November 27, 2022

Voters are at the mercy of feuds between parties and League of Women Voters

Republican candidates will not participate in the organization’s debate, joint forum with Democrats falls through

Bonnie Pitz, state board member of the League of Women Voters of Iowa, shows off a pin from the organization. For years, the League has held candidate forums/debates in Jasper County. Local Republican candidates are refusing to participate in the forums, citing frustrations over the group's lack of neutrality and a past mistake.

Conflict behind the scenes is ruining Jasper County voters’ chances of seeing opposing candidates go head-to-head before the election.

Although the Republican Party announced in August that its candidates would not participate in the debate held by League of Women Voters of Jasper County, leaders nearly finalized all the details of their collaboration with the Democratic Party to hold their own forum in October. Those plans fizzled out this past week.

Thad Nearmyer, chair of the Jasper County Republican Party, said the time, date and venue had been decided. It was to take place 1 p.m. Oct. 15 at the Newton Community Theatre. The Republicans even agreed with the local Democratic Party’s choice of moderator, who was a professor at Central College.

Michelle Smith, chair of the Jasper County Democratic Party, confirmed with Newton News that Nearmyer had reached out in hopes of hosting a joint forum.

“However the Democratic Party couldn’t get all candidates to agree to this,” she said. “Therefore there will be no joint forum and I am positive the Republicans will not participate in the (League of Women Voters) forum, so ultimately it is the Jasper County voter who loses in this situation.”

In late August, Nearmyer posted a statement on his party’s Facebook page stating “legislative and county supervisor candidates are looking forward to having a forum with candidates from opposing parties on a fair and level playing field,” suggesting Republicans were refusing League of Women Voters’ invite.

Editor’s note: In full transparency, Newton News was asked to organize a debate. In addition to low staffing levels, the optics of the paper choosing sides in the and possibly undermining an organization’s event was the reason Newton News declined. We will be offering candidate Q&As in future issues as we always have.

Typically, the League of Women Voters of Jasper County hold candidate forums every year for statehouse, county supervisor, city council and school board candidates. But this year marks the first time all of the county’s Republican candidates are refusing to participate. For Nearmyer, it’s a long time coming.

In 2018, Nearmyer criticized the League of Women Voters in a letter to the editor, stating it was a conflict of interest to have member Carol Kramer be one of a number of people selecting candidate questions submitted by attendees. Kramer was working as campaign chair for former Rep. Wes Breckenridge at the time.

Kramer kept all of the questions submitted by attendees in 2018 and said she tried to talk with Nearmyer twice to look at the questions himself. She denies cherry picking questions, saying she only put questions in order and that another member of the League of Women Voters was choosing how to put them together.

When asked about the event in 2018, Kramer said she held on to the questions and showed them to Newton News. The questions asked about birth control, the number of supervisors on the board, the single most important issue for the county, IPERS, the salary of election officials, raising state sales tax for water quality expenses, culverts, candidates’ third most important issue, accepting campaign contributions, dismantling JEDCO, where to make cuts in the state budget, changing supervisor meeting times and the whether the current justice system is adequate.

While these questions do not appear partisan, Nearmyer’s main gripe is with having Kramer involved with the organization at all during that forum. He maintains her involvement at that time was a conflcit of interest, regardless of the types of questions asked.

Nearmyer also accused the League of Women Voters of being partisan, corrupt and biased toward the Democratic Party, furthering his distrust of the organization. It is going to take “generational change,” he said, for the local Republican Party to ever consider working with the League of Women Voters again.

Smith told Newton News she understands why Republicans are hesitant due to the perceived slant they feel the League of Women Voters has shown in the past. Nearmyer suspects the League of Women Voters interfered with their efforts to organize the joint forum, further complicating the situation.

“They have continually proven that they cannot be fair,” Nearmyer told Newton News in a recent interview. “Everything they do is unfair. There’s no bipartisanship in that organization at all. So we are done. The current generation of Republicans will never work with them. And I hope future generations don’t either.”

LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS & PRESSURING CANDIDATES

League of Women Voters was founded in the 1920s as an organization that believes in the power of women to create a more perfect democracy. The group describes itself as a nonpartisan, activist, grassroots organization “that believes voters should play a critical role in democracy.”

In August 2016, the national League of Women Voters organization published guidance on how to pressure candidates to join debates or fill out voter guides. The instruction guide is titled: “Guidance for Leagues on Candidates Unwilling to Participate in Voter Education Opportunities.”

Many of these strategies have already been used by the League of Women Voters of Jasper County.

The instructions expressly state that sometimes “there are candidates that refuse to participate in voter education activities and call into question the League’s reputation.” It then provides further guidance and message points to shape the public narrative and news coverage of the situations.

