The July 25 editorial "Access to the Debate" indicated that Virginia's Sept. 13 gubernatorial debate would not be televised. While there are no plans for a statewide broadcast, viewers in Northern Virginia will be able to watch the debate on News Channel 8. (Published 7/27/2005)
WANT TO SEE how Virginia's candidates for governor stack up in a face-to-face debate? Don't expect to see it on television. This month's Greenbrier debate was not broadcast -- though snippets of it might be heard on Virginia media -- and there are no plans to televise the September debate either. Although they tend not to draw mass viewership, televised debates do serve a public good. We are not suggesting that a prospective governor must also be a skilled debater, but he should be able to present his policies and ideas in a convincing way, even in the face of opposition -- something that the next governor will have to do with leaders of the District and neighboring states, with the Virginia legislature and with the public over the next four years. Negotiations are underway for a third debate that would be aired statewide. We hope the candidates will each agree to participate.
It is troubling, though, that neither Jerry W. Kilgore nor Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine is compelled to agree to anything. Without an independent body to set debate rules and ensure television coverage, the two major-party candidates are free to dictate their own terms, essentially exercising veto power over every aspect of the debates. The voters -- who benefit most from a debate with tough questioners who won't let candidates get by with reciting vaguely related speeches -- are bound to lose out. The major parties' veto power extends to the participation of third-party candidates. In this case, Mr. Kilgore refused to agree to any debate that would include independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), effectively shutting him out of a conversation in which he belongs.
What's needed is an independent commission, the rough idea for which is being studied at the University of Virginia's nonpartisan Center for Politics. Apart from its role in bringing together broadcasters and determining the format of each debate, the commission could establish guidelines to determine which third-party candidates would qualify. Would Mr. Potts meet such standards? We cannot say, nor does it matter, because the commission would not be formed until after this election. What matters is ensuring that in the future, access to debates is not obstructed by one unwilling Republican or Democrat. This is about basic fairness to the voters of Virginia, who deserve the opportunity to compare their options, side by side, in a readily accessible medium.