Resistance from incumbents has defeated an effort by the Pasadena League of Women Voters to set up debates in five political races in the San Gabriel Valley.
Two congressmen and a state senator have rejected debate invitations, and two assemblymen are expected to follow suit, even though all their challengers have accepted.
Representative Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park) said he will not debate his opponent in the 30th Congressional District, Republican Ralph R. Ramirez, because Ramirez has circulated campaign literature that distorts Martinez's record.
In a letter to the Pasadena league, Martinez said, "If there comes a time when my opponent appears more interested in discussing the issues, instead of distorting the record, I would be more than happy to entertain the possibility of a public forum."
Ramirez denied that there have been distortions and accused Martinez of "hiding from the voters." He said there are differences between Martinez and himself, and "the best way for these issues to come out is through honest and open debate."
The league said it has received refusals from Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) and state Sen. Newton R. Russell (R-Glendale). Assemblyman Richard L. Mountjoy (R-Monrovia) and the press secretary for Assemblyman Pat Nolan (R-Glendale) said they also plan to decline the invitations.
It is a familiar pattern in congressional and state legislative races, political observers say. Challengers, who are often not well-known, eagerly seek debates in order to gather an audience and attract the attention of the news media. Incumbents, who usually are better-known and often have more cash to spend on mailers and ads, don't need debates to reach the public and see little to gain from debate appearances.
Katharine L. Patterson, president of the Pasadena league, said the organization issued debate invitations because directors became concerned that voters were 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."
Moorhead and Russell declined the invitations, which were mailed Sept. 29, on grounds that there is no time to schedule debates with the election less than three weeks away.
Public Interest Questioned
Assemblyman Mountjoy said he intends to pass up the debate opportunity because his schedule is full too, and he questions whether there is much public interest in political debates below the presidential level.
Mountjoy said those who attend local debates are usually involved in the campaigns. "Who gives a hoot?" he said. "The only ones who come are those on both sides."
Mountjoy noted that the league's invitation, which reached him only last week, merely offered to supply a moderator, timekeeper and other volunteers and asked him and his opponent to obtain a meeting place and pick a date.
A government class at San Gabriel High School also invited Mountjoy and his Democratic opponent, screenwriter Richard Boyle, to debate in front of students.
Mountjoy said both invitations arrived after his schedule was set. "I'm booked solid," he said. "There's no way I could do it."
But, he said, he will try to visit the school and talk to students, though not in a debate with Boyle.
Meanwhile, Boyle said he has accepted the students' invitation and will speak to the government class Wednesday, using a debate format in which he will play both Mountjoy and himself. When he speaks for Mountjoy, Boyle promised: "I will do justice to his voting record. I will tell why he is for smog and against child care. . . . It will be better than the Improv (a comedy club)."
Elsewhere in the San Gabriel Valley, Charles House, a Republican who is running for the second time in the 34th District against Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente), said he tried unsuccessfully in 1986 to persuade Torres to debate, and offered this year to debate him in Spanish on a Spanish-language television station. Again, he said, Torres rejected the offer.
House said the absence of joint appearances by the candidates "makes it extremely difficult for voters to compare them."
Not all incumbents are rejecting debate invitations. In fact, Rep. David Dreier (R-La Verne) instructed his staff to initiate a forum for himself and three opponents when no one offered to stage a debate. As a result, chambers of commerce in Walnut, La Puente and Diamond Bar have invited Dreier and his opponents to speak at a breakfast at 7:30 a.m. Oct. 26 at the Los Angeles Royal Vista Golf Course in Walnut.
State Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights) and his Democratic opponent, Janice Lynn Graham, spoke at a Business and Professional Women's meeting in Anaheim and have scheduled a joint appearance on an Orange County public television station, Channel 50, KOCE.
The Claremont League of Women Voters will sponsor a forum for candidates in the 25th Senate District at 7 p.m. on Monday at Bridges Hall of Music on 4th Street, east of College Avenue, on the Pomona College campus in Claremont. Assemblyman Bill Leonard (R-Redlands) and Democrat Sandy Hester of Claremont, who are competing for the office being vacated by retiring Sen. H. L. (Bill) Richardson, have agreed to appear.
The format calls for candidates to make opening statements and respond to written questions from the audience. Hester said she would prefer debating directly with Leonard because that would force them to go beyond formula answers and "spectators would have a chance to see (us) as human beings."
Leonard said answering questions from voters is more enlightening than a direct debate. He added, however, that he is not sure any forum or debate really help voters. He said issues get lost because the candidates are often "more concerned about rhetoric and getting the right dig in."
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 district 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."
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" for refusing to debate.
Nevertheless, incumbents who reject debate invitations do hand their opponents a campaign issue.
John Simmons, a Burbank Democrat who is challenging Moorhead for the second time in the 22nd Congressional District, said Moorhead's refusal to debate deprives voters of the opportunity to compare the positions of the candidates. He 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."
Simmons admits that he has little chance of success against a veteran Republican in a district where Republican-registered voters outnumber Democrats 55% to 35%. Moorhead easily defeated the liberal challenger in 1986 by capturing almost 74% of the vote.
Louise Gelber, an attorney and community activist in Arcadia who is the Democratic nominee against Russell in the 21st Senate District, said she is disappointed that Russell has refused to debate. "I think it is important that the voters hear what their candidates have to say on the issues," she said.
Charles Jelloian, campaign manager for Russell, said the debate invitation was rejected because of scheduling problems.
"We're right in the middle of this campaign," he said. "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."
Jelloian said the senator "never gets complacent in an election year," although he easily won his last election, in 1984, with 76% of the vote. Republicans have a 55% to 35% advantage over Democrats in the district.
In the 41st Assembly District, Nolan's press deputy, Ann Richards, said the five-term lawmaker has been campaigning since January, "knocking on doors and staying visible in the community," and does not need to debate his opponent to make his views known.
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 in his best showing.
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 repeated calls from The Times.
Richards said campaign workers "don't view Mr. Vollbrecht as a serious threat."