The League of Women Voters of Tacoma-Pierce County has canceled an election forum in Sumner after several candidates running for mayor and City Council claimed the event would be biased.
Those candidates say they’re disappointed the forum won’t take place next week, but feel it’s the best way to avoid fueling an aggressive and divisive election.
Others say forcing the cancellation is disrespectful to voters who want their voices heard ahead of the Nov. 5 election.
Lyz Kurnitz-Thurlow, a committee chairwoman with the League who has moderated forums around Pierce County for 11 years, said she’s never had to cancel one.
She said the group didn’t want to do so but felt it had little choice after five candidates signed a letter saying they wouldn’t participate.
The letter was signed by Mayor Dave Enslow, City Council candidate Kathy Hayden, Councilman Ed Hannus and his opponent Earle Stuard, and Councilman Steve Allsop, who’s running unopposed.
It cites a negative election climate they felt wouldn’t meet the League’s standards for a fair and nonpartisan forum.
“We hope you understand this does not reflect what we think of the work you and your organization do,” they told the League in their letter. “Our decision is based on a series of recent experiences that suggest the event will simply be filled with too much hostility and bias to be productive.”
Hayden told a reporter that a September forum hosted by the Puyallup/Sumner Chamber of Commerce had a divisive atmosphere caused by supporters of mayoral candidate Nancy Dumas, who’s running against Enslow.
When Hayden learned that a Dumas supporter — former City Council candidate Melony Pederson, who lost in the primary — reached out to the League and asked it to moderate a forum, candidates were worried it would turn into a biased event, Hayden said.
“We didn’t see the value in bringing a forum when Melony Pederson and Nancy Dumas were, in our minds, putting it on,” Hayden told The News Tribune.
Dumas dismissed those claims, saying the September forum was civil but was open only to chamber members; next week’s forum was an attempt to organize a more inclusive event.
She said the authors of the letter are bullies trying to manipulate an election.
“The voters have been stripped of their voice,” Dumas said. “If (candidates) can’t stand up and take a heated question … then they have no business running for office.”
The League has hosted about a half-dozen forums around Pierce County this year. Typically, questions are written on notecards in advance and the League screens them so personal attacks are omitted.
“At times I regret how boring we have to make our forums,” Kurnitz-Thurlow said.
Still, the Sumner candidates’ letter predicted questions would be weighted to one side and that the audience would be “stacked” with their opponents’ allies.
“We have little faith there will be much room for undecided voters, nor will there be many unbiased questions,” the letter says.
Kurnitz-Thurlow said it’s unfortunate candidates forced the cancellation of an event designed to bring civility to elections.
“I wrote back and said it seems like Sumner needs us more than anybody else,” she said.