An independent distraction
Student Council should not have included Clark in Monday’s debate at the expense of losing Hurt
Student Council hosted a debate Monday between Democratic incumbent Rep. Tom Perriello and independent Tea Party candidate Jeffrey Clark. Noticeably absent was Republican state Sen. Robert Hurt. Hurt's campaign manager, Sean Harrison, publicly stated months ago that Robert Hurt would be willing to debate Perriello "one on one, any time, any place." The obvious implication was made clear to all applicable organizations, from the Sorensen Institute to the League of Women Voters to the University's Student Council: Hurt would not debate Clark. In my opinion, this campaign policy was made for a number of well-thought-out reasons. I would be downright dishonest if I ignored the campaign calculus stemming from the fact that nearly all of Clark's supporters favor Hurt over Perriello. It is true that the self-declared Tea Party independent candidate draws nearly all of his support from Hurt's "Right Flank," so to speak. But a much more compelling reason for refusing to debate the independent is that Clark is a distraction, especially this late in the game. Hurt already won the contentious seven-way Republican primary in June, which - by my own count - had a minimum of four far-right Tea Party candidates: Ron Ferrin, Mike McPadden, Jim McKelvey, and Feda Morton. That was the right time for third-party views. A week before the election in a two-party system like ours, an independent polling at far below 10 percent is, for better or worse, an inconsequential voice as far as the election is concerned. Including such a voice in a debate now only takes time away from deciding who the better candidate is of those with a chance at victory. This leads to the question of why Clark was included in the debate in the first place, if it meant losing a major candidate in Hurt.
The simple answer is that we can blame the University's lawyers. When Council's Legislative Affairs Committee was planning the debate, the staff litigators at the University advised the Committee that they were required to invite the independent candidate to the debate. The explanation given was that the University could be legally liable if it excluded someone who is on the ballot. This was and is - for lack of a better word - bogus. From a constitutional standpoint, the First Amendment gives Clark the right to speak, but it does not force others to listen nor does it make them give him a podium. Indeed, the policies of the League of Women Voters show quite clearly that there is no legal liability if a standard measure of "Candidate Significance" is set in place in this situation. The accepted standard LWV promotes is that one must be polling at a minimum of 10-15 percent to be considered for an invitation to debates. Clark, who is polling at 1-4 percent depending on your poll du jour, does not even come close to this standard. Furthermore, the University's Sorensen Institute successfully hosted a debate Oct. 21 in Danville, Virginia, between only the two "significant candidates," as has every other host organization during the general election. If the Sorensen Institute here at the University can host an exclusive debate, then there is nothing logically stopping Council from doing the same. Clearly the University lawyers did not give the best advice to the Legislative Affairs Committee.
As much as I love to rail against lawyers, I cannot give them all the credit. The Legislative Affairs Committee is not an innocent victim in all this. Knowing where everyone stood weeks ahead of time, the Committee decided to continue to plan and execute a partisan event at our University with the University footing the bill. Council put on a debate that only advances the interests of Perriello at the expense of the voters. Instead of changing the format to be more inclusive or canceling the event altogether, Council gave only the Democrat a podium from which to preach. The participation of independent candidate Clark may have brought a right-of-center perspective to the event, but it did not provide a second side to the discussion as far as the election, the reason for holding the debate, is concerned. As previously stated, it is a point of fact that any limited gains that Clark will get through participation in the debate will directly harm the election chances of Hurt by sapping votes from his candidacy. No matter how you slice it, this event uses a façade of non-partisanship to aid only Perriello. Although many may not mind their tuition and tax dollars going to what amounts to a candidate's rally, I do. The biased political effect of this event, purposeful or accidental, could have easily been avoided.
Joel Taubman is a second-year Engineering student.