No political candidate should be able to limit which questions are asked at a public debate — but that’s what US Representative John F. Tierney maneuvered to do in his first face-off with Republican challenger Richard Tisei.
Tierney’s campaign told organizers the incumbent Democrat wouldn’t participate in the debate if it included a Q & A session between the candidates, at least partly because he wanted to avoid questions about an offshore gambling operation run by his wife’s brothers. Tierney’s wife, Patrice, was convicted of helping one of her brothers avoid taxes.
Hosted by MassINC’s CommonWealth Magazine — and scheduled for Thursday afternoon — the debate’s focus was set by the organizers. Tierney, Tisei, and Libertarian Daniel Fishman all signed on to debate the “American Dream,” with special emphasis on jobs, the economy, and the middle class.
However, according to a note posted this weekon CommonWealth’s website, this is what followed: “Tierney’s camp objected to a section that had candidates asking each other questions, apparently fearing that Tisei would focus on the Tierney family issues. CommonWealth told Tierney’s campaign that the focus of the debate was the American Dream. Tisei told CommonWealth’s editor that he had no plans to bring up the legal issues surrounding Tierney’s wife and his in-laws at the debate. Nevertheless, Tierney’s camp insisted that the congressman would withdraw unless the candidate-to-candidate questions were removed.” The plan for a Q & A was then dropped.
Stung by the fallout, Tierney is now asking organizers to make their first question about family. But that condition is as inappropriate as Tierney’s previous condition. Why should a candidate get to decide what is asked and when? That allows a rehearsed answer to an uncomfortable query that is then off-limits for the rest of the debate.
Tierney’s campaign told organizers he wouldn’t participate in the debate if it included a Q & A session between the candidates.
Debates are important because they offer something rare in today’s world of over-packaged political campaigns: a chance for voters to take the measure of a candidate, minus the spin of campaign staging or the distortion of negative advertising.
Tierney was not implicated in any wrongdoing connected with the gambling ring, and has already answered many questions about it. But especially in view of his recent decision to release his tax forms — amid legitimate questions about whether he and his wife should have reported cash gifts from her brother — Tierney shouldn’t be able to duck the subject.