Gov. Pete Wilson has rejected a proposed format for an Oct. 16 debate with state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, effectively canceling the only scheduled gubernatorial forum and fueling accusations that Wilson’s campaign wants to avoid debates altogether.
Negotiations with the hosts of the October event, the California Broadcasters Assn. and KGO-TV in San Francisco, broke down late last week when Wilson’s representatives insisted upon choosing which political reporters would ask questions and sought to exclude questions from the public. The stalemate ended nine weeks of discussions and on Monday, some participants questioned whether Wilson had negotiated in good faith.
“The bottom line of this is: Do you want to have a debate? Or are you ahead in the polls and you would just as soon have as limited exposure as possible?” said Jim Topping, KGO-TV’s general manager, who said the format talks grew more complicated after a Los Angeles Times poll of likely voters found Wilson ahead by 9 points.
“Suddenly, there’s an array of problems. . . . The intransigence over smaller elements of the format have been directly proportional to the increase in (Wilson’s) ratings,” Topping said. “It’s absurd. He just wants to duck it.”
Brown herself sent Wilson a letter Monday, reaffirming her commitment to participate in as many as five statewide televised debates and questioning the sincerity of Wilson’s claim that he is eager to face her. Wilson’s aides have repeatedly said they will not discuss multiple debates until the first debate has been nailed down.
Then, at a news conference at the Los Angeles school her children once attended, Brown blistered Wilson again. “What is Pete Wilson hiding from? He’s hiding from his record,” said Brown, who noted that the broadcasters and KGO-TV had offered several formats designed to address Wilson’s concerns, but would not allow him to exclude public participation.
“Wilson is afraid to answer your questions about your family’s economic future, your kids’ schools and your family’s safety,” said Brown, who reiterated her pledge to accept any format that is proposed by a legitimate sponsor.
Dan Schnur, Wilson’s campaign spokesman, countered that Wilson wants political reporters to be the sole questioners not because he fears the public, but because he believes the public deserves a vigorous, hard-hitting exchange of ideas.
“We believe that the format ought to have as few distractions as possible and maximize the opportunity for the reporters involved to hold the candidates accountable for the accuracy of their answers,” said Schnur, who contended that questions from television viewers--even when transcribed and asked by reporters, as the broadcasters suggested--would be distracting.
“No matter how well-informed, there’s no way that (viewers) can have as much information” as reporters, Schnur said. “They don’t spend all day every day covering the race.”
Topping, the KGO executive, greeted this explanation with sarcasm.
“Let me see if I understand this,” he said. “They want a hard-hitting debate, so they want to pick the questioners? Oh, I understand. Sure. . . . In 33 years (as a journalist) I’ve done about 75 debates at the presidential, the U.S. Senate and the gubernatorial level. And I have never prior to this seen the list of requests presented by the Wilson camp. It’s overwhelming.”
Schnur said he understood that the broadcasters were frustrated, but added that the candidates--not the hosts--should have the last word on debate format.
“We understand they want to make this as exciting and telegenic as possible. . . . But this isn’t about ratings,” Schnur said, adding that since Brown has agreed to accept any format, the broadcasters could have ended the negotiations by simply accepting Wilson’s proposal.
“The sponsor is the one holding out. The logical step to take at that point is to find another sponsor. And there are plenty of TV stations around California that have indicated an interest.”
Schnur said the campaign is talking to KCAL-TV Channel 9 in Los Angeles, which has proposed a format similar to what Wilson has sought. KFMB-TV in San Diego and KVIE-TV, the PBS station in Sacramento, are also interested, Schnur said, and the Wilson campaign is confident that at least one statewide debate will occur.
“We’re in active conversation with several possible hosts,” he said. “There’s no reason that we can’t work out multiple debates.”
49 days to go before Californians go to the polls.
THE GOVERNOR’S RACE
* What Happened Monday: State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, appearing at the Los Angeles elementary school that her children once attended, blasted Gov. Pete Wilson’s record on education and said he was afraid to debate her. Wilson signed legislation in Sacramento, while the San Francisco Giants’ Barry Bonds helped First Lady Gayle Wilson stuff envelopes at campaign headquarters.
* What’s Ahead: Brown travels around the state this week speaking about education and the economy and continuing to press Wilson on his record. Wilson plans to remain in Sacramento attending to gubernatorial business.
THE SENATE RACE
* What Happened Monday: U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Huffington were in Washington, where Congress has reconvened. Both candidates were expected to be there most of the week.
* What’s Ahead: With her husband in the nation’s capital, Arianna Huffington was planning to represent his campaign in Orange County, Sacramento and San Francisco this week. Feinstein, meanwhile, is attending fund-raising events in Washington.
“What is Pete Wilson hiding from? He’s hiding from his record.”
-- State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, at a news conference in Los Angeles
A LIGHTER NOTE
Among the many parties thrown at the state Republican Party convention over the weekend, “Name That Brown” night stood out. Invitations to the two-hour poolside event included this series of mock “TV Guide” listings poking fun at Democrat Kathleen Brown’s candidacy: “The Wheel of Misfortune,” “The Price Isn’t Right,” “Let’s Make Any Deal” and “California in Jeopardy.”