Dispute over moderators roils local campaign
On the calendar
Sept. 28: Eagle County Republicans’ meet the Republican candidates event, Eagle County Building, 6 p.m.
Oct. 3: Edwards Metropolitan District candidate forum. Colorado Mountain College, 6 p.m.
Oct 6: Vail Valley Partnership/Vail Board of Realtors candidate forum, Eagle County Building. Candidate meet and greet, 5 p.m.; forum, 6 p.m.
This story has been corrected. The Vail Board of Realtors did not commit to participate in the Vail Valley Partnership’s Oct. 6 forum due to the lack of participation from both parties.
EAGLE COUNTY — Local candidate forums for years have followed a similar format: Candidates introduce themselves, answer questions from a moderator and the moderator takes written questions from the audience. Like so many things about 2016, this year is a bit different.
A dispute over who will moderate one candidate forum has prompted the local Republican Party to withdraw most of its candidates from an Oct. 6 event. The question of moderators may prompt a state legislative candidate to withdraw from another session.
The biggest dispute is about an Oct. 6 forum sponsored by the Vail Valley Partnership. Republicans — with one exception — have pulled out of that event.
The dispute, which dates back to April of this year, is about who will ask questions to the candidates.
The Republicans want two moderators, one Democrat and one Republican. The sponsoring organizations will have one moderator: Vail Valley Partnership CEO Chris Romer.
“We’re a nonpartisan organization … focused solely on business issues,” Romer said. That’s why the partnership’s board of directors held firm to hosting a forum limited to candidates talking about issues.
Eagle County Republican Party Chairwoman Kaye Ferry said that format is unacceptable to that group, saying the big objection from the Republicans’ perspective is lack of an opportunity to rebut opponent statements that could be misleading or untrue. She called the lack of rebuttal time “unconscionable.”
But, Romer said, a forum isn’t a debate, and forums better fit the style of a small community like this one.
“The Denver (chamber of commerce) hosts candidate forums,” Romer said. “It’s a more civil, professional venue.”
Pointing to tonight’s presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Romer said the aftermath of that event will be partisans talking about why their chosen candidate did better.
“No one will talk about the issues,” Romer said. “We can talk about the issues because we know the people. That’s why my board is adamant about this.”
But Ferry said it very much matters who asks the questions. Republican Michael Cacioppo agreed. Cacioppo is running for the Colorado House of Representatives against the incumbent, Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush, of Steamboat Springs.
Cacioppo won’t be at the Oct. 6 forum, and may not attend an Oct. 3 event sponsored by the Edwards Metropolitan District. It depends on who’s asking the questions, and how questions from audience members are asked.
“Let’s say a special interest group wants to hold a so-called forum. By controlling who the moderators are, they can prevent tough questions from being asked to the candidates that those special interest groups support. I object to that,” Cacioppo said, adding that a special interest group can pre-provide questions to selected candidates.
The Vail Daily has provided advance questions to candidates at some forums, but all candidates received those questions.
But, Cacioppo said, a forum without a moderator from each party requires candidates to put their trust in sponsoring groups.
“Ronald Reagan said ‘Trust, but verify,” Cacioppo said. “We don’t have the ability to verify with a special interest group.”
Local attorney Bruce Carey is the Republican candidate for District Attorney, running against the incumbent, Democrat Bruce Brown.
Carey said he’ll happily attend the Vail Valley Partnership event.
“I don’t mind who the moderator is — I have no secrets,” Carey said. As a longtime resident, Carey said he like the basic format of local candidate forums, but would like to see one change.
“I’d like to see one question submitted from each candidate to the opponent in the race,” Carey said.
It can matter
That said, Carey acknowledged “it could matter” who a forum moderator is. “I tend to think people answer the way they want to anyway,” Carey said. “If there’s a partisan moderator (that person) can ask leading questions.”
The answer, Carey said, is to fall back on his Boy Scout training: “Be prepared.”
Sen. Kerry Donovan, an Eagle County Democrat, has run for office twice: once for Vail Town Council, and, in 2014, for Colorado State Senate District 5, an election she won by a narrow margin.
Senate District 5 is geographically enormous, encompassing Eagle, Pitkin, Chaffee, Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Lake counties. In that campaign, Donovan said she attended “about nine” candidate forums across the district. Many were different than the forums she’d attended in Vail.
“Each community has a different culture, and a different way of presenting candidates,” Donovan said, adding that only one event comes close to a debate. That event is the candidate forum Western Slope lobbying group Club 20 holds every election year.
“That fits into a format of real ‘gotcha’ questions instead of who’s going to be the best candidate,” she said.
Donovan’s district has both very liberal and very conservative communities. The secret, she said, is for candidates to be themselves.
“People need to be confident in themselves and in the vision they have for the area they’re going to represent.”
Voters everywhere are intrinsically skeptical, Donovan said, and are generally able to detect a phony position — or candidate.
“You have to present the best case for why people should believe in you,” Donovan said. “If you get distracted by who’s sitting in the front row (the moderators), those things distract you from presenting the message you’re confident in.”
But Ferry’s sticking to her principles.
“My job is to get my candidates elected,” she said. “I’m not going to put them in a position where they can get blindsided by someone with an agenda.”