Candidates clash over debates
BENNINGTON — A common feature of hotly contested campaigns — a debate over debates — has taken hold in the race for Bennington County State's Attorney.
The challenger, attorney Arnold Gottlieb, of Dorset, has been critical of incumbent Erica Marthage for not agreeing, as he has, to participate in election events offered by groups or organizations.
Marthage, in turn, contends that at least two of the groups involved "clearly" support Gottlieb's campaign, and says her proposal for a one-on-one debate with a neutral media moderator has gone unanswered.
In a recent letter to the Bennington Banner, Gottlieb said in part: "To date, the current state's attorney has not been willing to engage in a debate or forum on the most important issues that have surfaced in this race: The rate of incarceration in Bennington County, the feasibility of a drug court and whether the length of time the candidates have resided in the area is important."
Among candidate events he said Marthage has turned down, Gottlieb mentioned forums sponsored by MoveOn Manchester and by Rights and Democracy of Bennington, both of which have or will proceed with a question and answer sessions with only the challenger attending.
The MoveOn event is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 8 at 6 p.m. at Burr and Burton Academy.
Marthage said this week that those two groups "are clearly supporting him," and she wants instead to have a debate organized or hosted by a media organization, such as a local cable television network show or New England Newspapers Inc., owners of the Bennington Banner and the Manchester Journal.
Gottlieb's campaign manager, Jim Vires, Marthage noted, has been active in the RAD organization.
Vires said Wednesday, "I was deeply involved with RAD and efforts to reintroduce a drug court to Bennington County. I started distancing myself from the group locally over internal politics. When the chance was presented to work with Arnie, I severed all ties to RAD and set up a firewall between us."
He added, "We did present to the group [RAD] and we did get an endorsement. A forum never materialized."
"I went out of my way to create a neutral approach to this race and our organization's sponsorship of candidate events," said Jonathan Fine, of MoveOn Manchester. "We scheduled our first event with Mr. Gottlieb because he came knocking at my door, and that's when I began to think of what we could do, as an organization, to bring attention to this important race."
Fine said talks then began to bring both candidates together for an event, but instead question and answer sessions were held separately for each candidate, and now a second such event is scheduled with Gottlieb.
"We went back and forth for several weeks, but ultimately the Marthage campaign decided not to participate," Fine said.
Marthage contends that the forum venues or formats proposed by the two organizations for both candidates would likely have favored her opponent. But she welcomes a face-to-face debate with a neutral moderator, which Marthage believes would highlight her experience as a prosecutor and knowledge of the Vermont legal system versus that of her opponent, who practice law in Ohio before moving to Dorset four years ago.
Her husband and campaign manager, attorney Brian Marthage, said Wednesday in an email, "Erica's position is and remains that we want a debate moderated by a neutral third party. We were looking to have it televised so that it would reach more people — the MoveOn-sponsored events held by Mr. Gottlieb and Erica did not draw any more than 15 people. At this time, Arnie Gottlieb is refusing to debate."
Gottlieb countered Wednesday that he believes Marthage at first made a "calculated decision" not to appear on a stage with a newcomer so as not to provide him with a platform.
But now that he has made headway with voters around the county, Gottlieb said, "I think she has begun to feel the heat; now she is scrambling to put something [a debate] together."
He added, "I feel I have made myself available for any format. I don't think her urgency is my problem."
The challenger did not rule out a debate, however, while saying he already is committed to the MoveOn forum and one other with the primary date less than two weeks away.
Timing now an issue
A problem with scheduling any debate at this point could be timing, as the two Democrats are facing off in the Aug. 14 primary, which is expected to decide who will be the county's top prosecutor for the next four years.
Andrew McKeever, a news program host at GNAT-TV in Manchester, said he has had discussions with both campaigns but finally left all decisions about a format to them. He hasn't heard back, he said this week, noting that a debate would have to be scheduled soon.
While Marthage said she would participate in a debate on GNAT-TV moderated by McKeever, Gottlieb and Vires said the campaign would decline because McKeever seemed to show favoritism during past individual interviews with the two candidates.
"Both Arnie and I had concerns about neutrality after the first interviews they did," Vires said.
McKeever said that the offer to have GNAT host or record a debate "is still on the table. And I don't need to be the moderator. Someone else could fill that role, and GNAT would still play its role by broadcasting the conversation."
According to Greg Sukiennik, Vermont managing editor for New England Newspapers Inc., "The Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal would be happy to participate in a debate that allows voters to hear the candidates' positions on the issues in the Bennington County State's Attorney race."
The race has been a contentious one, with both candidates generating visible support in the form of lawn signs and letters to the editor.
Gottlieb contends the three-term incumbent is running her office with an outdated philosophy of trying to be "tough on crime," leading to overcharging of those arrest and high incarceration rates for county residents both before and after their trials.
Marthage contends Gottlieb is citing inaccurate statistics about those facing trial in Bennington and about the numbers in prison after being convicted.
And she contends his lack of experience as a prosecutor and the fact he hasn't lived in Vermont for many years would present serious obstacles to efficiently managing the office.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: email@example.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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