Debate is one of the cornerstones of a healthy democracy. And in a time when many people are fretting over the state of our democracy, robust debate is even more important. That's why we're disappointed that Gov. Wolf has agreed to only one debate with his rival for office, former state Sen. Scott Wagner. Even more disappointing: the single debate he's agreed to will cost $300 a ticket for members of the public.
The election is less than 70 days away, when voters in Pennsylvania must decide to give Wolf, a Democrat, another four years or hand the keys to the governor's mansion to Wagner, a Republican. According to multiple independent polls, Wolf is holding a strong lead — averaging 15.5 points.
The Wagner campaign claims that they invited Wolf to debate multiple times — including a call for 67 debates – one in each county in Pennsylvania. The Wolf campaign called the invitation a gimmick.
Speaking of gimmicks, the single debate currently confirmed by both campaigns will feature Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek as moderator and last just 45 minutes. It will serve as the entertainment for the Pa. Chamber of Business and Industry's Annual Dinner. Members will pay $275; non-members, $300 ticket. The questions will focus on "topic that are critical to Pennsylvania businesses." The chamber says that the 45 minutes will be aired on Pennsylvania Cable Network and perhaps other outlets.
According to Wolf's campaign, the debate will be the only one that the governor will participate in. They've offered no concrete reason for sticking to a single event. That means that if you want to hear candidates' views on education, healthcare, the response to the opioid epidemic, immigration, criminal justice, or any of the critical issues facing the state, you are out of luck. You'll have to be content with television ads, campaign literature, and media coverage.
This is a clear break from tradition. In 2014, Wolf debated incumbent Tom Corbett three times, calling the debates "a great democratic exercise." Three debates is the standard in recent Pa. gubernatorial race history.
Wolf's decision might be electorally savvy. According to polling experts, incumbents who are in the lead are unlikely to gain votes from a debate. For Wolf, the race is about maintaining his lead and not about increasing it.
But Election Day is more than a day in which votes are counted. Election Day is the culmination of a democratic process. Inherent to the process are deliberation and public participation. A debate between candidates, in which the people can ask their questions, is the epitome of a participatory democracy.
Voters deserve to be informed about candidates before they go to the polls. That is why we are inviting both Gov. Wolf and Mr. Wagner to a "people's debate" hosted by the Philadelphia Inquirer. We will communicate with both campaigns and organize the actual event. We will solicit questions from the public so that the agenda is set by voters. We will ensure that the event is free, and make it available for anyone to watch in some manner.