What if a debate was held in a prominent Congressional race and it was closed to the general public and not televised at the insistence of two of the candidates? That occurred on Tuesday morning at Capitol Theater in downtown Clearwater, where a District 13 Congressional candidates forum sponsored by the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce was held.
Republican David Jolly and Democrat Alex Sink, who have repeatedly avoided or cancelled appearances at candidate forums, agreed to Tuesday’s event, but it was not permitted to be broadcast. The event was closed to the general public. Only members of the chambers were granted access.
Libertarian Lucas Overby is the only candidate in the District 13 special election to fill the Congressional seat formerly occupied by the late C.W. Bill Young who has attended all scheduled candidate forums and events. He joined Jolly and Sink in Tuesday’s event.
Sink, who has repeatedly stayed away from scheduled candidate forums and has performed poorly in debates, continued the latter trend this morning with rambling answers to questions and more attacks on Jolly. On several occasions, she called herself a “moderate fiscally conservative Democrat.”
In a debate televised by Bay News 9 in early February – an event in which viewers overwhelmingly voted Overby as the winner – Sink was stumped with a question, “What is the difference between an entitlement and welfare?” On Tuesday morning, she opened the forum at Capitol Theater by uttering a tedious explanation moments after moderator Dr. Susan MacManus asked for a one-word response.
The election has been marked by a multitude of vitriol exchanged between Jolly and Sink at forums and in ads. That continued at the Capitol Theater, where Jolly accused Sink of misleading ads (specifically accusing her of scaring seniors with lies about him in ads) and Sink tabbed Jolly as a flip-flopper on issues that include Social Security and immigration reform.
Jolly did not mention his time as a lobbyist, but he frequently made reference to his tenure as an aide to the late C.W. Bill Young, whose seat he is seeking. Sink emphasized her role in starting a bank branch in Clearwater.
Overby continued his track record of not talking about his opponents and focusing on the issues. The portion of the 90-minute debate that drew the biggest crowd reaction involved the latter stage when questions addressed the campaign ads.
After Dr. MacManus posed a question related to how fact checkers have not found many comments from the candidates that are true, Sink responded with a bumbling remark laced with “uhs” and “ums” claiming that “fact, uh, checking is, um, important to me.”
When his turn to answer the question arose, Jolly claimed that his campaign has not made an incorrect statement about Sink, and he continued by accusing Sink of scaring seniors with misleading ads about Jolly and Social Security.
In between, Overby drew hearty laughter from the audience when he said, “I don’t think we’ve made any wrong statements about either of these two, so we haven’t actually had to make any corrections, as of yet. I actually don’t talk about these guys ever.”
Since the general public was not allowed to attend Tuesday morning’s event, Overby made an impromptu offer to meet with citizens at a nearby Starbuck’s.
“The debate this morning went extremely well for us and I am very proud of the message we delivered,” Overby wrote on his campaign’s Facebook page. “However, because of the closed nature and lack of available media coverage (at the requirements of my opponents) we have been inundated with constituents who are angry that they had no way to be involved.
“I am deeply sorry that this event did not include the voters of the district and am making an offer for this afternoon,” Overby added. “I will host an impromptu meeting to discuss the debate and answer any questions any of you might have. I know it is a small conciliation, but it is the solution most within my power.”
The unplanned Starbuck’s gathering further illustrated Overby’s grassroots approach to reach voters he says “no longer vote because they don’t believe their voice is heard.” That grassroots approach has given his campaign momentum while Jolly and Sink, who are tied to special interest groups, continue a nasty exchange of advertisements and attacks.
The special election will take place on March 11.