For instance, when candidates are refusing to participate in public debates or voter guides, the League of Women Voters recommends local chapters issue a public statement or letter to the editor pressuring candidates to join. It then offers a number of talking points to use against uncooperative candidates.

League of Women Voters said it is a loss for voters when candidates refuse to participate in these types of opportunities and that it is ultimately about the voters and not the league itself. Candidates running for public office are apply for jobs, and the League likens debates to job interviews.

When a candidate decides to not attend or participate, the League said it is a lost opportunity for all voters and that refusal to discuss the issues is contrary to public interest. The organization also points to research showing the public expects candidates to participate in voter education activities.

“…But it is also found that voters are more likely to vote when they know who the candidates are and where they stand on the issues,” the guidelines state. “So when candidates choose not to participate, it’s the voters that are harmed.”

Bonnie Pitz, state board member of the League of Women Voters of Iowa, wrote a letter to the editor in September mentioning many of these same points.

“Declining an opportunity to discuss important issues is contrary to Jasper County public interest. If candidates chose not to participate, it is the voters who are harmed,” she said, noting Democratic candidates are participating. “…The candidate forum will be held regardless of a few candidates declining.”

Sarah Courtney, chief communications officer of the League of Women Voters of the United States, explained the purpose of the guidance in a statement to Newton News:

“Thousands of candidates participate in League-hosted debates and forums every election season and they understand that we are an unbiased partner, along with local media, universities and civic organizations. Across our 750+ chapters sometimes candidates are unresponsive to invitations, and we provide this guidance for when that occurs. We believe voters deserve to hear directly from the candidates seeking their support and expect them to participate as an important part of the interview process. Candidates who avoid debating their opponents do a disservice to the voters and their campaigns.”

DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATES EXPLAIN THEIR SIDE

Newton News reached out to every candidate running for supervisor and the statehouse this election. The only candidates who did not provide responses were: supervisor Denny Carpenter, Republican House candidate Barb Kniff McCulla and Democratic House candidate Mike Overman.

Erick Zehr, the Democratic candidate running for Iowa House District 38, said he will happily participate in the League of Women Voters debate. He praised the organization for its “long-standing history of nonpartisanship” and for providing Jasper County with educational debates for many years.

“If you are running for public office, asking for people to put their faith and trust in you, you owe it to them to be as transparent and forthcoming as possible,” Zehr said. “Forums and debates are a great way for people to ask direct questions of the candidates, and hopefully get straight answers.”

Zehr is concerned about the prospect of not having any debates and having people not know where candidates stand on issues. Although he has never debated before, Zehr said his nervousness in participating is outweighed by the responsibility he feels for the voters and distinguishing himself on critical issues.

However, when asked if he would have participated in the joint forum held by both parties, Zehr said he found it silly to reinvent the wheel when Jasper County already has a “respected, nonpartisan option.” He also so no valid reason to cut them out and again praised the past League of Women Voters debates.

“That being said, I think Democrats are on the right side of the most pressing issues and I am eager to highlight that, so if an alternative debate would be the only option, so be it,” Zehr said.

Democratic supervisor candidate Pam Olson said she originally replied yes to the invitation from the League of Women Voters but is now unsure if the forum is still one with only one side seemingly replying yes. Olson also believes the League of Women Voters would provide an even playing field for all candidates.

“I feel that not having both parties there would be a disservice to the voters. They would only get to hear one side of an issue,” Olson said. “But with that said if others choose not to participate, the voters can still hear how those candidates that do participate stand on the issues.”

Olson also indicated she would have participated in the joint forum, feeling it is important for the voters to hear both sides of an issue.

Fellow Democratic supervisor candidate Bev Price is attending the forum because it provides candidates” the opportunity to share their views and experience with the voters on an even playing field.” Price said the League of Women Voters has 40 years of experience hosting forums.

“The public looks to this group to organize these forums each election and respects their non partisan approach and the opportunity to submit questions they have of the candidates,” Price said. “As a voter, I’ve taken the opportunity to attend these League forums to make sure I am an informed voter.”

Still, Price would be disappointed if everyone cannot attend. She is hopeful all candidates participate to allow voters a chance to get to know their candidates.

“The voters deserve the opportunity to ask questions and this is a great example of working together, regardless of party affiliation, to provide information,” Price said. “This forum is a win for the candidates and the voters. I will be there and hope to see a great turnout!”

When asked if she would have participated in the joint forum, Price said last-minute planning of a quality event is difficult, at best, and does not provide for quality results, especially when Jasper County has a “long-time, nonpartisan, respected organization” with all the details in place.

