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 Keith Denning, the Democratic candidate for State Representative (42nd District), conducted on Sunday, Sept. 18. Denning alleged that initial rules set for the debate by the LWV were changed after one or more candidates requested that question topics be limited, including banning some topics — specifically Roe v. Wade and Jan. 6. He said the LWV was showing favoritism for one candidate or party.
Denning issued a statement to the press stating the Republicans were trying to exclude the topic of choice from the debate and that the LWV was forbidding questions about reproductive rights to be asked. Shortly after, Democratic organizations (including the Wilton Town Committee) began running ads on social media accusing Denning’s Republican opponent Kim Healy of having extreme views and refusing to debate if Roe was a topic.
The events and dates to which he refers can be tracked on the timeline of events.
Other key chapters published today: (will be updated as they are published)
- Interview with Kim Healy, Republican candidate for State Representative
- Interview with Ceci Maher, Democratic candidate for State Senator
- Interview with Toni Boucher, Republican candidate for State Senator
Denning began by recounting his own timeline and recollection of events related to the debates and everything that’s happened. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. No content or meaning has been changed.
Keith Denning: So it was my impression that I was invited to a debate. It would be sponsored by the League of Women Voters, who would follow the LWV rules, with [GMW] as a sponsor. And that questions could be asked by the public and they could entail anything as long as it had to do with state issues, or with responsibilities of a State Representative for [my race]. So it was pretty broad in my mind, and I had no problem with that. And I expected that I could pretty much talk about anything that anybody wanted to ask and there was no limit. I didn’t see it as limiting at all, let me put it that way.
GMW: So, as I understand it, another party said, we would like to make some adjustments…
Denning: No, I received a letter, it came from the LWV and it said, [paraphrasing] “In response to concerns… we’ve made some changes to the rules surrounding the debate.” And one of them was the time period — it would go from 60 minutes to 50 minutes — and the other one was, “We will only accept questions…” and I have to look at it. But when I realized that they were changing the second one that said only, I thought, well, this is a limiting factor but I wasn’t sure how it was limiting because it was vague enough that it didn’t really clarify.
So I called [Wilton LWV Convener] Tina Gardner.
GMW: How did that differ from what you understood before — was it not clear before that questions needed to relate to state issues?
Denning: I get, it had to be limited to the state, but that’s pretty broad. I mean, right now, almost anything that’s going on in the world is a state’s issue. So in that regard, it’s a pretty broad scope that I would think. The things that I was asking was, and I don’t want to jump ahead in the story, but I wanted to ask [Tina] about whether January 6th, if somebody asked a question —
GMW: Let’s hang on for a second, because I just want to make sure we’re getting this point. You originally understood it to be that questions needed to be pretty —
Denning: — broad, yes. Very broad range of questions. I didn’t see it as limiting. Like, if they were to ask, ‘How do you feel about the war in Ukraine?’ that would’ve been absurd. But if they were to ask about any issue going on in this country… pretty much answer that. How do you feel about the Queen having died and King Charles assuming the throne? looked ridiculous.
I’m a new candidate. I don’t see the press or the League of Women Voters as a threat. I have always respected both and I still do, but I didn’t expect there to be limitations on what voters could really ask what was important to them in Connecticut, What they could talk about.
GMW: This is the point I’m trying to get at, and please keep in mind, I am not arguing with you. I’m trying to get you to respond to a [specific] question so that I understand the answer clearly.
Denning: Okay. Okay. I understand. I know. I get it.
GMW: So your initial understanding was that you were being asked to participate in a debate that was going to be about state issues and that’s what the questions were going to be about…
GMW: And then you were told it was limited to state issues. How were those two things different?
Denning: Because I got a letter. When I get a letter that says we’ve made some changes. They’re the ones who told me changes. One was time, and the other one was basically, they said, “It’s a change.” And I didn’t understand, how can you have ‘a change’ in what you basically said before, was the same thing? It didn’t make sense. How can they say, “Oh, we’ve made some changes to the debate. One we’re gonna change the time. And two, we’re gonna only about some talk about state issues.”
