Debate-hungry challengers accuse Reps. Harris, Sarbanes of avoiding tough questions

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Congressional challengers said Thursday they’re having a difficult time getting their opponents to debate.

In the Eastern Shore-based 1st District, Democrat Heather Mizeur said her rival, Republican Rep. Andy Harris, has sought to minimize scrutiny of his record by turning down multiple debate opportunities.

Republican Yuripzy Morgan leveled similar charges against Rep. John Sarbanes (D), the incumbent in Central Maryland’s 3rd District.

In both instances, the challengers sought to portray their opponents as fearful of freewheeling discussions.

“If I had Andy Harris’s record, I wouldn’t want to have to publicly defend it either,” Mizeur said of the six-term incumbent. “He’s got a pretty extreme and abysmal record of being out-of-touch with the district and being lazy at his job.”

Morgan, a former radio talk show host, said Sarbanes has failed to respond to multiple invitations from news organizations and community groups. In an interview, she repeatedly referenced her gender and ethnicity (she is Latina), suggesting obliquely that the incumbent does not respect her.

“I am happy to work around his schedule,” she said. “So he can just tell me when and where.”

The two incumbents, who would only speak through campaign aides, pushed back against their rivals’ claims.

Harris, in a statement, said he has committed to take part in a “debate” sponsored by the Kent County chapter of the League of Women Voters on Oct. 27. But Cece Trainor, the organization’s voters services director, cautioned that the league has yet to secure a venue and that the event remains in flux.

“We had a hard time getting the three candidates to agree to a date,” Trainor said. “We said we would try (to find a venue). And if we fail, we fail.”

Harris, Mizeur and Libertarian Daniel Thibeault will receive the questions ahead of time, she added. “It isn’t designed that the candidates argue with each other. …We’re going to do a forum, not a debate.”

Harris rejected two high-profile debate opportunities, according to organizers. The Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Salisbury Committee offered to host a debate at Salisbury State University that would have aired live on WBOC-TV.

“I’ve been told by some of (Harris’s) campaign aides that he’s not going to do more than one,” said Bill Chambers, the chamber’s president. “We’re moving forward with other local races and debates as if he’s not going to do it.”

Although the event could be resurrected if Harris changes his mind, Chambers said, “I’m not waiting for the call.”

Harris also backed out of a debate on Cecil TV. According to Doug Donley, executive director of Cecil Public Media, which runs the channel, Harris accepted an invitation to debate on Oct. 26 at Chesapeake College, but he canceled because Thibeault wasn’t included.

Donley defended his decision to exclude Thibeault. “He is really not what I would call a serious candidate, perhaps just a placeholder,” he said. “I think this election is about two people.”

In a statement, the Harris campaign said: “Unfortunately, Cecil TV, a local media outlet that was finalizing details for a second debate, today decided not to invite the Libertarian Party candidate who is on the ballot… As a result, Congressman Harris has chosen not to participate in that debate.”

Mizeur accused Harris of wanting to avoid having to answer tough questions, such as why he attended a December 2020 White House meeting at which President Trump is reported to have discussed ways of keeping Joe Biden from assuming the presidency following his election win, or why he has only passed one piece of legislation — a Post Office renaming bill — in 12 years in Congress.

“He does not want to be held accountable to the voters,” she said. “He doesn’t participate in anything he can’t screen the questions in advance.”

In the 3rd District race, Morgan said Sarbanes declined debate invitations from the Chinese American Parents Association, WBFF-TV (Fox 45), WYPR Radio (88.1 FM), and from various community associations. She conceded that the pair appeared together at a Greater Severna Park Council candidate forum on Tuesday.

Dvora Lovinger, a Sarbanes spokeswoman, declined to answer a reporter’s questions. In a statement, Sarbanes said he intends to participate in a “live conversation” on WYPR on Oct. 24, during which the candidates will appear separately for 30 minutes each. And she said the two candidates will appear together at a Greater Pasadena Council candidate forum on Oct. 19.

Members of Congress typically enjoy a huge fundraising advantage and can get their message before voters without having to run the risks of a debate misstep. Harris and Sarbanes are hardly the first incumbents to want to minimize their exposure to the electorate in the weeks before an election.

“If you’re an incumbent and the winds are at your back,” said Cecil TV’s Donley, “there’s not a lot of reason to debate.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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