In 2002, the civic journalism project "We the People" sponsored a debate in the general election race for Wisconsin governor. Four candidates took part: Democrat Jim Doyle, Republican Scott McCallum, Independent Ed Thompson, and Green Party candidate Jim Young. It was a lively and enlightening exchange.
This year, "We the People" is hosting two gubernatorial debates, Sept. 15 in Waukesha and Oct. 20 in La Crosse, dealing with economic and social issues, respectively. But only the two major-party candidates - Doyle and Republican Mark Green - are invited. And that angers Nelson Eisman, the Green Party contender.
"It is ironic how Wisconsin honors the progressive politics of Fighting Bob La Follette, but forgets he formed a third party to accomplish a new politics," says Eisman, a former Dane County supervisor and union activist. He sees himself in a similar fight "against the corrupt influence of corporate-funded politicians running a government of patronage and cronyism."
Kathy Bissen of Wisconsin Public Television, one of "We the People"'s six partners (the others are Wisconsin Public Radio, WISC-TV, the Wisconsin State Journal, Wood Communications Group and WisPolitics.com), says it was decided that Eisman did not meet the criteria for inclusion. Chief among these is that a candidate attain "at least 10% support in independent polls."
In 2002, this standard was lowered to 5%, because, says Bissen, having a larger number of candidates makes it harder to poll 10%. And Young was allowed in with even less than 5%, since surveys have at least a 3% margin of error.
Eisman (see www.voteeisman.org) doesn't object to a minimal-support standard but thinks it's unfair to apply this to him, since no survey taken since he entered the race in mid-July has mentioned him by name. He says if people knew there was a Green Party contender, they might indicate this preference.
Bryce Ruddock, an Eisman supporter who lives in South Milwaukee, says he received a call from Research 2000, which conducted a recent major poll. When he said he would be voting for Eisman, as well as the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, "I was told that the only selections available were Republican, Democrat and undecided."
Says Ruddock, "It is not fair to the electorate to narrow a poll choice to three in a three-way race, as it restricts the choice of voters and their access to third-party options."
Eisman, noting that the survey was funded by WISC-TV, alleges that the survey was "rigged" by the same people who now want to exclude him from the debate. Tom Bier of WISC says he checked with the pollster and was told that what Ruddock reports should not have happened. While Research 2000 cited the names of just the two major contenders, it did list alternative choices when named by respondents. Eisman, says Bier, came in at about 1%.
The "We the People" debates may be the only chance state residents get to see the candidates for governor square off against each other. The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin has been trying to schedule its own debate, but so far has gotten a firm commitment from only one candidate: Nelson Eisman. The group is happy to have him.
"Third-party candidates raise important issues that otherwise would not be covered," says Andrea Kaminski, the group's executive director. Indeed, she says the league is troubled by "a trend toward limiting information to the people." Her group, along with Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Common Cause in Wisconsin, is urging "We the People" to include Eisman in its debate (see Document Feed at TheDailyPage.com).
Bissen says it's possible "We the People" might rethink its decision if, for example, Eisman should meet its standard in an upcoming survey. And she notes that both Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio have had Eisman on as a guest. But she says whether including more candidates makes for a better debate is, er, debatable: "The more candidates you have, the less deep you can get within a limited amount of broadcast time."
Tom Still, a founding board member of "We the People," agrees: "I think the debates over time have been more interesting when they've been most focused."
But Eisman says excluding him means excluding ideas. As he puts it, "Both [Doyle and Green] have taken thousands from the same corporate sponsors. They're not going to talk about universal health care."