Calhoun County’s Chamber of Commerce is planning to replace its usual pre-election candidate forum with a series of online interviews, but some candidates wish they’d go back to the old system.
“Any one venue, no matter what it is, is not going to make everybody happy,” said Gayle Macolley Harris, a member of the chamber’s board of directors.
Virtually every state-level office, from governor to the 140 seats in the Alabama Legislature, is up for grabs in the midterm election set for November. In the last midterm election cycle, the chamber hosted a series of candidate debates.
Earlier this year, in the run-up to the primary election, the chamber again lined up candidates for in-person candidate forums.
For the general election, though, the chamber has changed its format. This week, the group plans to hold on-camera, one-on-one interviews with local legislative candidates, with plans to post each to the internet in October. Every candidate will get screen time, but none will meet face-to-face.
That was frustrating for some candidates who face long-term incumbents in the general election.
“That format doesn’t give a person the chance to properly respond to anything that comes up in the other candidate’s statements,” said Nicki Arnold-Swindle, a Democratic candidate for House District 36.
Her opponent, incumbent Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks, said he likes the format. In-person debates, he said, give a less-informed candidate a chance to bounce off of the answers of a more-informed candidate.
“You say, ‘We’ll I’d fix it this way’ and then your opponent gets a chance to say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t fix it like that,’” he said.
Jim Williams, an Anniston Democrat running for State Senate District 12, said last week that he would participate in the interviews, though he said he preferred an in-person format — one that would allow a candidate to rebut any falsehoods from an opponent.
Statewide, the question of whether to debate has itself become one of the biggest debates in the 2018 election cycle. So far, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey has declined to debate her Democratic challenger, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. There was no debate in the 2014 gubernatorial election between Robert Bentley and Parker Griffith. Political science experts say incumbents have little incentive to participate.
“If you’re an incumbent, you have nothing to gain, and if you’re a non-incumbent, you have nothing to lose,” said Lori Owens, a political science professor, in an interview last week.
Harris on Monday said the chamber made the switch after observing that the most recent round of debates drew far more viewers for The Star’s live-stream on Facebook than in-person viewers. She said the online format also fit better with the candidates’ schedules.
Each interview, less than 10 minutes in length, will be posted unedited, Harris said.
“We’re trying to reach as many people as possible,” Harris said of the change.
The change seemed to go over fine with incumbents, regardless of party.
“I have no problem with the process,” said Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston. “Times are changing, and they’re just trying to innovate.”
Boyd said Monday that she’d already recorded an interview with the chamber. Attempts to reach her Republican opponent, Anniston resident James Allen Lloyd, were unsuccessful Monday.
The Alexandria Civitan Club still plans to hold an in-person candidate forum in mid-October, said Chris Page, an organizer for the group. The group’s 2014 general election debate proved lively, with audience members pointedly asking local candidates their stance regarding criminal charges against then-House Speaker Mike Hubbard and grilling one candidate on her property taxes.
“We’ve kind of got a reputation,” Page said. “They get pretty riled up.”
State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the incumbent in District 12, said he’d be willing to participate in the Alexandria debate — provided it fits into his campaign schedule.
“No one’s called me about it yet,” he said.