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Carver County Board candidates in four of five district races will not be debating this year after several candidates said they don't think the organizer, the League of Women Voters, would conduct the event fairly.
In a letter, the candidates said the league is a "leftist" organization, and they would not show up for a forum unless it was co-sponsored by the Tea Party of Carver County or a similar conservative group.
"It's really taken us by surprise because we've never had that happen before," said Marcia Eland, the league's field service coordinator.
One of the candidates who declined, Frank Long, took the league to task for its positions on gun control, national health insurance, immigration, voter identification, opposition to the marriage amendment, and other issues that he said "mirror the Democrat Party."
Eland said the league takes positions on some issues, but it has never endorsed candidates or parties. Her organization is sponsoring about 150 candidate forums in city, county and state legislative races this year, she said, and has done so for years as a service to communities and candidates.
Long wrote the letter to the league last month in response to its invitation to a candidate forum. He is challenging Commissioner Tim Lynch in northwestern Carver County's Fourth District. Commissioner annual salaries are $43,346.
Also signing the letter and declining to attend the forum were Commissioner Tom Workman in the Second District, and two challengers: Vince Beaudette in the Third District, and Jim Walker in the Fifth District.
Long wrote that league forums do not allow a full airing of conservative views, and that "to appoint yourself the authority on voting and elections in Carver County is presumptuous and overreaching."
"While your state website asserts that you are a non-partisan organization due to your 'official' non-endorsement of individuals or political parties, your organization takes a decidedly leftist view on policy and partnerships," he said.
However, a video of the 2010 Carver County candidate forum, broadcast by Chaska Community Television and available on the Internet, shows that the event featured questions only on local issues asked by a league moderator and submitted by voters at the meeting. Topics included county priorities at a time of decreased state aid, maintaining rural and urban balance as the county's population grows, three issues about local development and relocation, and a 1.5 percent pay raise for county employees.
This year's decision by the four candidates in four districts to disregard the forums has triggered letters to the editor in local papers.
Many of the writers, including Chaska resident Sean Olsen, said the candidates' choice to stay home "speaks poorly of their readiness for the office they seek." He called the decision "short-sighted" and suggested that they reconsider. "When you're a county commissioner, you can't pick up the ball and go home when faced with someone you disagree with," Olsen wrote.
Four districts out
But Long and others who signed the letter insist that the league must partner with a conservative co-sponsor such as "the Tea Party organization or possibly the Voices of Conservative Women" for the forums to be balanced and evenhanded.
Eland said the league sometimes co-sponsors forums with a local chamber of commerce, school district or other non-partisan group, but never with any organization that supports or opposes a political party or candidate for office.
Workman, the only incumbent to sign the letter, has served as a City Council member, state legislator and county commissioner, and has participated in several league forums in the past.
"The people in charge are biased as all get-out," he said, and like to "stick it to Republicans."
"Take your eyes off the seemingly gray hairs of these honorable ladies, and they sure do have an agenda," Workman said.
Cheryl Ayotte, who is running against Workman, said she's disappointed that there are no debates or forums and that she won't have the chance to face her opponent.
"From my viewpoint, the ones being cheated are the voters, not the candidates," she said.
Others who would have been willing to participate include incumbents Randy Maluchnik in the Third District, Tim Lynch in the Fourth District and James Ische in the Fifth District.
Eland, who also is the league's voter service chairwoman in eastern Carver County, said the league cannot hold a candidate forum for the benefit of one candidate, so four of the five districts will not have a forum. Only the First District will have a forum on Thursday, she said, that will feature Commissioner Gayle Degler and his challenger, John Siegfried.
Eland said the cancellation of the others is unfortunate because forums provide a rare chance for candidates to put their best face forward, differentiate themselves from their competitors and talk about issues in their own words.
"There are not that many opportunities for them to do that, so it's really too bad that they've taken that attitude and wasted that opportunity," she said.
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388