Election 2022: Special Report — The Bumpy Road to This Year’s Wilton Candidate Debates

How did Wilton’s typical, uneventful annual candidate debates almost go off the rails this year? Participants have hurled accusations of favoritism, defamation, and censorship; there’s been name-calling, a complaint filed with Facebook, negative political ads, and more. At the heart of it is a story with a lot of she said/he said/they said involved and many of the participants have compared it to a big “game of telephone” with a lot of miscommunication.

Each election season for the last several years, candidate debates in Wilton have been organized by the Wilton League of Women Voters (LVW) and co-sponsored by the Wilton Library (where the debates are held) and GOOD Morning Wilton (which livestreams the debates and then publishes video recordings of the event to help voters decide who to vote for).

The Wilton LWV is part of the state and national League of Women Voters. According to its website, the LWV is “non-partisan,” and works to “protect and expand voting rights” and “encourage informed and active participation in government,” among other things. Leagues around the country host election debates and forums and hold other programs throughout the rest of the year.

As the debate organizer, the Wilton LWV is responsible for getting an out-of-town LWV-trained moderator and securing member volunteers to act as timers, question screeners, etc. Questions posed to the candidates are submitted by residents and vetted by the screeners (an equal number from each party) to make sure they apply to all the candidates and are relevant to the race in which those candidates are running.

For the most part, organizing and holding the debates in Wilton is uneventful. There may be initial back and forth to make sure the scheduling and format works for everyone, but typically, the Wilton LWV issues an invitation, the candidates accept, the debate is held and voters learn more about the candidates to help them decide who to vote for.

But this year, it got …complicated, to put it mildly.

Politics usually don’t get so tense in Wilton but in the last month, the road to the 2022 debates has experienced its share of bumps, potholes, fender benders and near-miss collisions. And no one has emerged without a scratch or a dent.

To continue the metaphor, the road to the debates isn’t closed, although for a moment it seemed like that might happen. Now, it appears that everyone involved is making an effort to ensure the debates will still happen, so that in the end, the voters come first.

Today GMW is telling the story of what happened in several parts. We’ve either spoken directly to most of the key participants or sent questions by email, and in some instances have been provided statements.

One note about GMW‘s own coverage of this story: as the founder and editor (and only full-time employee) of GMW, I wear several hats. As media co-sponsor of the debate, I have participated in conversations with Wilton LWV officials about debate format and scheduling, and have given input from the perspective of wanting to provide the public with the most objective and comprehensive coverage of the candidates possible.

I learned about some of the events in question as they happened in real-time in conversations with League officials. Those League representatives always go to great lengths to maintain the non-partisan and equal treatment of candidates when it comes to my participation, both as a sponsor and member of the media. They correspond with candidates separately without including me, and if they relay information to me, they do so in a way that maintains the anonymity of the candidate and/or party in question.

There is nothing in my reporting of this situation that includes information I learned while wearing the hat of the debate’s media co-sponsor. Similarly, I haven’t omitted anything from my reporting because I am the co-sponsor.

It’s important to also say that in my years of working with the Wilton League of Women Voters, I have never doubted the integrity or dedication of anyone. They have been impartial and steadfast in their primary objective of encouraging voter participation in the process of Democracy — something I value and strive to do as well.

When things began to go awry this year, I had to draw a very defined line between being the event co-sponsor and reporting on it as fully and objectively as I professionally could. I stepped back from advising on debate coordination, and pursued the story with one goal in mind:  to tell the story as fully, as fairly and as comprehensively as I could.

Who is Involved?

This year, two debates were scheduled to be held on Tuesday, Oct. 25 for the candidates running in the two state legislative races impacting Wilton.

Running for State Senator (26th District) are:

Running for State Representative (42nd District) are:

All four are Wilton residents.

