Camden: Gubernatorial debate puts Vancouver in spotlight

By Jim Camden, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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A sign that Washington's campaign season remains in the doldrums despite the fact that ballots are in voters' hands arrived on July 27 with the announcement that two gubernatorial debates had been scheduled. One will be in Vancouver on Aug. 29 and another in Yakima on Oct. 2. This is great news, not solely because putting Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna on the same stage is instructive for voters and good theater for political junkies. These are also two places that often have little chance to get up close and personal with gubernatorial candidates, let alone host a debate.

If Spokane complains about being a second-class citizen in the eyes of some statewide campaigns, other parts of the state might rightfully claim to be in steerage.

The oddest thing about the announcement was the back-and-forth between the McKenna and Inslee campaigns. The dates apparently were nailed down sometime on Wednesday, July 25, and that evening Randy Pepple, McKenna's campaign manager, said his guy was in and "hopes Inslee answers the call."

The McKenna campaign has for months suggested Inslee is somewhat feckless on debates. McKenna, a Republican, has agreed to at least 15 debates -- which sounds more like an outline for a new reality series than a serious proposal.

"The voters can be justifiably puzzled at Congressman Jay Inslee's unwillingness to agree to debates with Attorney General Rob McKenna," Pepple said in a prepared statement. "We feel it is only respectful to some of our debate hosts -- and the voting public -- that we confirm two debates which Congressman Inslee has allegedly told the hosts he may be willing to attend, and see if that causes his campaign to reconsider its silence on the remaining schedule."

The Inslee campaign shot back that it had agreed to the debates in Yakima and Vancouver long ago, and the only real question was the dates. It also announced three other debates the likely Democratic nominee has on his schedule, two in Seattle and one in Tacoma. Pepple shot back that Inslee was snubbing the good folks in Walla Walla, Tri-Cities and Spokane and elsewhere who graciously extended debate invitations to them, and complained about the timing of some events Inslee was accepting because of the programming they'd be up against.

A check with the sponsors of both the Vancouver and Yakima events revealed that Inslee, like McKenna, had agreed to those debates months ago, subject to the usual caveat -- that they could work out time, place, sponsorship, broadcast and format details. The Yakima debate sponsor, the Association of Washington State Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, was shooting for the first three days of October, when it has a conference in that Central Washington city. They had aimed initially for Oct. 1 but moved it to Oct. 2, a source said, at the request of the McKenna campaign because Oct. 1 is the candidate's birthday.

Politics as usual

A long string of email communications over the Vancouver debate also shows the Inslee campaign saying they'd put that debate on the schedule on June 15. The organizer for the debate said both campaigns have been willing to attend, and the only problem was getting schedules to match up.

Pepple, who is an old hand at campaigns, all but acknowledged that this was just the standard blather in his announcement on July 25: "The 'debate over debates' is a constant in modern politics," the news release starts.

It is a constant. That's not to say it has to be.

The Vancouver debate on Aug. 29 will be at the Washington State University Vancouver campus. It has a long list of sponsors, including the local ports, the public schools, development councils, newspapers, civic and business groups. So many that it would be quicker to say who isn't on board, which is, apparently, nobody.

Troy Van Dinter, who has the job of herding cats for the debate, said it's the first gubernatorial debate in the Vancouver area that anyone involved can remember. It will be televised by Portland station KATU and may be picked up by stations in Seattle and Spokane.

The Yakima debate will take place during the Hispanic chambers of commerce conference on Oct. 2 and be televised on KCTS, Seattle's public television station, which is supplying the moderator, Enrique Cerna. It might be picked up by other public television stations across the state.