Koster camp explains pullout from debate with Larsen

Republican congressional candidate John Koster would never have agreed to a televised debate with U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen if he had known who was going to be on the panel of questioners, his spokesman said Wednesday.

Koster withdrew from the debate after learning that Herald reporter and political columnist Jerry Cornfield was one of three journalists to ask questions. The debate had been scheduled to air Thursday night.

“We didn’t feel we should waste our precious time debating in a setting that wasn’t going to be fair and balanced,” spokesman Matt Parker said. “Repeatedly to this campaign, (Cornfield’s) played gotcha with us all the time. He’s trying to make John look like an extremist. We didn’t feel that was what we needed in a debate.”

Koster and Larsen are in a tight race for the 2nd Congressional District, which covers most of Snohomish County and stretches to the Canadian border.

Koster has a list of complaints against the reporter’s coverage, said Parker, who is president of Front Porch Strategies, a political consulting firm based in Columbus, Ohio. He also is running the campaign of Ohio GOP congressional candidate Rich Iott.

One complaint is that comments were not enabled on some of Cornfield’s stories on the newspaper’s website, Heraldnet.com, Parker said. When that happens, people cannot post comments below the story.

In addition, the reporter “tried to make John sound like he was a complete radical on immigration,” Parker said. “He repeatedly ignored all the major issues of the campaign,” Parker said. He said that when The American Future Fund advertised against Rick Larsen, “he did that story slamming this out-of-state group running ads but never bothered to slam the AFL-CIO sending out pamphlets bashing John Koster.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign sent out their claims about Koster’s position on Social Security, and Cornfield didn’t ask Koster for a comment on that, Parker said.

The campaign did not contact the newspaper about what they view as bias in Cornfield’s work because “we’ve learned that we won’t win this battle in the newspaper.”

Koster did not return phone calls for this story.

The campaign has not brought up any problems with Cornfield’s coverage in the past, said Neal Pattison, executive editor of The Herald. He said the newspaper always tries to be scrupulously fair.

“A full 24 hours after Koster announced his decision about the debate, a campaign manager has presented us with this list of grievances,” Pattison said. “Any experienced candidate knows that not every story and not every issue is covered the way they might wish. Jerry Cornfield has written numerous stories and blogs and the campaign seems to be picking and choosing which ones meet their approval.

“The fact is Jerry knows the issues and he knows the candidates, and we’re puzzled why they objected to him being a panelist.”

Parker said he also was concerned because Cornfield is both a reporter and a columnist for the newspaper. “He can write whatever he wants, but he’s not exclusively a reporter and clearly not an unbiased source,” Parker said.

Enrique Cerna, who was to be the program host at public television station KCTS, said he was both surprised and disappointed by the Koster campaign’s decision.

“There’s no way we would have allowed a question that would have taken sides with anybody,” he said. “We wanted straight forward questions about the issues so people would know where the candidates are coming from.”

Cerna said he asked Cornfield to participate because he has been covering the campaign and has covered politics and government for The Herald, which is the largest newspaper in the congressional district. “It was kind of a logical choice to me,” he said.

Cerna said he has helped moderate political debates for state and federal office a number of times over the years he has worked at KCTS.

“I’ve never had this happen before,” he said. “It’s unfortunate it stuck on this issue, over Jerry.”

Plans now call for KCTS to rebroadcast profiles of both Koster and Larsen at 7 this evening. Then Cerna, Cornfield and Liam Moriarty, a reporter for radio station KPLU in Seattle, will discuss the race.

Cerna noted that political challengers usually are the ones asking for debates against the incumbent.

“I was a little surprised by this because The Herald endorsed Mr. Koster,” Cerna said.

The Herald’s editorial board, which is separate from the newsroom, makes political endorsements each year.

Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University, questioned if the decision by Koster’s campaign could backfire.

Most televised debates aren’t heavily watched and the people who do tune in usually have already made up their minds, he said. Now, rather than coverage of a debate most people wouldn’t have noticed, everyone is talking about how Koster pulled out, he said.

Koster’s abrupt move may do his campaign more harm than good, Donovan said.

Koster’s decision doesn’t make any sense from a campaign strategy perspective either, he said. He called it bizarre.

Even if Koster’s claims about the reporter are true, it’s unlikely a question or two from one person on a panel would somehow ruin Koster, he said.

A spokeswoman for Larsen’s campaign said she did not believe Cornfield “is biased in any way — toward us or against them.

“As someone who has worked with Jerry for years, he asks tough questions,” said Brooke Davis, the spokeswoman. “Candidly, I think he asks the questions that voters want to ask of candidates.”

Koster and Larsen will get a chance to answer questions from the public Friday morning, during a forum sponsored by the Marysville Tulalip Chamber of Commerce.

Both have confirmed that they will attend, said Caldie Rogers, the organization’s president and chief executive.

A committee decided on 10 key questions they wanted to hear from the candidates, covering such topics as the federal health care legislation, education funding, the Boeing tanker project, and the war in Afghanistan, she said.

The questions have been supplied to each candidate. Once these questions are answered, Larsen and Koster will get to ask one question of their opponent, she said.

The forum will be taped by TVW, Washington’s public-affairs television network.

KCTS will also tape the discussion and post it online, Cerna said.

Herald reporter Debra Smith contributed to this report.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com.

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