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A cowardly political strategy in Rhode Island

Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

There are a few justifiable reasons for skipping radio or television debates when you’re a candidate for statewide office in Rhode Island.

Maybe one of your opponents is a certifiable Looney Tune who only wants to be on stage to spread wild conspiracy theories about aliens in Westerly. Or maybe you just got a root canal and it would be impossible to say Woonsocket without sounding like a Looney Tune.

But Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos and state treasurer candidate James Diossa both have beautiful smiles, and their opponents in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary are not cartoon characters. They’re thoughtful, credible candidates with real chances to win.

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Which is why it makes zero sense that Matos is refusing to participate in lieutenant governor candidate debates hosted by radio station WPRO-AM and on TV with WJAR Channel 10, and Diossa is blowing off a WPRO radio debate.

Most Rhode Island voters have no clue who we are, but we’re paying consultants a lot of money to give us bad advice, so we’ll follow their playbooks.

Matos and Diossa have been political up-and-comers for more than a decade now, but neither has won more than few thousand votes in any one Democratic primary. Matos was appointed, not elected, lieutenant governor when Dan McKee became governor, and before that she was a councilwoman in Providence. Diossa was mayor of Central Falls, the tiniest city in Rhode Island.

Yet they’re acting like they’re too important to take part in a tradition that most candidates can’t get enough of. There are thousands of voters who still haven’t made up their mind about who they’re voting for in the governor’s race, let alone the down-ticket races.

And these aren’t B-level jobs we’re talking about.

We sometimes joke that the lieutenant governor is a do-nothing job, but it can become a do-everything job in a hurry. Just ask Dan McKee, who was forced to make the jump from lieutenant governor to governor last March when Gina Raimondo was confirmed as US commerce secretary.

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McKee handpicked Matos to be lieutenant governor, but now she’s running for a full term against state Senator Cynthia Mendes and state Representative Deb Ruggiero in the Democratic primary. The winner will take on the winner of the Republican primary between Aaron Guckian and Paul Pence.

Matos held her own in a Channel 12 debate, but she declined the radio debate hosted by Bill Bartholomew and the Channel 10 debate hosted by Gene Valicenti.

“Sabina has an active schedule as lieutenant governor and we unfortunately were unable to schedule additional debates,” said Mike Raia, a campaign spokesman.

The rest of his statement included a bunch of lovely accomplishments Matos has had, but if she’s going to skip debates, I’m going to skip the fluffery and tell you what really happened.

Matos’s advisors don’t think a radio interview is the best fit for her – especially since Ruggiero worked in radio for years – and they’re loyal to Channel 12, where moderators Tim White and Ted Nesi do a bang-up job.

So they’re going to keep Matos mostly hidden, and hope voters don’t notice.

The treasurer’s job is probably even more important the lieutenant governor’s job, so long as the governor doesn’t die in office, go to prison, or fly off to Washington. At the very least, it’s a political launching pad.

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The current treasurer, Seth Magaziner, is now running for Congress. The previous treasurer was Raimondo, who became governor and is now one of the most respected members of Biden’s cabinet. The treasurer before her was Frank Caprio, who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010.

Diossa is taking on former commerce secretary Stefan Pryor in the Democratic primary, and the winner will face a serious challenge from Republican James Lathrop in the general election.

Diossa agreed to participate in two televised debates, which includes one he already did on Channel 12. He wasn’t great in that debate, but he didn’t exactly fall on his face, either.

At least Diossa has agreed to two televised debates and a Latino Public Radio debate with his Democratic primary opponent, former commerce secretary Stefan Pryor. The winner will take on Republican James Lathrop in the general election.

But Diossa is skipping the radio forum hosted by Bartholomew, a down-the-middle news guy who is more than capable of holding a thoughtful discussion about the treasurer’s role.

“Our campaign is already committed to three debates, and with six weeks left until the primary, we are prioritizing much of the rest of James’ time to be with voters,” said spokeswoman Alisha Pina, who never would have accepted such a tired statement during her excellent career as a reporter at The Providence Journal.

I’m all for knocking on doors, too, but Matos and Diossa have more than enough time to get out the vote and participate in the debates. It’s especially sad when you have other candidates running for higher office who are begging to be allowed on the debate stage, like long-shot Democratic gubernatorial candidate Luis Daniel Muñoz.

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If we let Matos and Diossa off the hook now, what’s to stop them from refusing to debate their lesser-known Republican opponents in the general election?

This isn’t about time and resources. It’s about strategy. And it’s the cowardly way out.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.