Every election season for the last several years, candidate debates in Wilton have been organized by the Wilton League of Women Voters (LWV) and co-sponsored by the Wilton Library and GOOD Morning Wilton.

Today, GOOD Morning Wilton is publishing a special look at how this year’s candidate debates, scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 25, almost derailed thanks to miscommunication, misunderstandings and the discord that often accompanies politics. And while everyone involved has tried to work to make sure the debates will go on as hoped, the collateral damage that’s resulted may leave a lasting mark. 

GMW is telling the story in several parts. To do so, we’ve either spoken directly to most of the key participants or sent questions by email, and in some instances have been provided statements. We’ve published a comprehensive overview and timeline, as well as several other articles and interviews that add more detail. 

This story below contains an interview with Ceci Maher, the Democratic candidate for State Senator (26th District), conducted on Tuesday, Sept. 20. Maher’s fellow Democratic candidate for State Representative (42nd District), Keith Denning, had alleged that initial rules set for the debate by the LWV were changed after one or more Republican candidates requested that question topics be limited, including banning some topics — specifically Roe v. Wade and January 6th. Denning said he heard that directly from LWV Convener Tina Gardner, and accused the LWV of showing favoritism for one candidate or party.

Maher has also asked her own questions of the League officials and came to the same conclusion that the debate questions would be limited to exclude Roe v. Wade and January 6th.

Both Denning and Maher issued statements to the press stating the Republicans were trying to exclude the topic of choice from the debate. Shortly after, Democratic organizations (including the Wilton Democratic Town Committee) began running ads on social media accusing Republican candidate Kim Healy of having extreme views and refusing to debate if Roe was a topic.

The events and dates to which Maher refers can be tracked on the timeline of events.
Other key chapters published today: (will be updated as they are published)

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. No content or meaning has been changed.

GMW: I would like to ask you questions because you spoke to League of Women Voters Convener Tina Gardner and that’s really the critical part of the story. Tell me why you called her, and from your perspective, how we got to where we are.

Ceci Maher: So I received the first email inviting me to participate in the Wilton debate, to which I said yes, of course. And then I received an email [on Monday, Sept. 12] from the league … there was a request made by a candidate to change both the timing of the debate from 60 minutes to 50 minutes, and to put a restriction on what can be discussed, keeping it just to local conversation.

So Keith had a phone call with the League [Convener Tina Gardner] and then he put out his statement [on Tuesday, Sept. 13]. So I called Tina, and I just said to her, “Tina, I’d really like to have a conversation with you about this email that came out.” And I understand from Keith and I wanted to hear it from her, not just from Keith. And so I said, “I understand that if something comes up about Roe, that we’re not allowed to have that kind of question asked.”

And she said, “Well, no, because Roe has been codified in Connecticut.”

And I said, “Yes, but SCOTUS has put the onus of abortion rights back to the state. And [these] are [state legislative] seats that we’re running for. So it doesn’t make sense to me that that would be the case, that we’re not allowed to have a conversation about this.”

That was pretty much a back-and-forth. And she said, “No, we’re not going to because you know, we already have it as law.” And I said, “Yes, but that’s law that can be undone.”

And then I said, “And in regards to January 6th, if someone wanted to discuss that and their fear is about the possible loss of democracy in our country? Is that something that’s off the table?”

And she said, “Well, that’s a national issue.”

And I said, “Well, democracy at every level is really a state and local municipal level. And our president just gave a full speech in Philadelphia the previous week about this fear of the loss of democracy. So I don’t understand why that is not something that we can’t discuss and our opinions on democracy and how we would present ourselves.”

And [Tina] said, “Well these decisions…” this is sort of key… she said, “These guidelines, the debate guidelines, come from the state [LWV].”

And I said, “Are you saying that the state has told you that we are not allowed to talk about anything unless it’s a local issue or local/state issue?”

And she said, “Well, you know, I didn’t make these decisions alone. I did them with, and I don’t want to throw Pam under the bus, but I did them with [LWV Program Chair] Pam Klem and the moderator.” So she basically threw everybody under the bus.

And I said, “Well, so you’re telling me that this is something that’s in the state guidelines.”

Well, she prevaricated. She was very uncomfortable. And she never said “Yes.”