The individuals running the debates for the Wilton LWV are Tina Gardner (R), who is the Convener [the LWV equivalent of president], and Program Chair Pamela Klem (D). While the LWV is non-partisan and does not support or endorse any one candidate or party, its members are encouraged to be involved in government and the political process, and their party affiliation is publicly known.

Other individuals who are involved include Wilton Republican Town Committee Chair Peter Wrampe; and Wilton Democratic Town Committee Vice Chair Vicki Rossi. Rossi issued statements on behalf of the Wilton DTC rather than current Chair Tom Dubin because Dubin is married to the Wilton LWV’s Klem and they wanted avoid any conflict of interest.

It’s also worth noting that all four candidates are members of the Wilton LWV. They may have learned of or taken part in LWV conversations about the debates at various points.

What

Happened, and When

GMW will go further in-depth in other stories published later today, with transcripts of interviews and more details. But based on interviews, emails and statements, we’ve pieced together a basic timeline. 

August: The Wilton LWV and co-sponsors began to lock in debate details, including date, timing and format. After LWV officials extended initial feelers to candidates about scheduling (and discussed debate details during LWV meetings), Kim Healy reached out to the LWV’s Pam Klem and Tina Gardner with feedback about debate timing and format. Based on what other towns where she’s also on the ballot had decided, she emailed them on Aug. 19 and again on Aug. 25 to suggest that debates for both races be held the same night with all four candidates on one stage together.

Healy wrote that both she and Toni Boucher “really believe it should be all of us together on one night.”

Sept. 7: The Wilton LWV issued a formal invitation to candidates to participate in debates on Oct. 25. Despite the feedback from Healy and Boucher in August, the invitation stated there would be a separate, one-hour debate for each race, running back-to-back, with the first debate between the state representative candidates starting at 7 p.m., followed by the debate between state senator candidates.

The invite stated a League-trained moderator would be selected from outside Wilton, and the structure would follow a modified town hall, cumulative time format. Candidates would be asked questions submitted by constituents in advance via email or live from the audience at the Wilton Library. The invitation affirmed that all questions “must be applicable to all candidates and pertinent to state-level issues (questions targeted at one specific candidate will not be accepted).”

According to an LWV statement issued later, two candidates “promptly accepted,” which we later learned were Denning and Maher.

Sept. 8Wilton Republican Town Committee (RTC) Chair Peter Wrampe emailed the Wilton LWV officials asking for changes to the debate format. His email copied Healy and Boucher.

Wrampe emailed the LWV to “respectfully request” that the “text” of the debate format be changed to include the following:

  • only one single debate lasting 60 minutes
  • all four candidates from both races would be seated on stage and receive the same questions
  • that the RTC be allowed to “appoint a representative to join your review committee to vet the questions being asked of the candidates.”

Sept. 9, 4:58 p.m.: Wilton LWV Convener Tina Gardner responded — not to Wrampe, but to Boucher and Kim, citing the League’s policy of addressing communication to candidates rather than party officials before elections. [League officials directed all answers/ensuing correspondence to the candidates only, not Wrampe.].

Gardner mentioned that as LWV members, Boucher and Kim would be familiar with League goals and philosophies that supported the format originally outlined in the invitation. Among those, she said that:

  • voters would be served by more substantive back-and-forth discussion between two candidates
  • more candidates on stage together would mean fewer questions and topics covered
  • voters would be better able to understand and compare the candidates in each of the races.

She also stated that under the LWV state and national guidelines, it would not be possible to have a representative of the RTC be a question screener “in a specifically partisan capacity.” Gardner reaffirmed that all screeners would work “based on our non-partisan criteria (pertinence to state-level issues, applicability to all candidates, legibility and non-duplication) rather than judgments made on any partisan basis.”

Gardner added that if the LWV “were to consider any possible tweaking of format details, we would as a matter of fairness and transparency have to include the other candidates in that discussion.”

Sept. 9, 10:38 p.m.: Healy responded in an email that both Ridgefield and New Canaan had planned debates with more candidates on stage in shorter, 50-minute debate sessions.

