Why Oz isn't in the debate

The Day and WTNH, our TV partner for Wednesday’s gubernatorial debate at the Garde Arts Center in New London, are facing plenty of criticism for having only two candidates on stage: Republican Bob Stefanowski and Democrat Ned Lamont.

By far the most complaints center on our failure to include R. Nelson “Oz” Griebel, a former Republican now running as an independent. If you are of the opinion that all on the ballot should get in the debate, then criticize away.

But if you think Griebel is being treated unfairly, I have to disagree. The sputtering start to his campaign is the reason he won’t be on that stage.

When I undertook the task of trying to get one of the debates for governor here in southeastern Connecticut at the Garde, I went in search of a TV partner. TV reaches a statewide audience and the interest of the candidates.

WTNH, which has no affiliation with the newspaper but has an office in our building, stepped up. For those who can’t see the debate live — and I would urge you to attend if you can, it’s an interesting experience — it will be available from 7 to 8 p.m. on WTNH’s sister station TV9, as well as on the WTNH and theday.com websites. It will be a good one, with just the right amount of tension.

WTNH’s parent company, Nexstar Broadcasting, has established standards for candidates to qualify for the debates sponsored by their stations, including getting at least a 10 percent showing in a “professionally conducted nonpartisan poll.”

The Day agreed to live with that standard. Four years ago, when our partners were Connecticut Public Television and NPR, the requirement was set at 8 percent. Then independent candidate Joe Visconti scored a 9 percent in the Quinnipiac University poll and appeared on the Garde stage with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the Democratic incumbent, and Republican challenger Tom Foley.

No other debate included Visconti. So these claims that The Day caters only to the major parties are nonsense.

In the latest Quinnipiac poll Griebel scored 4 percent, a dismal showing. If he received the 9 percent number Visconti showed in 2014, I’m sure we could have talked. With 4 percent, how could we justify including Griebel without also opening the debate to Libertarian Rod Hanscomb and to Mark Stewart Greenstein of the Amigo Constitution Liberty Party? They got enough signatures to get on the ballot too.

Is that what voters want? A five-person “debate” in which, face it, a couple folks have no chance of winning the election? It would create a situation in which everyone gets a couple of questions and the public learns little.

Better, we felt, to set some standard for participation.

And Griebel and his running mate, Monte Frank, could have gotten there.

My Jan. 7 column was headlined, “For Oz & Monte, it comes down to money.” In it, I said their independent candidacy and great slogan — “No Parties. No politics. Just Solutions.” — could prove very popular at a time when many are fed up with the traditional two parties.

I also noted that “Griebel and Frank will have to raise money in the traditional way, by finding donors to invest in their campaign.”

I wish it weren’t so. It would be great if people made their decisions by poring over news articles and visiting candidate websites. But the reality is it takes advertising to get your message out. If Griebel and Frank could have invested in even a modest ad campaign, making their case as the alternative picks, they’d have their 10 percent and Griebel would be participating.

It is not as if these guys don’t have friends with money. Griebel is the former president of the Bank of Boston Connecticut and long served as chief executive officer of the MetroHartford Alliance, a regional chamber of commerce. Frank is the past president of the Connecticut Bar Association. But apparently they couldn’t get that crowd excited about their prospects.

Their latest state financial filing shows receipts of $220,660, which is not much.

So blame us if you will, Oz fans. But blame him, too, for not generating the early excitement in his campaign. And maybe yourselves, too, for not helping out the cause.

But if you’re still interested in attending, tickets are available at the Garde box office. Admission is free.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor. 

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