Candidate forum canceled amid tension in 8th District
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Editor’s Note: This story was updated slightly from the original print edition.
By Ted Glanzer
For the first time, the Canton League of Women Voters canceled its candidate forum – which would have been held virtually – after incumbent state Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, said he would not participate in the event after raising objections with the league and his Democratic opponent, Melissa Osborne.
The league has produced a voters guide, available at http://lwvcanton.org, but the lack of full participation, along with the decision to cancel the forum entirely, leaves Farmington Valley voters in the 8th Senate District and the 17th House District without that traditional opportunity to see and candidates appear side by side (albeit this year virtually) and weigh their policy positions in real time.
The result has also led to increased tension in the 8th Senate District race, which was already spirited.
From in-person to virtual
Teresa Dotson, the voter services chairwoman for the league, said her organization looked at every available option before deciding to hold a virtual candidate forum over the Zoom app.
Dotson said three of the five candidates involved in the two state races – Osborne, Eleni Kavros DeGraw, the Democratic challenger for the 17th House District seat; and Leslee Hill, the Republican incumbent in the 17th House District race – responded in favor of having the virtual forum.
“Unfortunately, there was a lot of concern raised by candidates and board members about how we would preserve the integrity of that recording to make sure that the event would be kept intact and, as a whole, communicated,” Dotson said.
Witkos, a six-term incumbent, and Osborne are running against one another for the third time, with Witkos having won both of Osborne’s prior challenges in 2014 and 2018.
Hill and Kavros DeGraw faced one another in 2018, with Hill winning by less than 120 votes. In 2018, Hill pulled out of the league’s candidate forum just before the event because her mother was terminally ill. Kavros DeGraw did take part in the forum, with Hill submitting a written statement that was read by Witkos.
Further muddying the issue was a September Facebook post by Kavros DeGraw in which she, at the time, believed she was the only one of the five candidates (Independent Keith McConnell is also running) who responded in favor of the Zoom format.
In a Sept. 18 email to Dotson obtained by The Valley Press, Witkos gave three reasons for why he would not participate in this year’s forum. First, at the last forum, he was told by the videographer rebuttals would be edited out of the video in the interests of time to make it more broadcast friendly for Nutmeg TV.
“[The videographer] refused to do that,” Witkos said. “I concur with his refusal and to me that request was totally unacceptable.”
Second, Witkos said Osborne had “used technology to advance her campaign in a misleading way” by cutting the video from the 2018 candidate forum as well as cropping a photo from the presidential election in 2016 posted to Witkos’ Facebook page “to tell a false story.”
The final objection, Witkos said Osborne is “a liar.”
“I will not share a stage with someone that has no Integrity (sic),” Witkos wrote. “Recently she posted on social media that I or one of my campaign volunteers attempted to break into her house.”
In a telephone conversation, Witkos elaborated on technology manipulation, saying Osborne had broken the ground rules for the 2018 candidate forum by posting a video on her campaign Facebook page that contained a response from Witkos concerning the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned.
Witkos also noted an Aug. 17 post on Osborne’s Facebook page that shows Witkos holding what appears to be a hand-drawn “Trump” sign.
“My opponent has been busy this week distancing himself as fast as he can from the GOP State Party Chair who admits he knew that a Republican Congressional Candidate had a recent unresolved domestic violence incident, and from the GOP’s 8th District State Central committeeman’s most recent racist memes about Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris,” Osborne wrote, in part, in the post. “All that begs the question though – why hasn’t my opponent called out the one person responsible for creating an environment in which Republicans think that this is acceptable behavior? He’s called out racist tropes by a local party official, but what about Trump?”
Witkos said Osborne had cropped out the person he was taking the photo with, a man with intellectual disabilities who drew the sign, and that Witkos was merely posing with the man. The photo, Witkos says, was therefore taken out of context for political purposes.
“That’s so disingenuous and so wrong on so many levels,” Witkos said in a telephone interview.
Further, he said he would not debate with someone who “has no integrity.”
“I said she’s compared me to Harvey Weinstein,” Witkos said, referring to the disgraced film mogul who has been accused of and convicted of multiple sexual assaults. “She’s accused me of breaking into her house. These things are just outrageous and outlandish allegations.”
Witkos said he’s taken part in the league’s voter guide, which is composed of an opening statement of 75 words along with answers to four questions, all of which also could not be more than 75 words apiece.
