September 23, 2010

"Non-partisan" ain't neutral

Regular readers of this blog are likely aware that I'm not a fan of Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton for many reasons. I've voted against her endorsement by the Tompkins County Democratic Committee, criticized her on a variety of issues, and been, well, less than polite at a few public forums. The last thing I really want to do with this blog is republish Lifton press releases.

Every now and then, though, something so infuriating comes up that the only right response is to republish a Lifton press release:

Lifton Campaign Challenges Opponent to Engage in Fair Debate, Reveal Actual Party and Anti-government Group Affiliations Publicly

The campaign of Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton has been approached by Ms. Kelly Kheel, who initially represented herself, on Sept. 8, as follows:

I am hosting a Meet the Candidate night in Tompkins County, NY. This is a non partisan forum. We plan to send invitation (sic) and moderate the event. The date is Sept. 25 at 7 pm. Mr. Reynolds has agreed.

Thank you for your consideration.
Kelly Kheel

The Lifton campaign made repeated efforts to work with Ms. Kheel to agree to a time, format and location that would allow Assemblywoman Lifton's participation in a forum. Repeated requests for information about Ms. Kheel's "group" were responded to with minimal or misleading information. Eventually, the Lifton Campaign was able to discover, through on-line research, that Ms. Kheel's group is 912 TEA CTCNY. Reading the information on their website, at , reveals that many of their 66 members reside outside of the Cortland/Tompkins area that they purportedly represent. Their current headline reads "We Surround Ithaca." The web page also reveals that Assemblywoman Lifton's opponent has been an active member of this group since April 14, 2010, although this information is not included on his campaign website, nor did Ms. Kheel mention that Mr. Reynolds was a member of her group in her correspondence with the Lifton campaign until we brought this fact up with her.

The Lifton Campaign challenges Mr. Reynolds to be open and above-board with the public about his true party affiliations. On the Tea Party group's website, his member page identifies him, in his own words, as a "Reagan republican Cheif Financial Officer," and he has also represented himself to the media as a Republican. Yet, while he is the Republican nominee for Assembly, his Board of Elections records identify him as a registered member of the Conservative Party. He has made public challenges to our campaign to engage in large numbers of debates, and then apparently encouraged the organizers of a group he is a member of to misrepresent itself as an impartial entity and set up a rigged "forum" in which the group leader acted as moderator.

Fair play and honest public discourse are the cornerstones of our democracy. The Lifton campaign challenges her opponent to engage in honest dicussion, in truly impartial forums, of the actual issues facing NYS government. We also challenge Mr. Reynolds to explain how he would uphold the Constitution of the State of NY if he accepts the 4th principle of Ms. Kheel's group: "The family is sacred. My spouse and I are the ultimate authority, not the government." Would he be willing to uphold NYS laws? Is his goal to become a NYS Assembly Member, or to spread the anti-government message of the TEA Party?

That's not an invitation to a debate - it's an invitation to an ambush. Dryden's had some contentious debates in the past, probably peaking in 2007 at Varna. I'll admit that I felt ambushed by some of the extremely right-wing questions, not to mention false claims - but at least the moderators of those events actually were neutral.

The first of the 2007 debates was moderated by the League of Women Voters, and the next two were moderated by WHCU host Geoff Dunn. Dunn makes a point of registering as a blank and of taking political signs only when he can signs from all sides - I don't know what his personal politics are, but he does an excellent job of keeping them out of the way when running a debate.

I worry that few undecided voters actually show up at debates, and there seems to be a regular battle to stack the audience with supporters. That said, stacking the moderator as well as the audience goes way way way outside of anything I'd recognize as decent politics.

If this is the kind of change the Tea Party folks want to bring to politics, we have some major problems before we even get to actual issues.

Posted by simon at September 23, 2010 1:03 PM in
Note on photos


Nathan Shinagawa said:


Thanks for sharing this. Really good post. - Nate

Nathanael said:

Wow. Thanks. I'm actually very fond of Lifton, largely for her work on election integrity, and secondarily because she recognizes that a California-style property tax cap would be an unmitigated disaster just like it was in California.

I'm glad she dug up what her opponent was actually up to. Good for her.

I'm afraid we may not have Lifton for much longer, as she's getting tired. Hopefully the Ithaca area will generate a new candidate who's even better.

John said:

Here we go again, giving half the truth to fit their needs. I know for a fact that all information was given to everyone invited to attend. Funny how they twist things around to make themselves look better. That is the reason they must all go.

Kelly said:

To all interested in the Full Story. I am Kelly Kheel, I have all the email correspondences from myself and the Lifton Campaign. She never did answer our question, if she would appear. This forum was a chance for voters to interview the candidates. No debate, no partisan agenda. For all that attended Thank you for the great questions you asked to both parties candidates. To the candidates that attended thank you for participating in our first candidate forum. To the Candidates that declined or didn't receive our invitation, we hope next time you will join us.

Ms. Lifton's campaign decided to be divisive and confrontational instead of just answering a request.
Our members are asked to believe in at least 7 of the 9 principles and we strive to live our lives by the 12 values.
We do not allow campaigning on our website. We do not endorse candidates and hope for a informed electorate.