And so I said, “Well, Tina, I’m gonna have to really think about this because I can’t debate in this kind of situation. I’d like to find a way forward, but I don’t think that it’s the right thing to do to have people not be able to ask questions about things that concern them.”

And so that was pretty much it. We agreed to circle back, that she didn’t really say anything other than that and we just left it there.

GMW: I want to make sure because, candidly Keith’s recollection of how he phrased questions and how Tina answered them, at various points said he couldn’t remember exactly how he phrased the questions and he couldn’t remember exactly how Tina answered it.

So what you just gave me as your account, are you firm in your statement that those were the things that you asked, and those were the things that she answered as close as possible to what was said, assuming you didn’t record the conversation?

Maher: No, no, I did not [record]. But I understand. It’s been a week. There’s been a lot of conversation about all this. So as close as possible to my recollection, I know for a fact I asked her the two questions. I know for a fact that I discussed President Biden’s speech and I discussed the fact that SCOTUS sent abortion rights back to the state. It was very clear that that’s what they did, and that just as they were codified, they can be undone. And those are conversations that we should be able to have with constituents.

So I know those two statements are within the framework. They may not be the exact words, but they’re in the framework of what we discussed.

GMW: And again, she conveyed to you that, even questions about how the issue was put back to the states could not be discussed?

Maher: We didn’t get that deeply into it. I mean, she didn’t say that. But my sense of the conversation was that she did not want these hot-button issues to be discussed because that had been the request of the other candidate. And so she was caught between a rock and a hard place. Not because of her… I don’t know what her beliefs are. But she had agreed to something that she then was finding, in my impression, she was finding difficult to defend. And because she was finding it difficult to defend, it was not an in-depth, engaged conversation. It was more of a stonewall conversation.

GMW: Did you discuss who made the request and what the specific requests were?

Maher: No, I did not. I was purely reacting to the two bullet points from her letter and building on what I had discussed with Keith, what I had learned from him. I didn’t distinctly say to her, “Who is the candidate?” because, quite frankly, at that point that wasn’t my focus. My focus was free speech and people being able to ask the questions that concerned them and not limiting. So I wasn’t as focused on the candidate. I wasn’t trying to do a ‘gotcha.’ I was trying to understand what the parameters were from the LWV and how we could move forward with this.”

I think the problem is, this is a bigger issue. I think it is indicative of what we’re seeing elsewhere and that’s the most disturbing thing. That within our town with this League debate, because in Ridgefield — and I’m doing the Ridgefield debate — that is also going to be 50 minutes, which is unusual. It should be 60 minutes because there are four candidates on the stage. And because there are two senators, [two Senate Districts] in Ridgefield. It’s unfortunate because really it’s restricting the time, which it restricts the amount that the public can hear from the candidates.

And I think my biggest concern, again, not to do a ‘gotcha,’ but to say, This is a problem, when we take what has been a time-tested format, and we start nibbling at the edges of it, to take it apart without clarity, without transparency, without engagement of all the parties. And that’s really to my question about democracy, that’s really what we’re here for. We are here to be transparent and give our answers and be judged by the electorate on what those answers are. And how can that be the case when there are limitations put in, which unfortunately feel like a trend from elsewhere, they do not feel like Wilton. They do not feel like the way the [Wilton] League has run in the past. And they feel as though their external pressure is coming into our communities and trying to change things. Not for the better.

(Full text of the statement released by Ceci Maher on Tuesday, Sept. 13:)

“Democrat Ceci Maher Condemns Republican Attempts to Silence Reproductive Rights”

“Republican State Senate and House candidates have demanded that the Wilton League of Women Voters ban any mention of reproductive rights at their upcoming legislative debate. Democratic candidate for State Senate Ceci Maher had the following response:

“‘Our laws are only as strong as the lawmakers we elect to protect them. With Roe v. Wade gone, Connecticut legislators have a responsibility to fiercely protect abortion rights in Connecticut. We can’t be silent,” said Maher, “This backroom attempt to strip reproductive rights from an upcoming legislative debate is clear evidence that my Republican opponent, who voted with the anti-abortion Republican party 98% of the time, cannot be trusted to protect our rights.'”