Sept. 10: Citing an effort to secure confirmed ‘yes’ answers from all candidates, the LWV organizers discussed slight format changes after “fielding a request for some ‘tweaks’.” [Editor’s note: League officials ran those tweaks by both co-sponsors and the moderator.] The changes officials considered making included shortening each debate from 60 minutes to 50 minutes, and assuring candidates that they would “clarify to the WLWV members serving as question screeners that questions would relate to state-level issues.”

Sept. 10, 5:13 p.m.: Healy emailed Gardner to say Boucher hadn’t anticipated a Wilton-specific debate as she is also on the ballot in other towns where she would also be debating. Healy said Boucher suggested a 75-minute debate, split between the two races instead.

Sept. 12, 1:39 p.m.: The Wilton LWV emailed all four candidates, stating that “in response to a request from one [candidate],” two “tweaks” would be made to the formal debate invitation:

  • “Shorten the time allotted to constituent questions [from 60 minutes] to 50 minutes for each of the two debates… and
  • “Clarify to the two Wilton League members who are serving as paired question-screeners that constituent questions posed to the candidates will relate to state-level issues.”

Sept. 12, “in the afternoon”: State Rep. candidate Keith Denning (D) contacted LWV Convener Tina Gardner to clarify whether voters could ask about certain topics, specifically Roe v. Wade and Jan. 6, 2021. He said Gardner told him ‘no’.

At no point did any of the emails shared with GMW from the Republican candidates or chair specifically request that topics or questions be limited.

Sept. 13, 10:45 a.m.: Denning issued a statement to the media “Respond[ing] to Republican Effort to Exclude Choice from Debate” and the Wilton LWV “forbidd[ing] the inclusion of reproductive rights as a question topic at their upcoming legislative debate.”

Sept. 13, 2:22 p.m.: Maher issued a statement to the media “Condemn[ing] Republican Attempts to Silence Reproductive Rights” in response to “Republican… candidates demand[ing] that the Wilton League of Women Voters ban any mention of reproductive rights at their upcoming legislative debate.”

Sept. 13, “about 4:30 p.m.”: State Senate candidate Ceci Maher (D) contacted LWV Convener Tina Gardner to clarify whether voters could ask about certain topics, specifically Roe v. Wade and Jan. 6, 2021. She said Gardner told her ‘no’.

Sept. 14, 9:30 p.m.: Wilton LWV issued a statement from Convener Tina Gardner and Program Chair Pam Klem to the candidates and media:

  • The statement said, “[one] candidate sought significant material changes to [the] format before agreeing to participate, an ultimatum that was echoed by the other candidate from that party and their town party chair.”
  • Wilton LWV policy precludes holding a debate without all candidates in a race present and participating. In an effort to dissuade any of the candidates from not accepting the debate invitation — and essentially rescue the debate from cancellation — the statement said LWV officials “made two format changes. These modifications fell far short of those demanded, but we felt they were consistent with our mission to provide meaningful access to Wilton voters.”
  • In hindsight, Gardner and Klem regretted making the change, writing, “This was clearly a mistake on our part. Our modifications, once we relayed them to all the candidates, did not go far enough to meet the reluctant candidates’ ultimatums. But the very fact that we made any changes at all in response to one party’s demands went too far for the candidates who had already agreed to participate under the original terms. We’ve learned.”
  • The statement acknowledged “multiple, differing accounts of particular details of this sequence of events,” some of which resulted from “losses in translation throughout telephone tag and message-bearing…” They also assert that “any effort to ‘correct the record’ misses what is, from our vantage, the point.”
  • After reiterating their commitment to the general spirit and purpose of debates, and their support of all the candidates stepping forward to serve, Gardner and Klem reissued the original invitation [with no changes], adding, “We hope they all say yes.”
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Sept. 14, 10:32 p.m.:  In an email to Wilton LWV officials [later shared with GMW] Healy responded to the statement they had issued. She said she had only communicated requests to shorten the debate length “to match [debates planned in] surrounding towns, and that both she and Boucher “were ok if the rtc did not chose [sic] someone to review the questions and that it should be a member of the league,” and they were also “ok” if the debate for each race was held separately.