“I said I’m sorry it’s come to this, but that’s only way I can know my answers cannot be misconstrued,” Witkos, who works for Eversource Energy as a community liaison, said. “I’m always willing to stand up for whatever I voted on for whatever issue; I’m not hiding anything,” he said. “I’m not going to go where Melissa has. Her whole campaign has been a smear tactic. She’s running against Eversource and President Trump. That’s her whole campaign. I’m talking about what I want to do in the future and what I’ve accomplish in the past. I guess when you’re the challenger and you’re desperate you’ll say anything to get people riled up.”
Osborne: Witkos ‘ludicrous’
Up until the candidate forum issue, Osborne has said she believed Witkos to be “a nice guy” but that they had significant differences of opinion on policy issues.
She said in a telephone interview that she takes it back.
“His behavior in the last month has been abhorrent,” she said. “Kevin Witkos has never faced a real, challenging political campaign in his life. What he is objecting to is having to defend his own record. He is objecting to his own words, not in a manipulated fashion, but in live video being posted in a place that voters can actually see what he says and what he thinks.”
Specifically, Osborne said the video posted on her campaign Facebook page was not manipulated, but merely was a portion of the 2018 candidate forum in which Witkos said there was a lot of “hysteria” around the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned.
Osborne said neither she nor anyone from her campaign took the video. She says she received it from another campaign and, believing she may have misconstrued the ground rules, posted that portion of the video to her Facebook page.
“There was video posted by another candidate and I did reshare that,” she said. “But it had been adopted and had the imprimatur of that candidate’s campaign including logo and all those things. Perhaps I misunderstood since it was being used by another candidate. I didn’t receive any objection from Kevin at the time. He didn’t ask me to take it down.”
She says she believes Witkos’ response to the Roe v. Wade issue is it’s “a completely valid thing for voters to see
“What is the purpose of engaging in a debate if not to educate the voters on how the two candidates might address the issue?” she said. “If he is upset with his performance that’s on him, not me.”
Osborne says Witkos is using what amounts to a tempest in a teapot as a pretext from having to answer for his voting record as well as his employment at Eversource.
“Kevin Witkos objects to voters seeing his real answers and responses to issues critically important to people: guns, reproductive health care, economy,” she said. “I get why he doesn’t want people to see how he performed that night because once people see how Kevin Witkos votes, they vote against him.”
She said the forum is important because it enables voters to see candidates think on their feet, process information quickly and advocate for and defend their positions. Osborne said that’s what legislators do.
“That is the job,” she said. “I think it’s a very big deal.”
As for the Facebook photo, Osborne is blunt.
“So, does he deny that he supports the president?” she asked. “That’s the real issue here. The issue is not whether I or anyone on my team cut out the picture of the other young man who is not a public figure and I don’t think it’s appropriate to repost that person. But it’s clear Kevin is with somebody in that picture and Kevin is choosing to hold a Trump sign and from that moment forward Kevin has refused to make any comment about whether he supports the president or his policies. I think that is an issue for people in this campaign.”
The claim that she said Witkos or someone from his campaign broke into her house?
“Ludicrous,” she said. “I don’t know why he thinks that.”
Osborne says she has had physical threats against her in the past made on Facebook, and someone did try to break into her home in 2018, but she did not make a public statement about it. She reported the incident to the police department.
“In no way did I tie it to Kevin,” she said. “I didn’t go on Facebook and go, ‘Oh my goodness, someone tried to break into my house, it must have been Kevin.’ That’s ridiculous.
“Up until this situation right now, I though Kevin Witkos was a good and decent human being, with whom I simply had divergent policy differences. His reaction here is just desperate.” (Witkos responded by providing a screenshot of a Facebook conversation Osborne’s campaign account had with a Witkos supporter in which the post said, in part, “To my knowledge, my supporters don’t drive by his house or try to break in. That is your candidate sir and your people and what they do to me.” Witkos, a former Canton police officer, said he had conversations with Simsbury police and Osborne had not reported any break-ins to them. Osborne responded that she had, indeed, filed a police report, but that it was under a different name. Osborne has also provided a copy of that report to The Valley Press.)
No 17th District forum
The end result is that not only will Witkos and Osborne not have a forum or debate (Osborne has challenged Witkos to debate for months, with no response), but Hill and Kavros DeGraw also will not have one as well.
Adding to the confusion was an email Kavros DeGraw received from Dotson.
Kavros DeGraw says the email she received from Dotson said, “Let me just say you were the only one with positive feedback and willingness to participate via Zoom.”