And I’m thinking, how can that be a change? Because that was the original discussion. That was the original rule.
GMW: I want to be particular here, because this [distinction] matters — that people were only allowed to ask? Or that you would only talk about? Asking questions versus talking about — those are two different things.
Denning: I’ve got to go to the letter… The letter says, [Begins reading] “In response to a request from one of you, and after consultation with our co-sponsors and moderator, I’m writing to make the following tweaks to the format details outlined in our formal invitation of Sept. 7: shorten the time allotted to constituent questions 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.”
Denning: So that word, ‘clarify‘…
Denning: It made me question if I understood clearly what could, and could not, be asked. Because it was a change. Why would you have to clarify that this is a change? They stated it was a change, the formal details. And it’s like, why, if the rules were still as open as I perceived, why would you need to clarify that? That made me question why there was a change in that in particular.
And then it was, “Please confirm by …” — this is another thing that made me question it — they said, “Please confirm by end of day, your ability to participate.” To me, anybody who says you have to make a decision now means they want me to miss something. They want me to overlook a detail.
GMW: That’s a lot of skepticism for a [respected] organization like the League of Women Voters.
Denning: It became a lot of skepticism for the LWV when I got a notice that said they were making changes. Because you would think the LWV had done this enough and repeated it enough that there shouldn’t have to be changes.
And the biggest thing that threw me on this whole thing was, “In response to requests from one of you and after consultation with our co-sponsors.” Why would the LWV have yielded to one particular individual, anything, without having discussed it with everyone? To me it shows they were basically saying, “We’ve heard one of you say that you don’t like the format or something and the time, and we’ve yielded to their change.”
To me, that means you’ve given special consideration to one of the candidates and I don’t know who.
And I would think the LWV voters has done this enough. They don’t need to do that anymore. They know how to run a debate. They’ve done it for a long, long time. There are standards, there are rules. Again, I’m a new candidate. I am jumping into this with very little experience in how this all plays out. And I am pretty much trusting of people. I believe when they say they’re going to have a debate, that they’re going to have it with an honest and open format with full transparency. And I believe that with the LWV.
GMW: So, then you called Tina.
Denning: I called Tina to clarify.
GMW: And what happened then?
Denning: I talked with Tina and said, “I saw there were changes. And I just want to clarify, for example, if somebody wanted to ask the question such as: ‘On January 6th, 2021, the Capitol was stormed. Do you believe that we should take special precautions to protect the Capitol in our state so that something like this could not happen here?'”
GMW: That was the question you asked?
Denning: That’s what I asked. And she said we would not be able to discuss it if it was a January 6th, 2021, question.
GMW: This is key, because I know that there’s there’s a question of ‘the game of telephone’ and a difference of what [you each said happened].
Denning: I get it. So that’s —
GMW: So I want to clarify, that’s…
Denning: …the first question I asked, and the second question — ”
GMW: Hold on, Keith, hang on. I want to reiterate this. That was the question you asked? It wasn’t a general —
Denning: I don’t remember the exact question, but it had to do with, I know for certain, the wording had to do with January 6th, 2021.
GMW: It’s important. The precision is important.
Denning: I know, I wish I’d written it down.
So let’s just say that I asked, “Could someone from the audience ask about what our opinion was on what happened on January 6th, 2021?”
GMW: That’s different than, “Does the state capital need protection?” Do you remember —
Denning: I don’t remember where we… I have had many conversations about this, as you can imagine. I’m just toning it down to, I asked her, “Could we talk about it [at the debate]?” And she said, “No.”
GMW: Keith, when you say ‘toning it down,’ this is why I’m trying to be precise because this is where everything hinges. I don’t want you to change or tone anything down for telling me, I need to know what happened.
Denning: I’m sorry. I just don’t remember.