She wrote in bold to counter the claim about refusing to debate on certain topics:  “No debate topics/issues were ever discussed.”

After receiving press inquiries, Healy asked the League officials to clarify publicly and to other LWV members to “confirm” that the only change request either she or Boucher made had to do with the duration of the debate.

Healy told GMW she did not hear any response from the Wilton LWV addressing her requests for that clarification — other than an email on Sept. 14. at 10:45 p.m. from Pam Klem saying she could not communicate with just one candidate about format issues.

Sept. 16: The LWV held a Zoom meeting for League members to discuss the debate “kerfuffle.” Candidates were invited to make statements and then asked to leave the call so the LWV could discuss the situation privately among members only. Three of the four candidates took part.

Around Sept. 16: Two ads started running on social media about State Rep. candidate Kim Healy (R). One ad, paid for by the Connecticut Majority Team PAC (CTMT) with the disclosure, “Approved by Keith Denning,” called Healy a “MAGA Republican” and stated she “will only debate if Roe isn’t a topic.”

Social media ad paid for by the CT Majority Team PAC with the disclosure, “Approved by Keith Denning”

The other ad, paid for by the Wilton Democratic Town Committee, was more toned down, leaving out the ‘MAGA Republican’ reference and darker design, but it also stated Healy “will only debate if Roe isn’t a topic.”

Social media ad paid for by the Wilton Democratic Town Committee

Sept. 18, 9:40 a.m.: GOOD Morning Wilton interviewed Keith Denning. That interview can be found here.

Sept. 18: GOOD Morning Wilton emailed a request to interview Wilton LWV’s Pam Klem and Tina Gardner. That email followed earlier requests made by text and voicemail.

Sept. 19, 10:30 a.m.GOOD Morning Wilton interviewed Kim Healy. That interview can be found here.

Sept. 19: Klem and Gardner contacted all four candidates to reissue the “original debate invitation of Sept. 7 (with no format or other changes…)” and asked candidates to respond by Wednesday, Sept. 21, stating, “For the sake of Wilton constituents, we sincerely hope you do so.”

Klem and Gardner also responded to GOOD Morning Wilton, forwarding their outreach to the candidates, and stating, “We continue to hope that for the sake of Wilton constituents, we’ll be able to host the debates on Oct. 25,” and declined to answer any further questions.

Sept. 20, 12:36 pm.: Healy issued a statement calling the social media ads targeting her “categorically untrue” and “made to presumably scare voters and to undermine my candidacy.” She later said the ads were “insulting and hostile” and “[brought] forth negativity,” and stated she is not someone “who will ever shy away from hard conversations or issues that are important to our community.”

Further, she stated that as a current Wilton Board of Selectmen member, she is “commit[ed] to doing what is best for all of Wilton, not a political party.”

Healy also announced that she filed a complaint with Facebook’s parent company Meta “in order to put a stop to this behavior and cease the defamation of my character” and the “misinformation being spread to hurt my reputation.”

She stated she “will not engage in negative campaigning nor will I ever craft or support a political advertisement that purposely spreads mistruths.”

Sept. 20, 2:30 p.m.: The Wilton LWV confirmed all four candidates had accepted the reissued invitation to participate in the debates.

Sept. 20, 4:20 p.m.: After a request from GMW, Wilton DTC Vice Chair Vicki Rossi sent a comment about the debate situation. That comment and answers to follow-up questions from GMW can be found here.

