Several weeks ago, the Virginia Bar Association announced that they would be hosting the first gubernatorial debate for the 2017 election season. As such, on July 22nd, the first debate will take place at the Homestead Resort in Bath County. Declaring that the event is free and “open to the public”, they have invited the Democratic candidate, Ralph Northam, and the Republican, Ed Gillespie. However, they have excluded the third candidate, Libertarian Cliff Hyra.
Virginia has one of the toughest ballot access requirements of any state in the country. In order to appear on the ballot in November, a candidate must collect the signatures of 10,000 registered voters including at least 400 from each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts. As you might expect, given these barriers no more than three candidates have been listed in races for the last 40 years. Nevertheless, having a third choice is surprisingly common, as Virginians have had a third party or independent candidate in every gubernatorial election since 1989 with the notable exception of 2009.
On July 7th, I contacted both the Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie campaigns to see if they would be open to including their Libertarian opponent. I couldn’t find a direct phone number for the Northam campaign and I called the Democratic Party of Virginia with my question. Within an hour, I received a call from the Northam campaign saying that they would welcome Cliff Hyra on the debate stage. By comparison, over a week later, I still have not heard back from the Gillespie campaign on this matter. I posed this hypothetical question to a Gillespie staffer back in February of Mr. Gillespie debating a third party or independent candidate and they were unwilling to answer at that time. To me, it seems exceedingly hypocritical for Mr. Gillespie to rail against Ralph Northam for not wanting to have ten debates, and yet, as was the case in 2014, Mr. Gillespie refuses to engage in a debate that includes all of his opponents. In the words of Ed Gillespie, I would say that attitude is “insulting to the voters across the Commonwealth.”
Given this exclusion, the Virginia Bar Association’s debate is a disservice to all Virginians who would like to learn more about all of their choices on the November ballot. It is especially curious given that Mr. Hyra is also apparently a member of the Virginia Bar Association. Although they state “The Virginia Bar Association is a nonpartisan organization that does not endorse, support or oppose political candidates. It is the intention of the VBA that its debates in no way promote or advance one candidate over others,” that is obviously a false statement given that they refuse to invite all of the candidates who have qualified for the ballot and thus are supporting two of the candidates over the third. As it doesn’t include all of my choices, I have no plans to watch this first debate. Hopefully, this season’s other debate organizers will learn from the VBA’s failure.