Debating the debates

Governor candidate protests Green Party exclusion

Before the Oct. 17 gubernatorial debate between Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn and Republican Bill Brady at Elmhurst College near Chicago, Green Party candidate Rich Whitney and a group of supporters stood outside in protest, megaphone and signs in hand. It’s a scene that will be the new norm until debate hosts start inviting all established party candidates into the forums, Whitney says.

Whitney was excluded from the Elmhurst event, the first gubernatorial debate in the college’s history, because he failed to meet the college’s requirements for inclusion. In order to be included, candidates had to capture 10 percent in a statewide poll conducted between 5 days before the debate and 30 days prior to the Nov. 2 election.

Whitney says that public polling is unreliable, arbitrary and lacking in transparency. “What is the purpose of a civic organization? It is to allow the citizens to choose. It is to inform the voting public so that they have an opportunity to decide who the best candidate is. Then you will see the polling numbers change,” Whitney says. “And, of course, the only real poll that really matters is the one that’s conducted on Election Day by the people who actually go out to vote.”

In 2006, Whitney won more than 10 percent of votes in the general election, making his party an “established” party. As such, the Green Party can hold a primary and its candidates aren’t required to obtain as many petition signatures to earn a spot on the ballot. Whitney says that not including him in the debates makes his party seem illegitimate to potential voters.

“If persuasion and pressure does not work we will make them [debate hosts] pay a political price by conducting street protests during any illegitimate debates that go on without including me,” Whitney says, adding that his supporters are also urged to call debate hosts to complain.

Elmhurst College’s director of public affairs Desiree Chen says Whitney was welcome to protest the debate and says his efforts didn’t detract from the purpose of the event. Chen adds that Whitney was the only governor candidate to decline an opportunity to speak with students during an individual visit to campus. “The campus has not at all been about excluding him,” Chen says.

Whitney says he’ll protest any debate from here on out that excludes Green Party candidates, including the Wednesday, Oct. 20, debate hosted by the League of Women Voters. The League uses criteria similar to that used by Elmhurst for establishing debate participants. League executive director Jan Czarnik says that in July, when the organization held its first meeting about the debates, Whitney’s campaign was included in the discussion and signed a form acknowledging the debate rules, including that candidates must take at least 10 percent of the vote in a statewide poll. “We don’t really think that’s a very high bar,” she says.

Czarnik says that since Whitney’s campaign started its protests against third party exclusion, the League each day has received about 30 phone calls asking it to include the Green Party. “That’s not much when you’re claiming to be a candidate that the voters are taking seriously,” she says.

Whitney says he’ll continue his debate campaign, which he’s dubbed “Do the Right Thing,” until his party is included in all debates. “It really is about performing civic duty and allowing voters to hear all points of view,” he says.

Contact Rachel Wells at

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