New Jersey Network lost a bid to move the first gubernatorial debate from October 1 to October 22 after a New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission vote was deadlocked 2-2 along party lines.
About an hour after ELEC's meeting concluded, Gov. Jon Corzine's campaign indicated that it would be willing to participate in both of the commission's debates regardless of the date.
"The Corzine campaign reiterates its position that the public is better served having the two gubernatorial debates later in October," said Corzine spokesman Sean Darcy. "Our position notwithstanding, we are prepared to participate in both ELEC sanctioned debates regardless of whether or not the NJN debate is rescheduled for October 22nd."
Corzine's agreement to participate is likely to make an ELEC meeting set for Wednesday to revisit the debate schedule issue moot. NJN Public Affairs Producer Ed Rodgers, who testified at the meeting, could not immediately be reached for comment, so it is not yet clear whether the network will continue to pursue the date change.
NJN Interim News Director Michael Aron sought the date change after the Corzine campaign told him that the Governor would not attend the October 1 debate. Although the Corzine campaign implied that the incumbent would attend the debate on October 22nd, they never formally agreed to it – a sticking point for the commissioners today, along with the fact that the Corzine camp has not said why they can't attend on the originally scheduled day.
"Is no one really as deeply disturbed as I am by the fact that the Corzine committee has given us no reason for their inability or unwillingness for October 1?" said Commissioner Amos Saunders, a retired Superior Court Judge from Passaic County. "I don't know what's going on, but I would hope at least for the courtesy of a reason. I don't know if there is a reason, if it's not political gamesmanship."
The proposed change would also force a change in the debate for lieutenant governor, which currently scheduled for October 8 but is required to take place between the two gubernatorial debates. It would also compress the debate schedule into a one week time frame ending less than two weeks before Election Day.
Commissioner Peter Tober, who served as an assistant counsel to two Republican governors, said that a more spread out schedule would benefit the electorate.
"I think that if we had known when we were interviewing 7 debate sponsors that the schedule would be so compressed, we would have selected different sponsors," Tober said.
Former Assembly Majority Leader Albert Burstein (D-Tenafly) was the most vocal supporter of NJN's request among the ELEC commissioners. He said it was important to make the debate "as politically inclusive as possible" and that, while he understood the inconveniences faced by groups and organizations caused by the date change, they should have prepared for a possible change.
The other Democrat on the commission, former State Sen. Jerry Fitzgerald English (D-Summit), voted with Burstein.
Corzine, who is not taking matching funds from the state, is not required to participate in any debates. Republican gubernatorial nominee Christopher Christie and independent candidate Christopher Daggett – both of whom receive two dollars from the state for every one dollar they raise – are required to attend two ELEC-sponsored debates.
"With just the two candidates there, I don't think they would get the fullness of that debate in any event," said NJN Anchor Jim Hooker, who testified with Ed Rodgers, the network's public affairs producer.
Rodgers addressed the fact that October 22 is the date of a possible Game 5 in the American League Championship, noting that NJN would rebroadcast the debate several times and that it would be made available for rebroadcast on public broadcasting networks in New York City and Philadelphia.
Testifying immediately following Rodgers and Hooker, State Sen. Bill Baroni (R-Hamilton) argued that NJN's request does not meet ELEC's standards for changing debate dates, and that a compressed schedule at the end of the month would mean that many of the voters participating in the expanded vote-by-mail program would cast votes before a debate even took place.
"On balance, on the law, on public policy, on what is good for voters of New Jersey, I strongly urge this commission to reject this proposal," said Baroni, an attorney who teaches election law at Seton Hall Law.
Baroni, who stressed that he was not speaking on behalf of any campaign,said that allowing NJN to push the debate back to get Corzine to participate would set a bad precedent. Candidates who take public funds, he noted, are given debate dates and told they must participate. But the Corzine camp, which is not participating, is essentially dictating those dates.
"This proposal treats participating candidates worse than it treats non-participating candidates," he said.
Leadership New Jersey Executive Director Tom Dallessio said that the lieutenant governor debate that his group organized for Monmouth University would suffer a serious blow by having to change its date to either October 19, 20 or 21.
Although Dallessio said that his group could work out the logistical problems a change would cause, they would lose coverage by New Jersey 101.5 because News Director Eric Scott will not be available.
"It's not fair to Leadership New Jersey… to have to change our date because of ramifications of a decision that happened with NJN," he said.
Attorney Richard Crooker, who represents Daggett, argued that Corzine was being given special treatment.
"My candidate has followed the process, and he has supporters out there. If he came in there and said ‘I can't be there on a date,' he would be laughed at.
Christie Campaign Manager Bill Stepien said that a change to the date – which he was informed of two weeks ago – would wreak havoc with his campaign's fundraising and event schedule and "essentially gut our campaign calendar."
Patrick Murray, Director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, noted that New Jersey voters consistently rate property taxes as their highest priority but that none of the candidates' advertisements had addressed the issue. If the debates are bunched up towards the end of the campaign, he said, voters will rely more on those ads to make the decision than the debates, where property taxes will almost certainly be addressed.
"The primary value of the debates is to put the issue positions and policy proposals of publicly funded candidates on the record," he said.