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Analysis: Candidate debates are becoming an endangered species in Ohio

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, left, and Ohio Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine wave to the crowd before a debate at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio, in Oct. 2018.
Paul Vernon
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, left, and Ohio Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine wave to the crowd before a debate at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio, in Oct. 2018.

Real, old-fashioned political debates — the broadcast kind where large audiences can listen to two candidates stand on a stage, face-to-face, and speak their minds — seem to be harder to come by these days in Ohio, and elsewhere around the country.

I hope there never comes a day when political debates in Ohio join the state's endangered species list, right alongside the blue-spotted salamander and the Allegheny wood rat.

That would be a sad day indeed for Ohio voters. Yet it seems to be the way the state is heading, with the underdog often calling for a debate with his or her opponent, only to be met with crickets.

Thirty-second TV ads are no way to judge candidates for public office — particularly the attack ads which often start out with some dubious half-truth and beat it into the ground until the campaign money runs out.

Ohio has a long history of statewide candidate debates — and I have covered a number of them, some of which actually had a real impact on the outcome of races.

In some cases, people listened, considered what they heard and changed their minds.

Amazing, isn't it? In this age where considering someone's reasoned opinion and changing your mind is seen as a sign of weakness.

Exhibit A is the 1974 U.S. Senate debate between two candidates for the Democratic nomination, former astronaut John Glenn and Cleveland businessman Howard Metzenbaum, an appointed senator.

Metzenbaum, who made his millions with airport parking lots and a chain of suburban Cleveland newspapers, had been getting under Glenn's skin for months by saying repeatedly that the former astronaut and Marine fighter pilot had "never held a job."

Before a packed house at the City Club of Cleveland, Glenn got up and answered Metzenbaum with a blistering response that anyone who was there will never forget:

"I spent 23 years in the United States Marine Corps. I lived through two wars. I flew 149 missions. My plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire on 12 different occasions. I was in the space program. It wasn't my checkbook, it was my life that was on the line. It was not a nine-to-five job where I took time off to take the daily cash receipts to the bank.

"I ask you to go with me, as I went the other day, to a Veterans Hospital and look those men, with their mangled bodies, in the eye and tell them they didn't hold a job. You go with me to any Gold Star mother and you look her in the eye and tell her that her son did not hold a job.

"You go with me to the space program, and go as I have gone to the widows and orphans of Ed White and Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, and you look those kids in the eye and tell them that their dad didn't hold a job.

"You go with me on Memorial Day coming up and you stand in Arlington National Cemetery, where I have more friends than I'd like to remember, and you watch those waving flags. You stand there, and you think about this nation, and you tell me that those people didn't have a job.

"I'll tell you, Howard Metzenbaum, you should be on your knees every day of your life thanking God that there were some men — some men — who held a job. And they required a dedication to purpose and a love of country and a dedication to duty that was more important than life itself. And their self-sacrifice is what made this country possible.

"I have held a job, Howard."

Game over. Thunderous applause. Metzenbaum looking for the door marked exit.

'We will bring debates to Ohio'

John Glenn wins the primary, defeats Ralph Perk in the general election, and goes on to represent Ohio in the Senate for 24 years.

I don't know there would be a moment like that in debates this year. There are no John Glenns on the ballot this time. I just hope there are debates.

Thankfully, in recent years, there has been a non-profit organization called the Ohio Debate Commission, funded by civic and media organizations, that is hard at work trying to arrange candidate debates in three of the most important races on the ballot in Ohio — the gubernatorial race, the race for an open U.S. Senate seat, and an especially important race for chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court that will likely decide the future direction of the court.

The commission also offers advice to local organizations on how to organize debates in down-ticket races like county commissioner, township trustees and municipal offices.

Jill Zimon, executive director of the commission, said talks are underway and have been for quite sometime for at least one debate in the three races.

"No one has said a hard 'no' at this point," Zimon said.

Zimon is confident that the debates will happen and that they will help voters make informed decisions.

"Debates are so much better than the 30-second ads; and, frankly, even more often better than the media coverage of elections," Zimon said. "People can see it all unfiltered, with a good moderator and a media panel asking questions.

"We can bring these debates to millions of people in Ohio, and we will."

Despite the good intentions of the commission and others, nothing happens unless the candidates — or their paid handlers — agree to go face-to-face with their opponents.

Ohio's incumbent governor, Republican Mike DeWine, clearly doesn't want to share a stage with his Democratic opponent, former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley.

Whaley, who is the underdog candidate, has issued one call for a debate after another and DeWine has ignored every one of them.

He says he holds press conferences and answers impromptu questions from reporters all the time.

“I’ve sat through enough of them and been involved in enough of them to know that those can be give-and-take, going back and forth with one candidate saying one thing and one something else," DeWine said in a story by Ohio Public Radio's Jo Ingles. "Look, we’ll see. We’ve made no final decision in regard to that."

Don't see a real answer to the question in that word salad.

DeWine was fine with debating Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray in the 2018 election, when governor was an open seat. But he blew off his Republican challengers' calls for debate in the GOP gubernatorial primary in May.

Back in 2014, John Kasich, the incumbent Republican governor, said no to debates with Cuyahoga County Executive Edward FitzGerald, whose campaign was a dumpster fire of gaffes and embarrassing episodes. FitzGerald had no chance of winning; and Kasich had no interest in sharing a stage with him.

But, in 1994, another Republican governor, George Voinovich, had a similar situation, when his Democratic challenger Rob Burch, a little-known state senator from eastern Ohio, wanted to debate.

Burch was not the embarrassment that FitzGerald was. He was just unknown, had no money and no real experience on the statewide political scene. And, absolutely no chance of winning.

But Voinovich, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to a debate on statewide television — one that was held in the CET studios in Cincinnati.

Voinovich seemed a tad grumpy that night, but he suffered through it. Burch got his licks in; and in the end it meant nothing. Burch ended up with 25% of the vote. If he had dipped much lower, the Ohio Democratic Party would have ceased to exist as an official party in Ohio elections.

But Voinovich debated him.

There was one time when I thought that a sitting Ohio governor was glad to debate his opponent.

In 1986, Democratic governor Richard F. Celeste was running for re-election against his long-time nemesis, former governor James A. Rhodes.

Rhodes was trying to make a comeback in order to win a fifth term as governor. He wanted desperately to be the only governor to serve five terms. But Rhodes was 77 years old at the time; and clearly past prime time. A debate was held a few days before the election at the WKRC-TV studios in Cincinnati.

Polls showed Celeste would win easily; and he had nothing to lose appearing with Rhodes.

Rhodes went off on a rambling, sometimes incoherent rant, that sometimes took off in weird tangents. No one in their right mind could have watched that and thought Rhodes was going to pull an upset win a few days later.

David B. Cohen, director of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said candidates try to avoid debates for a number of reasons, but the most common is that they are incumbents who don't want to give their challengers a statewide platform.

"If a candidate believes they have a large lead, debating can only hurt them, not help them,'' Cohen said. "The last thing a candidate wants to do is make a mistake or look foolish and the whole thing goes viral."

In the end, Cohen said, he believes there will be a DeWine-Whaley debate that is broadcast statewide.

"I'd be flabbergasted if that didn't happen," he said.

So what if a candidate flatly refuses to debate? Cohen has a simple answer.

"If a candidate doesn't show up, I'd just put the empty chair on the stage and let the candidate who did show up have an hour to make his or her case," Cohen said. "Candidates shouldn't be rewarded for refusing to debate."

Well, we can't do anything about "empty suits" debating. I just hope there aren't many "empty chairs."
Copyright 2022 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.