Filling half the auditorium seating at the downtown library, Akron voters were served two empty chairs on stage at a candidates’ forum Tuesday night, all because of a federal campaign rule and the decision of Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan not to attend.
The forum was open to any candidate running for an at-large seat on city council or the mayor’s office. The League of Women Voters of the Akron Area announced the event on March 23.
But it wasn’t until Monday afternoon that the nonpartisan election advocacy group informed Republican mayoral candidate Josh Sines that he would have to sit in the audience. The League’s state policy prohibits “unopposed candidates” from getting facetime at forums, which could be interpreted by the federal tax and election rules as a campaign contribution, the local chapter explained.
So, Sines stayed away, not knowing that his absence throughout the evening would be marked by an empty chair on stage behind his name on a placard at the end of a row of other candidates. He was announced to the audience as simply not attending.
Had he been let on stage, he would have sat beside the Rev. Greg Harrison, a pastor and retired police officer who was told to get off the stage after two minutes of opening remarks because his opponent — incumbent Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan — was absent.
Horrigan notified the League of Women Voters March 25 that he would be in Columbus on the night of the Akron forum to testify on a state bill to save two nuclear plants in Ohio. “Ultimately, a different decision was reached on when the mayor will testify on the bill, so he didn’t end up traveling to Columbus yesterday,” city spokeswoman Ellen Lander Nischt said Wednesday of the mayor’s official itinerary.
"Neither Mayor Horrigan nor the campaign was aware that the Mayor's unavailability on that date could impact the ability of any other candidate to participate," said Horrigan's campaign manager, Sarah Yuronka. "Mayor Horrigan had no knowledge or control over the League of Women Voters' rules or policies related to how they conduct their forums."
Ron Ponder, a local radio voice, read a statement Horrigan provided, then a script that explained the empty chairs at the other end of the stage.
“Now, federal law defines a debate — and I didn’t know this, but Jackie (Derrow) from the League of Women voters showed me this — federal law defines a debate as more than one candidate,” Ponder told the audience. “I’ve moderated debates where one didn’t want to show up, so we had an empty chair on the stage. I didn’t know that was not permitted.”
"It could be interpreted as a contribution to that candidate and jeopardize the league’s 501c3 status and nonpartisan reputation. In the absence of further clarification at the state level (of the League of Women Voters) we are following federal law,” Ponder read.
Following that, Harrison was given two minutes. He said policies have “benefited the rich but not the everyday citizens. I’m running for mayor because it’s time to change. It’s time to get back to serving people.”
He spoke of the master plan created after the city’s botched snow plowing efforts this past winter and questioned whether the response from elected leaders would have been so robust had only poor and minority people been stuck in their driveways.
“Now this is not in my script, but I got to say this,” Ponder said before moving along to the one Republican and six Democrats running for citywide council seats. “I gotta say this. I want to thank the League of Women Voters and all of their sponsors for their traditional historic and valuable nonpartisan support of our democracy and democratic system. I am in awe of their patriotism.”
Cynthia Blake was the only Republican council-at-large candidate to attend the forum, which drew Democrat incumbents Jeff Fusco, Linda Omobien and Veronica Sims, and Democrat challengers Ginger Baylor, Lamont Porter and sitting Ward 8 Councilwoman Marilyn Keith. Their full responses can be viewed on Facebook where a taping of the event by Socially Good TV has been posted at https://bit.ly/2PdRo8l.
The event was co-sponsored by the Akron Chapter of the NAACP, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and the Akron Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Akron area League of Women Voters President Jackie Derrow said in an email that Horrigan's campaign did not inquire about what would happen if he did not attend and she clarified that the league's definition of "unopposed candidate" meant unopposed on the primary ballot, which would have applied to Sines but not Harrison.
In his "frustration," Sines went on Facebook during the event to tag a Beacon Journal reporter in a post criticizing how he was treated.
“So after busting my a** these last couple months to give the people of Akron a "Real Choice" for the Mayor of Akron, I need to get something out there!” he wrote. “I have been removed from tonight's Candidate's Forum by the League of Women Voters of the Akron Area.
“Why you might ask? Well even though I'm on the ballot, I'm not a candidate to them,” he said.
Reach Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org.