Jim said:

Simon, this all seems way overstated by B. Lifton in at least 4 ways:
1) She and Tom Reynolds both accepted an invitation to a similar event hosted by Back to Democracy in T-burg on 10/10. Her press release above says they challenge him to "truly impartial forums" but the 10/10 sponsors bend heavily in HER direction if their website is any indication of their leanings ( What is BL's relationship with "Back to Democracy: Progressive Voices in the Finger Lakes"?
2) A visit to the 912 tea party group doesn't list its members, so presumably BL did the same thing Reynolds did and joined to see who else was listed. Does registering with a website make you responsible for all their content?
3) BL makes a big deal about Reynolds revealing his "true" party affiliation but the truth is he SWITCHED parties earlier this year. She knows any party switch is not official until after the next election so she is playing semantics. Is there something sinister about switching parties, or the Conservative party to be viewed with more caution than, say, the Working Families Party?
4) I understand from Cortland Chamber of Commerce contacts that BL has been very difficult to pin down for a tentative debate there next Tuesday. She wants to agree on questions in advance, which led to the Cortland Standard dropping co-sponsorship. Does she really want "debates"?

Not so fast on your outrage and calling this an "ambush." You should rethink your evaluation of her statements. All you've really done here is republish her press release.

Jim, the part that appalls me - and which I haven't seen denied - is that the invite went out without any identification of whose event it was.

That's the ambush piece, the source of my fury. For me, it would have been simpler - just a "no".

Why on earth should candidates ever show up at an event whose auspices aren't clear?

And what kind of event organizer doesn't identify themselves in the first place?

I've posted advice to folks who want to organize these kinds of events.

Jim said:

OK, but you have to admit that Barbara overstated her objections, given the points I raise and your solution... to just say "no". We all know that campaigns get invitations from a range of groups and that not all are "neutral". But BL (and you by reprinting her release) is using all this as an pretext for making multiple attacks on her opponent.

You may believe Kelly's explanation above or you can believe BL's claim that she was "misleading", but you should hold BL responsible for her over-the-top rhetoric... "fair debate"... "actual party"... "anti-government group"... toward Tom Reynolds? Does Tom Reynolds deserve this from her, or from you? (And you didn't reply to my other points.)

Personal attacks like this are why regular people are increasingly reluctant to run for public office. I think apologies are in order.

Well, personally I'd say that invites from anonymous sort of kind of nonpartisan organizations would be a good reason not to run for public office. I've also not noticed a lot of apologies from Dryden Republicans for the outrageous 2007 campaign you ran, which made it considerably more difficult to recruit candidates in 2009. (Thankfully, last year was much saner, but 2007 will echo for a long time.)

Kelly doesn't actually deny anything I've said. She never says "we identified ourselves clearly". All she does is protest that it's terrible that people would complain about such a thing.

As for your other points,

1) Of course challengers will show up to more events, even events where they don't feel welcome. That's not even a surprise.

2) I knew who the 912 folks were because they'd been at the Dryden Lake Festival and I'd looked them up. It wasn't hard to get a clear sense of who they were without registering for anything.

3) I think we'd both like to see the rules for party registration in New York State change. I do consider someone's registration history (as well as whether they've voted or not) to be a relevant personal fact, however.

4) I can't speak to the Cortland issue. Perhaps someday the Cortland Standard will deliver to my area, and I'll be able to talk more about it. I don't know enough to say anything coherent on this, however.

Overall, I still find this whole thing pretty outrageous, and not particularly overstated. It's one thing to pack a debate with your supporters - annoying but unsurprising. It's entirely another to create a forum without identifying who you are or your relation to a candidate.

KAZ said:

It's not important that a group holding a forum or debate be nonpartisan; certainly the Grange, Rotary, and Back to Democracy each have their own pet issues. It IS important that the moderator be above reproach, that the format be agreed to in advance by both/all parties, and that the sponsor advertises the event to all and not just to its membership.

The red flag for me would have been the line "Mr. Reynolds has agreed" in the Lifton invitation. A group that intended to be evenhanded would have invited both candidates at the same time. Of course, since Mr. Reynolds in fact already belonged to the group, that was not likely to happen.

I am sure that Ms. Kheel has learned a valuable lesson and will be more aboveboard next time out.

Jim said:

Let me see if I understand. You want to tar Tom Reynolds for the supposed hidden motivations of other members of a civic group he joined 5 months ago as he was becoming a candidate for the first time in his life? But you do not want to criticize his opponent, who is a career politician, for hyping small facts like his change of party into questions about his fairness, honesty, etc? Barbara Lifton seems to be magnifying this stuff because she doesn't want to talk about her record. She makes minimal campaign appearances, has no website to reach out to voters except the official one provided her by NY, and seems to be taking her re-election for granted.

Tom is a good man who wants to give back to the community in his retirement. I refer the readers back to your own dim appraisal of Barbara in your original post above. And, BTW, thanks for engaging in this dialog and for providing this forum.