GMW: That’s okay. But that’s why I’m pushing you on this.
Denning: That’s okay. I get it. I just don’t remember. What I was getting to was, “Could somebody ask a state question about January 6th, 2021?”
GMW: And again this is where this matters. Did you ask if someone can ask a state question about that? or [just] can someone ask about that?
Denning: I said ‘a state question’ about it.
GMW: Okay. You sure you said ‘a state question about [Jan. 6]’?
Denning: I can’t be sure of anything about that. No.
What I remember, in my head, I was trying to couch it in the frame of a state issue and a national event. But I cannot say honestly. I just don’t remember. I didn’t record it. I didn’t write it down.
GMW: Okay. And then your conversation with Tina continued — how?
Denning: I said, “Could someone ask an issue about abortion occurring in what’s occurred with Roe v. Wade and abortion in the state of Connecticut?”
GMW: Again, did you say, “in the state”?
Denning: I did say that. I did say that, because that was a state issue.
GMW: And Tina’s response?
Denning: ‘No.’ She said because it’s already the law of the land. And… I don’t remember. I don’t remember her exact language, but she said, “No, it’s already the law and it’s not an issue,” or something to the effect that it’s not something that needs to be discussed here.
[Editor’s note: 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. 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.”]
GMW: Okay. And did you say anything in response to her?
Denning: I said to her, at that point, I’m not sure that I feel comfortable with these changes. And at this particular time — again, I don’t remember the quotes, but I said to her, “I don’t feel comfortable with the changes that you’ve made and I need to review this. And, but at this particular time, I’m not sure I can participate in a debate.”
GMW: And you felt that because, why?
Denning: Because one, there had been changes and I wanted to get an opinion from people that I was working with on the campaign to see what their take on this was. And one, I think that the Dobbs [v. Jackson] decision is extremely important to the people of Connecticut. It is not a settled issue. It is not something that should be taken off the table.
I’ve knocked on over 3,600 doors. And I have talked with so many people in this new district that have told me that they are terrified with what the radical right is trying to do. And the fact that they feel that they have lost their right to protect themselves and manage their own bodies. And I hear them. And so to hear from the League of Women Voters that they are now saying this is an issue you can’t talk about is raising red flags, especially when I hear that this was all done by a candidate’s concerns.
It wasn’t done by the LWV. It was done by a candidate’s concerns.
In fact, I remember as we’re sitting here, during that discussion with Tina, I mentioned to her, “This doesn’t seem like that you should acquiesce to one candidate’s concerns. It sounds like you’re showing favoritism. I don’t think people would really appreciate this. The LWV.” In fact, I mentioned the press. I said, “If I were to mention this to GOOD Morning Wilton, I would imagine that they would not appreciate it.” And Tina said, “We’ve already talked with [GMW Editor] Heather [Borden Herve] and she’s fine with it.” That also was another thing where I thought this doesn’t make sense. That one candidate should be able to influence and change a debate.
GMW: So you then issued a statement.
Denning: Yes. I thought this was important. It needed to be documented how this was, that what had [first] been sent out had shifted from tweaks based on one candidate. That was what irritated me more than anything.
Keith Denning Statement, Released Sept. 13, 2022
“At the request of the Republican candidates, the Wilton League of Women Voters has forbidden the inclusion of reproductive rights as a question topic at their upcoming legislative debate. Democratic candidate for state representative Keith Denning had the following response to this unabashedly political request for special treatment:
“‘My Republican opponent is debating only if Roe is not a topic, just as the Republican Party is stripping millions of women of their fundamental rights. She knows that her extreme views on important issues like abortion, guns, and voting rights are out of touch, so she’d rather not discuss them,’ said Denning. ‘The extremist assault on women’s rights will only succeed if we stay silent. I, for one, will not. I hope the Republican candidates and the League reconsider their decision.’”
