This year's candidates for Monroe County Executive haven't yet faced off in a public debate. But behind the scenes, the debate between their respective campaigns over what form those public debates will take, and how many there will be, is raging.
Democrat Bill Johnson's campaign manager, Travis Heider, says his candidate is willing to face off one-on-one against Republican challenger Maggie Brooks "anywhere, at any time," but that the Brooks camp is hesitant to commit to debates because it's reluctant to subject the candidate to a substantive discussion of the issues.
Heider says Johnson has already agreed to participate in 10 events, ranging from live network television and radio debates to political gatherings hosted by the Rochester Teachers Association, the Brighton Rotary, and others.
Furthermore, Heider says Johnson will take part in those events regardless of whether Brooks is there. Several news organizations, including NBC television affiliate Channel 10, "have expressed interest in doing the 'empty chair' thing," Heider says. "I would expect to see much of that."
The Dems have been trying to arrange debates since early April, but thus far, only one event involving both candidates seems to be set: a live, televised debate on WROC-TV Channel 8 on the evening of November 1.
Brooks' debate schedule is being handled by Monroe County Republican Chairman Stephen Minarik III. Minarik confirmed that Brooks will take part in the Channel 8 debate, and says he's "very, very confident that there'll be debates on all the major news outlets."
"I think we're in the process of trying to accomplish something at [radio station] WHAM, Channel 10, [and] the Voice of the Voter," he says. (Voice of the Voter is a collaborative effort between public radio station WXXI, the Democrat and Chronicle, and WOKR-TV Channel 13.)
However, Brooks' participation in other one-on-one events, and her appearance at debates hosted by media that Minarik considers less-than-major news outlets, is still questionable.
For example, the Rochester Teachers Association has been trying to schedule the candidates for an October 10 debate on educational issues for several weeks. "The Johnson camp has enthusiastically accepted," says John Pavone, co-chair of the association's political education committee. "The Brooks camp is keeping it under consideration and they're supposed to get back to me."
Reached shortly before City went to press, Pavone said Minarik had responded, saying he would tell Pavone whether or not Brooks will attend on or before June 27.
That's more of a response than Josh Bryant, news director for SUNY Brockport's radio station (WBSU 89.1 FM) has received, or likely will receive from Minarik.
Bryant has been trying to get the candidates together for an October 1 debate that would be open to all media and broadcast live on WBSU. (WBSU has a broadcast range of 50 miles, so roughly 500,000 people could potentially tune in, Bryant says. He adds that listenership in Brockport, Spencerport, and other areas in the county's northwest quadrant is especially high "because the Rochester [stations] get interference way out here.")
When the station's news department initially contacted the campaigns in mid-May, "the Democrats were all for it," Bryant says. "They jumped on this and called us back."
By contrast, Bryant says repeated efforts to reach Minarik have proven futile. "I've been calling Steve on and off for a couple weeks straight," he says. "I get his secretary and his secretary just kind of pushes it off. She's just kind of like, 'Oh, you have called. I gave him the message and he'll get in touch with you.' Every time it's been like that."
On June 18, Bryant said the secretary finally informed him that his request had been forwarded to Brooks' campaign committee, but that they hadn't yet made a decision.
"Frankly, the Brockport radio station kind of falls down on the list of places to start with debates," Minarik says, referring to television network affiliates that have also expressed interest. "And actually, if the attitude of the people who've been calling from Brockport were better, we'd probably have a debate set up with them, too. The attitude's a little much over there."
Minarik didn't elaborate, but Bryant says he's been "trying to put some heat under the Republicans" by telling them that Johnson has agreed to the debate, and that the event will take place whether Brooks appears or not.
Minarik says that while he respects WBSU, "some news outlets have better relationships than others." Channel 8's debate "was the easiest one to get straightened out, because all the questions were answered," he says. "I think Channel 8's at the forefront of that, and that's why there's a debate agreed to."
Bryant has his own questions, such as why Brooks wouldn't be particularly interested in participating in the student station's debate. "She used to be in news and she used to be on TV and radio," he says, "so I would have thought she would have supported our causes and worked with us."
Brooks worked for WHAM for three years, and as a reporter and anchorwoman at Channel 10 for 14 years, before she was fired in 1994. At the time, she told the Times Union that the station's management was dissatisfied with her on-air performance, an assessment she called "really strange," because management "always indicated I was doing a good job, and public feedback seemed to support that."