Republican Walter Zenkin’s decision to withdraw from a debate in Bedford with his Democratic opponent, Ken Gordon, is generating sparks in their race for the open 21st Middlesex seat in the state House of Representatives.
Zenkin, of Burlington, and Gordon, of Bedford, were set to meet last Tuesday in a debate organized by Bedford’s League of Women Voters at the Lane Elelmentary School.
But Zenkin withdrew from the event, citing a conflict of interest because the league member helping plan the debate, Joan Bowen, is married to Gordon’s campaign treasurer, Richard Bowen. As a result, the debate was canceled.
Zenkin, a Burlington selectman, and Gordon, a lawyer, are vying to succeed retiring Democratic incumbent Charles Murphy in the district that includes Bedford, Burlington, and part of Wilmington.
In a statement, Zenkin’s campaign said that while it regards the League of Women Voters as a “noble institution with a rich history rooted in the women’s suffrage movement, this is a brazen conflict of interest.
“It is our belief that the organizer should have recused herself from her role due to a conflict of interest, or at the very least, disclosed her relation to our opponent’s campaign,” the Zenkin campaign said. “Based on our experience in dealing with the event’s organizer, we determined that this event would do little to present interested voters with the genuine discourse they deserve.”
But Gordon, in a statement release by his campaign, called on Zenkin “to honor his previous commitment to appear at the only debate between the candidates scheduled for Bedford.”
The Gordon campaign quoted Bowen as denying any conflict and noting that her involvement in the debate was limited to “arranging the time, place, and date of the event and inviting the speakers.”
In an interview, Bowen confirmed that she does not believe she was in any conflict of interest “and according to league policy, I am not.”
When the Zenkin campaign raised the issue with her, she said she pointed out that it was her husband, and not she, who is involved in the Gordon campaign.
“I went on to explain that my role was to pull the parties together so that there could be a debate. Given the way we set up the debate, I would not have had any influence over what questions were asked, because that is all in the hands of the moderator,” Bowen said, referring to Betsey Anderson, who is also Bedford’s town moderator.
The Gordon campaign said that Zenkin’s campaign was “unwilling to reconsider its refusal to attend the debate even after the Bedford Chamber of Commerce offered to take over sponsorship.”
Adam Senesi, Zenkin’s campaign manager, said by the time the chamber stepped forward to take over the debate, Zenkin already had made other commitments for Tuesday night.
Senesi said he also was disturbed by the tone of an e-mail in which Pamela Brown, the chamber’s board chairwoman, called the Zenkin campaign “childish” in not agreeing to take part in the League of Women Voters debate.
Based on that comment, “I really didn’t get a feeling that we would get a fair shake from her either,” Senesi said. “Brown could not be immediately reached for comment.
To date, the candidates have had four debates — three in Burlington and one at a newspaper office in Lowell — with a fifth scheduled in Wilmington on Monday. But Gordon in his campaign’s statement voiced disappointment at the cancellation of Tuesday’s event.
“The matter is one of frustration not for me but for the voters of Bedford, Burlington, and Wilmington,” he said. “I was looking forward to an opportunity to appear before the voters directly, respond to their concerns, and do it in a way that would allow them to compare the approaches that would be taken by both candidates. . . . It is a lost opportunity and one that it appears we will not get back.”
Sinesi said Zenkin’s camp remains open to taking part in a Bedford debate, and that he has had discussions with a Bedford Citizen editor, Jule McCay Turner, about the all-volunteer website helping organize one. But Turner later advised him the group would not be able to participate because Joan Bowen is president of its board of advisers.
Turner said that she and her fellow editors decided that “If Joan was an issue in all these other debate refusals, it wouldn’t be pointful for us to get involved in that conversation.
“It’s just sad that it doesn’t seem that Bedford will have a live face-to-face debate in our town.”
The 21st Middlesex debate was part of a planned forum that was also to feature a debate in the race for state Senate in the 3d Middlesex District. In a press relsease issued by Bowen, the league said the forum was canceled because of Zenkin’s decision and because a Senate candidate – Chelmsford Republican Sandi Martinez — had not confirmed she would particpate.
“Without their participation, the LWV cannot provide voters with the opportunity to hear the positions” of candidates in the two races, the league said. “Participation of all candidates is fundamental to our objective of providing voters with the information to inform their decisions at the ballot box.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.