A scheduled 31st Assembly District candidate debate was scrapped early Wednesday after the threat of legal action by Caruthers Democrat Ted Miller if he was excluded from the event, and the refusal of Kingsburg Democrat Joaquin Arambula to share a stage with Miller.
A short time later, however, Arambula changed course. Citing his Fresno roots, Arambula quoted former Fresno State football coach Pat Hill’s famed mantra – “anybody, anytime, anywhere.”
“I’m ready to debate,” he said. “I’m saddened by the direction this has taken. It detracts from our ability to communicate with voters, and I want to take every opportunity to make myself available to the voters.”
Arambula and Miller are vying with Fresno Republican Clint Olivier in an April 5 special election to fill the unexpired term of Fresno Democrat Henry T. Perea, who resigned Dec. 31 to take a private-sector job. If any of the three candidates wins 50 percent of the vote plus one, they will immediately be seated in the state Assembly. If not, there will be a June 7 runoff. That day also marks the primary election for a full two-year term in the same 31st Assembly seat.
As part of the campaign, a series of candidate debates have been scheduled. Several, however, were only slated to include Arambula and Olivier.
The Maddy Institute debate – co-sponsored by The Bee, ABC30 (KFSN Channel 30.1), Univision and KMJ (580 AM/105.9 FM) – was set to include Arambula and Olivier, but not Miller. The event was to be taped Friday and later aired on ABC 30 and Univision Channel 21. It was also to be broadcast on radio station KMJ.
Maddy Institute officials cited Federal Communications Commission debate rules and sought a legal opinion in determining the debate participants. Among the conclusions was while Arambula and Olivier have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars – one sign of a viable campaign – Miller has raised no significant money.
But Wednesday, Mark Keppler, a Fresno State professor and executive director of The Maddy Institute, announced the debate was canceled because Miller “has demanded that he be included in the forum. Dr. Arambula’s campaign, however, has stated they will not participate if Mr. Miller is included. … Since we are unwilling to have a forum without Dr. Arambula, we have decided to cancel this forum.”
Keppler said Miller on Tuesday threatened to sue The Maddy Institute if he was excluded from the debate. Keppler explained the situation to the institute’s executive committee, and the decision was made to cancel the forum.
Miller said he never explicitly threatened to file a lawsuit.
In an email, Miller said in a Tuesday phone conversation, Keppler again told Miller the Maddy Institute was within its rights to exclude him from the debate.
Miller wrote that he replied: “Well, your counsel might be leading you into a lawsuit. How much per hour are you going to pay your counsel to defend you?”
“The Maddy Institute is located at Fresno State, a taxpayer funded educational institution,” Miller said in his email. “Excluding a candidate from the debate does not look very good for a taxpayer funded educational institution. Would I be willing to file a $100 suit in small-claims court to force The Maddy Institute to defend their actions? Maybe. That is what proponents did when a Green Party candidate was excluded from a debate at CSU Northridge.”
Olivier criticized Arambula during a meeting with The Bee’s editorial board, suggesting that refusing to appear with Miller was also a refusal to debate him.
“I think it’s deplorable that he won’t debate me,” Olivier said.
But Arambula said he had agreed to debate Olivier from the start. He cited five candidate debates with Olivier he had long ago publicly announced he would attend. He reiterated Wednesday that he would attend them all – even if Miller was also allowed to participate.
The debates are:
▪ March 11, Hospital Council of Northern and Central California
▪ March 15, KSEE (Channel 24.1)
▪ March 16, Fresno City College
▪ March 17, Latino Candidate Forum
▪ March 29, Black Women Organized for Political Action/Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce
Arambula said one of his frustrations was that The Maddy Institute changed the rules two days before the scheduled debate taping. Still, he said he would participate if it is rescheduled or resurrected.
“I’m ready to engage both of our opponents,” he said.