GMW: So, in your search for clarifying what you felt you heard from the LWV Convener, limitations for what would be asked of the candidates potentially about subjects that were important, you felt…
Denning: Correct. To expand on that thought, if they’re willing to say that January 6th, 2021, couldn’t be talked about, and abortion couldn’t be talked about. I could go on. I felt like I had entered a legal contract that was so constricting. That’s what made me reticent to want to even participate because, what other restrictions had they put on this?
And it was in the subsequent letter, when [LWV officials] tried to clarify, they basically said it was my opposition. It was both candidates and the party chair. And they wanted to have a lot of restrictions but that they only gave them a little bit. And they used the word ‘ultimatum’.
Letter/Statement from LWV officials about tweaks that had been made to the debate format, issued Sept. 14, 2022:
[embeddoc url=”https://goodmorningwilton.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/2022-State-Race-Debate-Duststorm-v24.pdf” height=”500px” viewer=”google”]
Denning: I’m sitting there going, one, what party is allowed to give an ultimatum to the LWV and what was the ultimatum? And two, what was their original ask? I mean, if you’re saying you’re only giving them this, and this is a change, it’s like, what [else] did they ask for? The questions keep coming and coming and coming. And I’m like, I am sitting there thinking, obviously someone has asked for a lot of change. This is what they’re giving them. Even though it sounds the same, the LWV is saying they’ve changed it. And we’re letting you know.
And one, why would the LWV, who’s had this experience in having candidate debates, acquiesce to any party or any candidate without having first discussed it with everybody who’s going to be involved in the debates? This is not their first rodeo. They know how to do this. And so red flags are raising everywhere.
And as it proceeds, I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t get involved in this at all. I’m also aware of the fact that in Greenwich, the Republican party decided to take over the candidates debate and pull all candidates from the debate. And it wasn’t a candidate making the choice, it was the party making the choice.
So I’m aware of all this. Like I said, red flags are flying everywhere. I don’t know what I don’t know. And every time I ask a question, it gives me an answer that makes me feel uncomfortable with the whole entire process.
GMW: So where in your mind do things stand now, after the League sent that letter saying that they’re going back to their original plan?
Denning: There’s so many questions going on. One, who the candidates are. I called [Democratic candidate for State Senator] Ceci Maher. She said it was not her who asked for any special requests. So it became very clear one of the persons on the Republican party had become culpable in asking for the changes if Ceci was telling me the truth.
GMW: How did it become clear that it was your opponent?
Denning: Well, I wasn’t sure it was my opponent at that time. But I have to assume that it was my opponent because it was a Republican opponent. If you’re smart at all, you’re going to assume that the person working against you had something to do with it until you know otherwise.
GMW: So you made the assumption it was Kim Healy [who asked for the changes]?
Denning: I made the assumption that it was a Republican and I made the assumption that Kim had something to do with it. Yes.
[Editor’s note: Denning described events at an LWV Zoom meeting on Friday, Sept. 16 where the debate “dustup” was discussed. Three of the four candidates attended and were able to make statements before being asked to leave the call so that the members could meet. GMW reached out to both Wilton LWV Convener Tina Gardner and Program Chair Pam Klem to ask further questions beyond the statements they provided. They have declined to say anything more than what is contained in those statements. GMW has reached out to other members of the LWV who were present at the Sept. 16 meeting, but thus far, we have not been able to corroborate some details of that meeting. We have published what we have been able to corroborate.]
At that point, I had said I will participate in the League debate. And then Kim and Tony, both made statements during that meeting. And Kim, at the end of her statement said something about, “Oh, I’m not sure if Keith isn’t willing to follow the rules of the ….” I had said [in my statement that] I would only follow the rules of the first debate, where we could talk about the real issues. You have to get [the exact quote] from Kim. She made the comment, “Well, I’m not sure if he’s not gonna do this and maybe not,…” And, but she was going to participate and Toni [Boucher] would also participate. Before I got off I said, “I want to make it very clear that I’m only going to participate if the first invitation is honored.”
