong edge in the 21st Senate district, in which Republicans have the same 55%-to-35% edge over Democrats. A veteran in the Assembly and Senate since 1964, Russell also easily defeated his Democratic challenger in the last election in 1984. Russell won with 76% of the vote.

Despite the odds, Jelloian said, the senator “never gets complacent in an election year.” He said Russell is campaigning hard against Democratic challenger Louise C. Gelber, an attorney and community activist in Arcadia.

Disappointment Cited

Gelber said she is disappointed that Russell has refused her challenge to debate. “I think it is important that the voters hear what their candidates have to say on the issues,” she said.

Nolan’s Democratic opponent is John Vollbrecht, a 40-year-old builder from Eagle Rock who has run in the same race twice before, but managed to garner only 30% of the vote.

Ann Richards, Nolan’s press deputy, said the five-term lawmaker has been campaigning since January, “knocking on doors and staying visible in the community.” She said he does not need to debate his opponent to make his views known.

Weak on Issues

Vollbrecht in the past has criticized Nolan as being weak on issues that are important in the district. In addition, Nolan is a central target in an FBI sting investigation into allegations of corruption among legislators and aides in Sacramento.

Vollbrecht, who told league members that he is willing to debate Nolan, failed to return calls from The Times. Richards said campaign workers “don’t view Mr. Vollbrecht as a serious threat.”

Two other districts in which candidates have been invited to debate are the 42nd Assembly District and the 30th Congressional District, located largely within the San Gabriel Valley.

Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Montebello) is being challenged by Ralph R. Ramirez, and Assemblyman Richard L. Mountjoy (R-Arcadia), who ran unopposed in 1986, faces Democrat Richard D. Boyle.

The only Glendale-area politician who has engaged in debates is Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who is being challenged by former Supervisor Baxter Ward.