Sept. 20, 5:22 p.m.GMW sent a series of questions to Klem and Gardner asking for comment or response regarding:

  • whether there are written LWV rules about restricting subjects based on which race the candidates are running in.
  • denials by the RTC and Republican candidates that they made any demands or ultimatum, contrary to the LWV statement
  • clarifying exactly what Tina believed Keith Denning and Ceci Maher were asking and what she said to them, regarding Roe v. Wade and Jan. 6 questions.
  • Keith Denning’s accusations of LWV favoritism shown toward Kim Healy
  • a suggestion from Keith Denning that LWV debate organizers and moderator recuse themselves
  • a comment from Kim Healy expressing “surprise” that the DTC had not pulled down its ads, especially because LWV’s Pam Klem is married to DTC Chair Tom Dubin, and Pam “knew the ads were lies”; and “concern” that the LWV was not attempting to clear her name
  • a suggestion that the LWV skews to favor Democrats

Sept. 20, 7:30 p.m.: GMW called RTC Chair Peter Wrampe, and left a voice mail.

Sept. 20, 7:35 p.m.: GMW spoke with candidate Ceci Maher (D). That interview transcript can be found here.

Sept. 20, 7:55 p.m.: GMW spoke with candidate Toni Boucher (R). That interview transcript can be found here.

Sept. 20, 9:22 p.m.: Klem and Gardner responded to GMW by email, referring to their earlier statement of Sept. 19, and added: “The Wilton League is extremely pleased that all four candidates have indicated their willingness to participate in the Oct. 25 debates on the basis of the original invitation. This experience — another League member called it a ‘duststorm’ — has been trying all around, but we are confident that everyone involved will come together with civility and good faith for the sake of all Wilton constituents.”

Sept. 20, 9:30 p.m.: GMW emailed questions to RTC Chair Peter Wrampe. Those questions and responses can be found here.

7 COMMENTS

  1. One part of this story that I think would be a valuable follow up is to ask the LWV exactly why they decided Roe v Wade should be off limits. Based on the criteria reported in your story that all issues must be “pertinent to state-level issues” this decision seems very strange. Regardless of how anyone views the recent Supreme Court decision, the effect of that decision was to direct the issue of reproductive rights to the states for resolution. How can the LWV take that issue off the table without an explanation?

    • GMW reached out multiple times to LWV Convener Tina Gardner and Program Chair Pam Klem to ask specifically about Denning’s accusations and account of what he said Gardner told him, even emailing a list of questions (published today). They declined to provide any specific answer or comments beyond what had been released to the candidates, (all available in our timeline, published today. They emailed this additional statement to GMW: “The Wilton League is extremely pleased that all four candidates have indicated their willingness to participate in the Oct. 25 debates on the basis of the original invitation. This experience — another League member called it a ‘duststorm’ — has been trying all around, but we are confident that everyone involved will come together with civility and good faith for the sake of all Wilton constituents.”

      • Thanks for clarifying. Since two different people (Maher & Denning) report having two separate conversations with the same LWV representative and (according to them) got the same response, I hope the League sees the value in providing an answer to GMW’s question on this. Thanks for following up.

  2. As a voter, I absolutely want to know the answers to questions on abortion choice, and the candidates’ reactions to the insurrection on January 6th. I would also add questions on banning books that is happening around the country.
    These are answers we have a right to know of our state candidates and they need to be on the table. We need transparency now more than ever. Our democracy is fragile.

  3. Thanks for this in-depth reporting, though some fundamental questions remain. Why are the RTC and Republican candidates trying to influence in any way, the terms of the debate or change the rules to suit themselves? Why are the RTC or Republican candidates trying to stack the debate deck with their own representative (is this kind of like a special master?) to “vet questions” being asked by Wilton constituents? That sure sounds to me like an attempt to steer or avoid topics. And even though Wrampe says he would swear on a bible (upside down?), a full interview would be enlightening to hear more from him regarding conversations he had with LWV that lead them to see this as an ultimatum. At all levels of government, we should look for representatives who, from the start, are willing and eager to come to the table and take the time needed to share their views and respond to constituents’ questions without restrictions, or behind-the-scenes wrangling.

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