Behind the Scenes of a Gubernatorial Debate

The Oregon Association of Broadcasters hosted a gubernatorial debate that revealed sharp differences between incumbent Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber and his Republican challenger Dennis Richardson.

The Oregon Association of Broadcasters hosted a gubernatorial debate that revealed sharp differences between incumbent Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber and his Republican challenger Dennis Richardson.

Hosting a live political debate starts with convincing candidates to attend and extends through coordinating the format and posing provocative questions. Over the past few weeks, CFM had the opportunity to assist the Oregon Association of Broadcasters (OAB) organize and stage the September 26 gubernatorial debate in Sunriver.

There were numerous conference calls and lots of personal persuasion that resulted in the debate, which sparked sharp exchanges and defined significant differences between Governor John Kitzhaber, seeking an unprecedented fourth term, and his GOP challenger Dennis Richardson, a state legislator from Central Point.

CFM staff researched previous political debates to discover what formats worked best and made recommendations to OAB and the Kitzhaber and Richardson campaigns. They worked closely to ensure everyone involved was comfortable with the process and the program to avoid any awkward last-minute back-outs.

Special attention was given to what questions were asked. CFM staffers took the view that questions should reflect what Oregonians want to know from candidates. They aided OAB in canvassing broadcasters statewide for the most pertinent and sharp-edged questions. Working with debate moderator Matt McDonald of KTVZ, they winnowed more than 90 questions submitted by broadcasters to the ones actually asked of the candidates.

The debate started with a haymaker, "How would each candidate assure Oregonians that your administration will operate in an ethical manner?" The question arose from recent controversial allegations around in-kind contributions received by both campaigns that may violate election reporting law.

Richardson lambasted Kitzhaber for allowing one of his transportation advisers to receive $500,000 in consulting fees from an engineering firm working on the Columbia River Crossing. Kitzhaber snapped back with an implication that Richardson may have a problem with powerful women.

As the debate proceeded, Kitzhaber's emphasized his accomplishments, including helping Oregon pull out of the recession and expanding access to health care. Richardson focused on the controversies surrounding Kitzhaber's term in office, including the Cover Oregon website debacle. 

Kitzhaber and Richardson further disagreed over additional cuts to PERS benefits and support for Measure 88, which would allow driver's cards for individuals without proof of legal residency.

More than 250 radio and television stations carried the debate to every corner of Oregon. It also was broadcast nationally on C-SPAN.