I’m still concerned that the moderator hasn’t changed, the two people running the debate haven’t changed. I’m still concerned that issues on abortion, which if I don’t get a question on abortion during the LWV debate, somebody has — I hate to be Donald Trump on this, but somebody has rigged the debate because I have met too many people for it not to be.
And now to have the LWV have a debate where there’s no question about abortion? It would be absolutely insane to not hear that question at some point during the debate about the state of Connecticut and what we would do to protect it, to enshrine it into the constitution, to do something.
For the very first time in my life, and I hate to say it, but I don’t trust the League of Women Voters anymore because somebody in the Wilton LWV — and I don’t know the process — took a party complaints, adjustments, concerns [and] adjusted the debate rules as per their own admission, and basically decided that they would do what another party wanted without talking with anybody else.
It reeks of corruption. I’m sorry, it just does. And I expected more.
The first time a candidate, anytime a candidate, comes to the LWV and asks for a special request, it should be documented. It should be recorded. And then the discussion should be, “Do we share this with everybody else to see if they would acquiesce to it?” There was no openness or transparency in either making the decision or even resolving the problem that came about from the decision. I still don’t know what the ultimatum was that the Republicans put on the LWV, and I asked.
I was told on two different occasions that they were following guidelines from the LWV that I had asked for twice to please send me the guidelines that the LWV has in handling these debates. I have yet to receive them. I don’t know what the full extent of the request of the Republicans’ ask — by their own admission, the League says, “They asked for a lot more, we only gave them a little.” I think that them not disclosing what the ultimatum was for and their rules for handling the debate, their quote, unquote, guidelines, shows that they are not being transparent and open about this. And I’ve had my reservations to this day about what kind of organization I belong to.
But I am participating in the debate.
I have not come to the conclusion. I would feel better if everybody who has been involved in this, including the moderator, would recuse themselves, but I will participate anyway.
GMW: So even the moderator you’re questioning?
Denning: Yes. Okay. I, I don’t know who to trust anymore with the league. I just don’t okay? And with good cause — again, their openness and transparency has been lacking on everything I have asked for. I have learned nothing. And when I wanted to discuss it with the rest of the League, I was blocked.
GMW: Acknowledging that part of politics is a game —
Denning: Agree, a chess game. You can quote me on that. It’s a chess game.
GMW: Okay. But in terms of, a lot of candidates will answer a question they’re asked with an answer that doesn’t necessarily answer the question that was asked. They say what they want to say. Did you feel that, no matter what question was asked, did you feel you were going to be limited about what you could talk about [at the debate]?
Denning: Again, I’m a new candidate. I may be naive, but I don’t like the fact that politics has degraded to the point that one party would influence the rules to try to make it so that questions could not be asked when; to the LWV who’s supposed to be an objective participant without bias; and they used an ultimatum (going back to their words); they asked for more, but they were only given a little.
Excuse me, I am frustrated as both an American and a human being that the Republican party continues to display bad behavior. And in fact, even when Democrats display bad behavior and they’re not slapped down for it, for somebody not saying, “This is unacceptable.”
Now it has come to my attention that the LWV, [which is] supposed to be unbiased, supposed to have no preference, once again has succumbed to bad behavior. And I find that very frustrating and I didn’t want to play by those rules.
So yes, I knew that I could just go off the record and say whatever I wanted [at the debate]. But to me that degrades our democracy, it degrades the format for debates. It degrades us as a people, and as a nation.
GMW: Did you think that you were going to be limited from talking about subjects?
Denning: Yes. Because I have not participated in a debate on this level to know that they wouldn’t just say, “Mr. Denning, you have to stop.” And not let me talk. I don’t know what I don’t know. So yes, I did feel like I was going to be limited.
Furthermore, but this irritated me. What right does the League have to restrict the voters of Connecticut from asking about pertinent questions in their lives? Even on the state level, because the party asks them to it?