Price said she is looking forward to participating in a quality forum with her opponents and share the experience she can bring to the table. She also thinks “it behooves all of us” to unite this year and participate in the forum that candidates already have the opportunity to attend.

“With that being said, if this event was not already planned months ago and available to every candidate, it would be the responsibility of all candidates to participate in an effort to provide quality information to the voters,” she said. “Let’s take this opportunity to come together for the good of our county and state.”

Tyler Stewart, the democratic candidate running for Iowa Senate District 19, said he would not be able to make it to the forum due to it falling on conference night. The Newton teacher said if it wasn’t for that prior commitment he would be there as he believes it is important for candidates to speak in front of constituents.

For Stewart, debates and forums serve as job interviews that allow voters to hear both sides of every issue.

“Refusing to participate does rob voters of valuable information that can be used to help determine who to vote for,” Stewart said. “I would love to have a forum or a debate with my opponent. I am hoping something gets sorted out and the voters get this opportunity.”

LIBERTARIAN CANDIDATE & REPUBLICAN CANDIDATES ALSO WEIGH IN

Michael Wood, the libertarian candidate running for Iowa House District 38, said he was invited to attend the forum held by League of Women Voters of Jasper County, and he plans on being there. He also wants votes to hear where he stands on issues. Wood also indicated he would join in on a candidate forum hosted by both parties for the same reason.

Rep. Jon Dunwell, who is running for Iowa House District 38, acknowledged Nearmyer was working with Smith to organize a separate debate. Dunwell said on Sept. 24 that all Republican candidates agreed to participate in the event planned by the leadership of both parties.

“I have been informed this morning that the Democrat candidates, in opposition to their leadership, will only participate if it is the League of Women Voters,” Dunwell said. “I am very disappointed in their decision. I am also very disappointed in the League of Women Voters.”

Rather than working to rebuild trust and confidence, Dunwell added the organization has instead chosen “to create further division and partisanship.” This past year Dunwell participated in the legislative forums organized by the League of Women Voters in order to inform constituents on statehouse matters. But participating in one of their debates is different.

Jasper County Supervisor Brandon Talsma received Newton News’ inquiries for comment but had nothing to add to Dunwell’s and Nearmyer’s responses.

Sen. Ken Rozenboom, who is running for Iowa Senate District 19, said it was his understanding the leadership from both major parties are still holding a candidate forum. At this point in time, the joint forum is at a standstill. It is Rozenboom’s opinion, though, that the joint forum is the most neutral arrangement.

“To be fair to the voters and to the candidates, this bipartisan format is the proper way to discuss the issues,” Rozenboom said. “While I have always had a good relationship with the League, it’s best that a truly bipartisan event be held to inform voters.”

Although the joint forum fell through, the Republican and Democratic chairs are not entirely deterred from organizing one if enough candidates get onboard.

“The offer is still on the table,” Nearmyer said.

PRESIDENT OF JASPER COUNTY LWV RESPONDS

Pitz, who is president of the League of Women of Voters of Jasper County, provided Newton News with the following statement:

“The League of Women Voters of Jasper County knows that Jasper County voters want and need to understand candidate positions on the issues facing our community. That is why the League hosts public forums every election cycle to feature the candidates asking for Jasper County residents’ votes. The forum in 2018 was moderated and hosted by elected officers of the LWV of Jasper County who do not participate in campaigns or political fundraising, in accordance with our League bylaws. Our unelected members are not held to these requirements, and one League volunteer offered to help sort questions from the audience. All questions were shared with the parties and reporter Chris Braunschweig following the debate. Candidates from all parties have participated in debates and forums hosted by our League for over 40 years.”

“The League’s main goal in hosting candidate engagement opportunities is for the public to hear directly from Candidates on issues that matter to our community. While we believe strongly that forums hosted by the nonpartisan LWV are the best opportunity for voters to hear from candidates, we are happy to support and facilitate other nonpartisan candidate engagement opportunities as best we can, as long as they align with our nonpartisan commitment of never supporting or opposing any candidate or party.”

“LWV of Jasper County will continue to hold candidate forums, inviting all candidates who appear on the ballot to participate. Our forum for school board candidates last year was attended by an estimated 125 people and viewed by over a thousand online.”

“We are disappointed that political hyper-polarization has turned some candidates away from nonpartisan  opportunities to engage with voters. Our invitation is still open to all candidates in forums or Meet-and-Greets for the following races: Jasper County Supervisors, State Representative District 38, and State Senate District 19. We sincerely hope all candidates will consider taking these opportunities to speak directly to Jasper County residents.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext 560 or at cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.