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 Toni Boucher, the Republican candidate for State Senator (26th District), conducted on Tuesday, Sept. 20. After tweaks were made to the debate format, LWV officials released a statement identifying two candidates and a town political party chair as having made ultimatums about more extensive changes (that were turned down). Democrats accused Boucher and her fellow Republican candidate for State Representative (42nd District), Kim Healy, of requesting that question topics be limited, including banning some topics outright — specifically Roe v. Wade and January 6th. What’s more, Democratic candidates said they learned that directly from LWV Convener Tina Gardner

For their part, Boucher and Healy have denied making any change requests, other than two suggestions: that the length of runtime for the debates be shortened and that the two separate debates (State Senate and State Rep) be combined.

All related events and dates can be tracked on our overview of the story and 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: When you heard that there was some issue about debate questions, questions about whether or not Roe v. Wade could be asked, and that questions were being limited at the request of a candidate, what was your response?

Toni Boucher: I said, well, that’s laughable because I would love that question. I would love to be able to tell everyone my position. I do not remember or have any interaction that had anything to do with what questions would be asked. The only thing that was brought up — I brought it up and Kim — was the number of minutes the debates would last, because I have a lot more experience with five debates being arranged for this particular [campaign]. And most of them have everybody debating together on one stage, both reps and senators, and they went maybe 60 minutes, maybe a few [are] a little bit more. [Wilton’s] was like 120 minutes — 60 minutes per each [race]. So it seemed like a really long time. However, at the end of the day that became a moot issue. But the subject of what topics [could] come up was something I never heard.

And I was surprised when I was asked that question [by a reporter], about had anyone restricted the questions to be asked? I said, “No, not on my end.” Certainly, I had not heard it. And I hadn’t heard that Kim had mentioned that any question was off the table.

The emails show it. Actually, we have emails that went back and forth. [The League has] certain policies about what questions they wanted, state-related questions, but we did not weigh in on those. There was no weighing in on topics at all. In fact, you know me, any question is fair game as far as I’m concerned. It’s always an opportunity for me to be able to state clearly where I stand on any issue, controversial or otherwise. And I have a 22-year record to show that I’m not reluctant at all. If anything, you know, I will face the controversy head-on.

GMW: The statement that came out from the LWV [on Sept. 14] called “Campaign Debates, A Bedrock Tradition Underpinning Wilton Elections,” in that statement is their recounting, “… we invited all four candidates; two accepted promptly, a third candidate sought significant material changes to that format before agreeing to participate, an ultimatum that was echoed by the other candidate, from that party and their town party chair.”

“Their characterization of it being an ultimatum… 

Boucher:  I’ve never issued any ultimatum on anything.

Remember, at this point, there was also a town chair involved as well. In some other towns, the town chairs negotiate for their candidates. And in this case, Tina [Gardner] and Pam [Klem] would not allow that. So you have another person involved in all this, right?

But no the problem was the significant change going from 120 minutes to 60 minutes or 75. That was the big stumbling block. It was not about topics or any of that. As far as everyone then finally felt comfortable that there would be an impartial review of questions being asked, but not what was to be asked, only that there was impartiality there.

I would say that I was really on the periphery.

The only time I was made aware of anything was when someone from the Hearst newspaper asked me about limiting the questions for Roe v. Wade. And I kind of laughed at that. I had no idea anybody would even bring that up. I said, “I welcome any opportunity for any controversy where I could be on the record. You know that. So I was really pretty surprised that the topic came up. Because the only real push back and forth was, for me, the number of minutes — simply because I had so many debates being done. And none of them were as long as that, or they were not separated — State Senators and State Reps, they were mostly together on the main stage. And they would ask the same question and go down the road and back again.

I think this reporter was trying to find out if something newsworthy, like [the debate cancellation in] Greenwich would occur here and nothing at all of that sort. I think people were trying to see if that’s going to be like a trend.

So if they were saying “a material change,” material change is the number of minutes. How long would it last? And if everybody was going to do it together, if it was going to be separated out with the Senate candidates versus the rep candidates.

[Boucher emphasized that for her, it was all about the amount of time and how busy it is on the campaign trail.]

Boucher: I said, “Tina, I’m juggling these five [debates]. Tell me when and where, and you know, this a lot.” And one thing I did say to her was, “Ridgefield made it sound to me when they first [reached out] that they were going to invite Wilton and Redding [to partner on Boucher’s race debate. “So that everybody will be together. And it didn’t turn out to be that way. So I was sort of surprised.

And I said, ‘Okay, I live in Wilton’s. How could I say no to [a debate in] Wilton? Of course. But it would’ve been nice to have all three towns together to do it. It would’ve been better for the candidates because, honestly, it’s so busy, right at the end like that. You’re so exhausted by a full day of campaigning.