And that irritated me even more. It’s like the Republican party had basically said to the women in Connecticut and men in Connecticut, “Oh, by the way, you’re not going to be allowed to talk to either candidate about abortion. We’re going to take all your questions out. We’re not going to be able to talk to you about what happened on January 6th, 2021. And who knows what other issues that the LWV — not because of their guidelines, because I can’t find the guidelines, — but because the Republican party asked them to?
Like I said, there’s nothing about this that seems honest, open, fair. It reeks of corruption. That’s all I can think about is, it’s like a movie. You would think that there’s no way they would do something like this, that it looked like they had.
GMW: There were two versions of an ad about [your opponent] Kim Healy that appeared online. Did you have anything to do with that ad?
Denning: My campaign had nothing to do with that.
GMW: And what did you think about that ad?
Denning: I haven’t seen it. It has not shown up on my Facebook.
GMW: Have you heard anything about the ad from anyone?
Denning: I have heard about the ad. But I have not seen it on any of my social media. I have not seen the ad on my Facebook.
GMW: Is it okay if I email you the ad while we’re talking? There are three images, two of which are about Kim, and one is about you.
Denning: Oh, really? I hadn’t heard anything about me yet. Oh, let’s see. Yes. I actually have seen the third one, “Defend Choice.”
GMW: What do you think about the first two ads, acknowledging that you’re seeing them for the first time?
Denning: I don’t know that these are not true. In fact, I have to assume that it is true because again there was — when did these go out?
GMW: Within the last week. Toward the end of the week.
Denning: So before Friday, I still don’t know that that wasn’t the ultimatum. I don’t know what the ultimatum was and I don’t know what the guidelines were that she didn’t want to follow or that they wanted to change. Because I know that both candidates were involved as well as a member of the Republican party chair. I don’t know that [what the ad says] is not true. In fact, I would have to say that I believe this to be true. If they were not true, if they were true, this could be cleared up very easily by her saying she would be happy to debate even if Roe [v. Wade] was a topic.
GMW: There is a tagline on this that says, “Approved by Keith Denning.”
Denning: [Reading the ad] Approved by Keith Denning.
GMW: The disclosure that’s on every ad.
Denning: [still reading] Brockman, treasurer, who is Matthew Brockman. Oh, this is the CTMT team. Matthew Brockman is with the [Democratic State] Central Committee and yes, the Central Committee ran this ad.
GMW: And it says you approved it.
Denning: I don’t remember seeing this as it is. I do remember seeing proposals, but I don’t remember seeing this as it is.
GMW: So you didn’t in fact approve it?
Denning: I can’t, no, to be honest, I don’t know what I did or did not approve. I am still learning this.
Denning: I should say that all of that was off the record.
GMW: You can’t do that [after the fact].
Denning: Actually, I’m willing to say it on record. Yes. I approve this. I approve this ad because I did approve an ad saying this. I just haven’t seen it.
GMW: So you approved what?
Denning: Who did, the second [red] one?
GMW: I have it as something that was posted on the DTC [Facebook page]. I don’t see a disclosure line.
Denning: And my campaign, I’m assuming, posted at the third ad, because I’ve seen this before. That was probably made by my campaign.
[Kim] can clear this up very clearly, if she wants to eliminate any doubt about what this sentence says. And just admitting she’ll debate.
GMW: It says “MAGA Republican.” Do you believe that she is a MAGA Republican?
Denning: I believe all Republicans, if you can call yourself a Republican, are a MAGA Republican.
GMW: And do you know for sure whether or not Kim, how Kim feels about Roe v. Wade?
Denning: I know that Kim has retweeted, on her tweet page (and this is only because someone showed me because I don’t really know how to use Twitter), that she has retweeted people who are against Roe or wanted Roe overturned and were against abortion.
I would love to have Kim clarify where she stands on Roe. … I’ve yet to hear from her.