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Utah Republican Party chairman James Evans is warning his state legislative candidates not to expect fair treatment in a series of proposed debates sponsored by a University of Utah debate society, public radio station KCPW and the Alliance For a Better Utah.

 

Specifically, Evans says ABU is a nonprofit organization claiming to be objective politically, but really follows Democratic Party lines and advocates for liberal issues.

The three groups – the John R. Park Debate Society at the U., the radio station and ABU – all say Evans is out of line, and all they want is to have objective debates in a series of important Utah House and Senate races in Salt Lake County this year.

If Republican candidates in the races don’t show up to the debates, well, they won’t be much of a debate, since it will be just the Democratic candidate (should he or she attend) and any third-party candidates, who in reality have little chance of winning in November.

UtahPolicy asked for a comment from Maryann Martindale, ABU executive director, via email.

She said: “As an organization, we value open dialogue surrounding electoral issues. We would hope Republican Chairman James Evans would join us, not work against us.

“Unfortunately, there appears to be some fall out already, with candidate Bruce Cutler backing out after seeing Evans’ admonition.

“Other candidates, like Fred Cox and Sen. Daniel Thatcher, remain committed to increasing civic participation by continuing to participate in the debates. 

“I would also reiterate that this is a project of the ABU Education Fund, our nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) affiliate organization whose specific mission is to increase civic participation.

“Chairman Evans' suggestion that ABU Education is going to influence the 100-year old John R. Park Debate Society is absurd. We asked for their participation specifically because of their reputation and objectivity.”

You can read about ABU’s objectives on their web site here.

Michael K. Middleton, Ph.D., assistant professor of argumentation and public discourse at the U. and the director of the John R. Park Debate Society, responded to Evans’ email, sent out Thursday, giving defense to the nonpartisan debates and issue forums the society has sponsored in the past.

Specifically, Middleton says that his group only agreed to run the debates – at first suggested by ABU – if all questions were decided upon by the society, and the society moderated the debates.

Middleton says that as much as possible he tries to have even-handed questions from the audience, but that can’t always be controlled.

ABU is handling “publicity” and “logistics” for the debates, said Middleton, who added a long list of individuals, some like Gov. Gary Herbert Republicans, who have participated in society debates in the past. Middleton asks anyone, specifically Evans, who has any concerns about the society’s neutrality to contact those previous participants and ask how they were treated in the forums.

Roger McDonough, news director for KCPW, in an email wrote that the radio station was interested in recording the debates and playing them back over the air at some point before November’s election.

All three debate sponsors said their main objectives are to get better voter participation and better voter education about candidates and their views on public issues.

But Evans maintains that the ABU is just part of a “broader, nationwide” effort by liberal and Democratic groups to use what appear to be nonpartisan entities to foster their ideals, goals and elections of Democratic candidates at various levels of government.

ABU is perhaps best know locally for making a formal complaint against former Attorney General John Swallow with the Utah Election Office.

It was that office’s investigation, carried out by an independent attorney, which led to claims that Swallow’s 2012 campaign had various contribution violations.

Swallow resigned last December just before the office’s official report came out – with Swallow facing a possible state court trial where a judge could have declared his election void, and thus driven him from office.

But Evans told UtahPolicy: “Don’t even connect that” Swallow/ABU stuff “with this issue. They are not connected.”

Rather, said Evans, “ABU is not a neutral organization. Yes, (the U. society) says candidates can submit questions, but then (the sponsors) decide what questions will be used.

“This is a set-up by ABU. And I’m just warning our candidates about it,” said Evans.

The GOP candidates in Senate districts 4 and 12, and State House districts 30, 38, 44 can all decide for themselves if they want to attend the U. debates, but, said Evans, “They should know what they are walking into, what is really going on here.”

The ABU “should own up to what they are, then go on from there,” said Evans. “We are not going to fall for this in Utah.”

Evans said he and the Utah Republican Party “signed up” for the Utah Debate Commission – a separate organization which is holding a number of debates in various high profile races later this election season, “because at least we have a seat on that commission.”

He said that commission’s make-up is “a center left organization.” “But we are not opposed to debates” – that is, the debates that commission is sponsoring.

“But we are opposed in this case to a debate set up by the Alliance for a Better Utah.”

Martindale, in her defense of the proposed legislative debates, sent her reply email “to all” legislative candidates, clearly wanting to inform them of Evans’ and the Utah state GOP’s opposition to the U. debates.

“Across the nation, these (Democratic) groups are engaging in debates and other things with other groups, like the U., that appear to be neutral, when in fact the sponsoring groups (ABU) are not,” Evans added.