The Rutherford County Democratic Party chairwoman is accusing Republican state House candidates of snubbing a League of Women Voters forum, effectively killing it because they don't want to defend their positions.
While Democratic candidates for four state House seats committed to participate on dates offered by the league in early September, not one Republican candidate could make themselves available for an event, which would be recorded and rebroadcast in addition to being streamed online, said Jackie Pope, chairman of the local Democratic Party.
"Without both candidates in a race willing to attend and speak on the issues, the League will not hold the forums. Again, I ask the Republicans: What are you afraid of?" Pope said in a statement.
She asks whether they are leery of discussing their party's support for vouchers and charter schools despite opposition to those measures by local school boards, worsening traffic congestion and failure to support Gov. Haslam's Insure Tennessee program, among several other topics.
"Is it because you feel entitled to the office and don't want to answer to the citizens you say you represent?" Pope asks in her statement.
The Democratic Party chairman encourages Republican candidates to contact the League of Women Voters to schedule a forum so they can answer questions from the politically neutral group.
Emails between League of Women Voters Co-President Kory Wells and at least one Democratic candidate show she reserved county space initially for Tuesdays on Sept. 20 and Oct. 18 and then for Oct. 19, 20 and 26. One of her emails to Democratic Senate candidate Gayle Jordan says although the organization hasn't "pulled the plug" on those dates, "the prospects look dim due to lack of response from, or a date that works for, your opponent."
Senate District 14 race
State Sen. Jim Tracy, a Bedford County Republican running against Jordan in the Nov. 8 election, is opting against the League of Women Voters forum but is committed to a WGNS candidate forum, which he participated in during the primary election, according to Senate Republican Caucus spokeswoman Darlene Schlicher.
Tracy believes "one forum is enough given hectic schedules in October," Schlicher said by email.
Said Jordan by email, "I question why Sen. Tracy (and all of the other Republican candidates) could not find a suitable date from the five options offered by the League of Women Voters to participate in a live, televised, public forum. I am still open to such a forum and will clear my schedule to accommodate him at any date that is convenient for him."
Jordan said she will participate in the WGNS forum.
House District 34 race
Tim Rudd, Republican nominee for the 34th House District seat being vacated by Rick Womick, said he discussed the proposed dates with the League of Women Voters over the phone two weeks ago and told them "I prefer not to do political events on the two Wednesday church nights they gave me. I have a conflict on the Thursday date they gave me."
Rudd is pitted against Laura Bohling, former Rutherford County Circuit Court Clerk. Bohling said she appreciates Rudd's commitment to church but pointed out if he had responded initially to the League about forum dates, he would remember the first dates offered were Sept. 20 and Oct. 18.
"I maintain that he is either afraid to discuss real issues (since he has to consult with the Republican delegation before making a comment), afraid to be challenged on his longtime involvement in politics and association with folks like (Sheriff) Robert Arnold and Rick Womick, or afraid to give me a forum to build name recognition since he knows my poll numbers are rising," Bohling said.
Bohling noted the League of Women Voters provided five days and more than a month's notice and speculated "even a pastor would be fine with someone missing one church meeting. What will (Rudd) do if Wednesdays go long during legislation session - refuse to represent District 34 because he has to get back to church services?"
House District 37 race
Republican Rep. Dawn White, based on her statement, apparently has no intention of participating in a forum with Democratic challenger Becky Goff.
"The choice voters will get to make this year is already crystal clear," said White. "The residents of the 37th District know that I am a lifelong conservative Republican, and they know where I stand on the issues."
White calls Goff a "liberal Democrat activist" who backs Hillary Clinton for the presidency and worked door-to-door for President Barack Obama in 2012.
"While Ms. Goff has spent her time pushing the failed policies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I have dedicated myself to promoting common-sense conservative principles at the state level. Tennessee is moving in the right direction, and I'm very proud of our record," she said in a statement.
In response, Goff said it is "crystal clear" to her the 37th District voters know what they want, including good schools, a solution to traffic gridlock and a representative who will stand up for MTSU.
"I'm disappointed to hear Dawn White refuses to attend the League of Women Voters forum, but I am not surprised because her record demonstrates that she is out of touch with the voters," Goff said.
She pointed toward White's acceptance of support from groups backing charter schools and voucher legislation to send low-income students from struggling public schools to private institutions, in addition to her opposition to Insure Tennessee, a program proposed to offer insurance to working people caught in a gap between TennCare and the Affordable Care Act. She also accused White and the Republican Caucus of allowing former Rep. Jeremy Durham to prey on women in the Legislative Plaza by letting the problem fester.
"I will fight every day for the people of Rutherford County, our school, children and teachers. I will work across the aisle to bring resources to our town for road and infrastructure, and I will stand up to outside special interest," Goff said. "Dawn can't make that same pledge, and that is why she is afraid to debate me."
House District 48 race
Republican Rep. Bryan Terry, who is being challenged by Democrat Justin Miller in the 48thDistrict House race, said he "never had any discussion with the LWV about those dates."
Terry, an anesthesiologist, said he gave the group an alternative date so he could set up his work schedule but it wasn't chosen when the first dates didn't work. He said he asked the League's president to meet to discuss the matter, but she was on vacation and the co-president hadn't contacted him.
Miller said he believes voters deserve to see a debate or forum so they can differentiate between the two candidates on important topics.
"Different communities face different issues, so I think that it is important to address them separately instead of offering a blanket response or solution," Miller said. "Rep. Terry and I have many fundamental disagreements on how these issues should be addressed and how state government should work."
Miller said he agreed to participate in a WGNS forum set for Oct. 13 and hoped Terry will accept the invitation as well.
House District 49 race
Republican Rep. Mike Sparks, who faces Democrat Brandon Thomas in the 49th District House race, said he had a scheduling conflict with proposed forum dates. In addition to taking classes at MTSU, Sparks said he and his wife are helping care for his sick mother and stepfather, who has cancer. He said he had communicated with the League of Women Voters president.
Thomas said he understands Sparks' situation, noting in his late teens and early 20s he took a full course load at MTSU while caring for his bedridden grandmother and holding a part-time job.
"I'm willing to work with Mr. Sparks to have a discussion on the issues anytime and anywhere," Thomas said. "Whether it is at the LWV forum, on Facebook Live, or even at the Republican headquarters in Murfreesboro. It is important for our democracy to have a discussion on the issues."
Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.