“I took that to mean it was only me who wanted to do it,” she said, adding she subsequently conferred with Osborne who said she was also willing to have the Zoom debate.
Kavros DeGraw said in 2018 it was difficult not having Hill at the forum (though understandably as Hill was with her ill mother) and even more difficult not having one this year.
“I was looking forward to this debate because I think it was critical that, as … we heard on calls with voters, ‘I want to see them debate and then I’ll make my decision.’ It’s very difficult to get across policy ideas in 75 words or less to pretty meaty questions that they gave us.”
Hill said she raised some concerns over the possibility of the Zoom forum (mainly security concerns and how the video would be used), but ultimately signed off on it.
“I trust the league to do the right thing,” Hill said. “I never said, ‘No I won’t do this.’ I sent back the signed agreement to proceed. A few days after that, after a discussion among the league, they decided not to go forward. I filled out answers to the voter guide and sent them in.”
Hill said she was disappointed in not participating in the forum this year, but she questioned how much of an impact it would have.
“It’s nice to see candidates live on the stage, and people appreciate that,” she said. “But the attendance at the live event has gone down. You look in the audience and the people who are there are there to support a particular candidate or are family members.”
Hill added the advent of social media and other campaign tools enable candidates to get their messages out.
Kavros DeGraw, however, disagreed, particularly in a race that was as close as the 17th District in 2018.
“Obviously I think there are many factors that go into determining the outcome of an election,” she said. “And for me I feel bad for the voters because if you are running for office, if you hold an office, you are responsible to your constituents who are your voters.”
Furthermore, Kavros DeGraw said in-person attendance was only part of the opportunity for people to see the forum. It’s also broadcast on Nutmeg TV and a link is provided by the league to view online.
“It is a big deal because I can tell you from firsthand experience of talking to hundreds of voters on the phone and knocking doors and meeting people where they are even when considering the pandemic, people are waiting for this debate. Period. Just period. People wait for this debate,” she said. “Even when the absentee ballot voting and the numbers being off the charts this is an opportunity for them to defend their records and for us to share our vision for the future.”
The league’s reaction
All four candidates in the state races at issue took pains to say they do not want to call the Canton League of Women Voters into question, as it’s an organization composed of volunteers who work hard to register and provide nonpartisan information to voters.
Dotson, the league’s voter services chairwoman, said the league felt most comfortable sending out the questionnaires due to the pandemic and the concerns raised by Witkos over the use of video.
“We are dedicated to fairness, to nonpartisanship and voter education,” she said. Those are our primary goals and responsibilities.”
She said four out of the five candidates submitted answers to the questionnaires, with Osborne not sending in a response.
“I have not heard from her,” Dotson said of Osborne. “She chose not to respond for whatever reason, which is unfortunate. I am not really a social media person; I am not a fan of social media. I think people say things and post things they wouldn’t necessarily say to another person. Some things posted about the league have been mean and hurtful. I’ve lived in C all my life. My number has not changed in 40 years same exact phone number. If anyone had a question about the process the decision or factors, they certainly could have called. Unfortunately their choice was not to call. Their choice was to post to social media.”
Dotson appeared to agree with Witkos concerning Osborne’s use of video that was not taken by the league of the last forum.
“The bottom line is four of the same people from 2018 signed an agreement they would not video or distribute any part of a video of the forum,” she said. “The only thing was they could distribute the complete official video that was produced. Someone did not follow the rules.
“Given we asked them to sign an agreement in 2018 and someone did not follow the rules, at that time we had more control over what was happening, or at least we thought we did,” Dotson said. “To transition to a format with less control over that could be manipulated, recorded, sliced and diced, that was the area of concern.
“Only one of the candidate’s website is a videotape from someone in the audience. As far as I know that is still on website as of [today].”
Further, Dotson said she spoke with Kavros DeGraw of the wording of her email.
“I take responsibility for a quick response and using the response ‘and’ - and meant to say thank you for your positive feedback and agreeing to participate,” she said, adding she was thanking Kavros DeGraw for her positive feedback. “She was the only one with no concerns and positive feedback through the entire process.”
Osborne said she is not the only candidate who posted video of the last forum, providing as evidence a Facebook post of another campaign page that shows a video from the 2018 event. In addition, Osborne said she had a conversation with Carlene Rhea, president of the Canton League of Women Voters, saying she would not answer the questionnaire because it wasn’t an adequate substitute for the forum and it was merely playing to Witkos’ desires.