In race for executive, Smith declines Riley's proposal for televised debates


James T. Smith Jr., the Democratic nominee for Baltimore County executive, has rejected a series of televised debates proposed by his Republican opponent, Douglas B. Riley, saying his schedule will not permit it.

Smith's campaign manager, Michael P. Smith, said the candidates will have debated a dozen times in community forums before the election in November. Adding the three hour-long debates Riley proposed would not be feasible, he said.

But Riley said that the community forums can't properly be called debates: They have not been one-on-one, and they have not provided an opportunity for extended discussion about the candidates' ideas.

"They give us very little time or no time to both present our views or our ideas or vision, and also to point out why our opponents' views are inconsistent with what the citizenry would really want," Riley said. "They're not actually debates. ... They're truly just joint appearances."

He said he believes he and Smith disagree on a number of issues, such as county spending priorities and the future of residential development. Voters deserve to hear those differences aired, he added.

Riley wrote to Smith on Sept. 20 suggesting that they write a joint letter to Comcast, the county's cable provider, requesting three one-hour slots in prime time. He proposed enlisting the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the Community College of Baltimore County or similar organizations as sponsors, with the format to be worked out by the two campaigns.

"Jim Smith's refusal to discuss the issues indicates the behind-closed-doors manner Jim Smith plans to use if he is elected," Riley said. "The voters deserve candidates who will let the sun shine in and engage in debate."

Michael Smith said it doesn't matter to him whether the debates are televised - it's impossible to fit more such events into the schedule. He said the charge that Smith is avoiding debates is ridiculous: "I don't know of any election anywhere in the state of Maryland that's going to have more than 12 debates."

In 1994, when C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger challenged County Executive Roger B. Hayden, the two men met three times in debates or forums. In 1998, when John J. Bishop challenged Ruppersberger, they met twice.

Hayden said one of his debates with Ruppersberger was taped and televised on Comcast, and when he ran against Dennis F. Rasmussen in 1990, one of their debates was aired live on a network. Hayden said that after the broadcasts he heard from many voters who appreciated the chance to see the candidates in action.

"That's too bad" that Smith and Riley won't debate on television, Hayden said. "That would have been a real shot for people to see them one-on-one."

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