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, GMW 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. While everyone involved has tried 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. 

A few short days after the Wilton LWV invited candidates to participate in the debates, a conflict arose. It was in response to a follow-up message sent by LWV officials to candidates saying that “in response to a request from one [candidate],” two “tweaks” would be made to the formal debate invitation: shortening the length of the debates and ensuring all questions posed to the candidates would relate to state-level issues.”

Democratic candidate for State Representative, Keith Denning asked LWV officials who had asked for the change, and why the LWV made the changes without consulting the other candidates. Denning contacted LWV Convener Tina Gardner, who he said informed him that questions about certain subjects would be limited — namely Roe v. Wade and January 6th.

Denning said Gardner also told him the request to limit topics was made by the two Republican candidates and the Wilton Republican Town Committee. Denning and his fellow Democratic candidate, Ceci Maher, quickly issued statements critical of the situation and the League.

Not long after that, campaign ads appeared on social media accusing Denning’s Republican opponent Kim Healy of refusing to debate about Roe v. Wade because of her “extreme views” and labeling her a “MAGA Republican.” The ads were paid for by a Democratic state PAC and the Wilton Democratic Town Committee.

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GOOD Morning Wilton asked DTC Chair Tom Dubin for comments and submitted lengthier questions to him at various moments since the controversy erupted. DTC Vice Chair Vicki Rossi responded to all requests on behalf of Dubin because Dubin is married to the Wilton LWV Program Chair Pam Klem, who is one of the LWV officials overseeing the debate, and they wanted to avoid any conflict of interest. 

Other key chapters published today: (will be updated as they are published)

Below are DTC statements and responses to questions sent by GMW over the past two weeks.

By Sept. 19, with an indication that the debates might fall apart because no candidates had confirmed to participate, and tensions escalating between the candidates, the LWV officials sent a statement to all four candidates and media outlets.

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The statement reissued 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.”

In response to the update, on the afternoon of Tuesday, Sept. 20, Rossi issued the following statement on behalf of the DTC:

“Wilton’s Democratic candidates were surprised by the League’s rule changes and asked for clarification. They were told the changes will bar topics including Roe and the strength of our democracy (election denial and January 6). The League explained on one of those calls, and later confirmed in its written public statement, that the Republican candidates and their [Town Committee] chair had insisted on rule changes as ‘an ultimatum.’ That is not an idle threat, as Greenwich Republicans are boycotting 2022 debates after the Greenwich League wouldn’t acquiesce to changes. Wilton voters should know if a candidate insists on rule changes that restrict topics. As recently as yesterday Kim Healy publicly stated that Roe is not a ‘statewide issue,’ and therefore the League should not allow the topic. In the post-Roe world, all candidates should be 100% clear where they stand on the rights of every woman to make her own reproductive choices, including the option of abortion under the old Roe standards, and we look forward to hearing from all candidates.”

Shortly after, GOOD Morning Wilton emailed several follow-up questions to the DTC for additional clarification and information. The questions and answers are below:

  • When did Kim “state publicly yesterday” that Roe is not a statewide issue and the League should not allow the topic? Please provide the specific proof of that.

DTC officials pointed GMW in the direction of Healy’s Facebook page, to a post that Healy wrote, which they say proves their point. Healy’s post was about one of two “disgusting negative ads…approved by my opponent. It is false information.” In that post she writes, “The topic of “Roe” will not be a topic at the Wilton League of Women Voters debate since the League only allows topics that are CT statewide issues.” 

  • What do you think about Kim’s press statement she just released? She said the ads and statements made by Keith and the DTC are “insulting and hostile,” that the ads are spreading lies and defamatory, and that she is filing a complaint with Meta/Facebook. Do you have a reaction to that?

Rossi said to “Consider two facts: 1) the League stated publicly that one party’s candidates and chair gave an ultimatum unless the League changed the debate rules, and 2) the League for the first time ever then made one significant change — that Roe was off the table. We stand by the ad and are pleased that the League has now changed course.”

  • Kim has told us that she did not issue an ultimatum on any topic being asked, and she expected to be asked about abortion in the debate, and has no problem answering questions about it.

“The League made a clear statement that Kim ‘sought significant material changes to [the debate] format before agreeing to participate.’ They characterized that as ‘an ultimatum.’ We think it is wrong for her to have tried to influence the rules unilaterally without her opponent’s involvement,” Rossi responded.

  • Who paid for the two ads and who approved them? The CTCC ad says it was approved by Keith, but he told me first he did not remember seeing it or approving it and then later told me he saw a lot of proposals but didn’t remember approving it as is. He then later said he didn’t know what he did or didn’t approve and then said, “I approve this ad because I did approve an ad saying this, I just haven’t seen it.”

While the red ad is clearly labeled “Paid for by the Wilton Democratic Town Committee,” DTC officials say they have “no insight” into who paid for the other ad.

  • Kim said she has asked for an apology about the ads because they are spreading lies. Is that something you would consider?

Rossi said the DTC would “consider a mutual statement” with Healy. “We understand that she does not agree with our ad, and we hope she understands that her effort to influence the debate rules without her opponent being involved was inappropriate. Much of this could have been avoided if Kim had shared that she was trying to influence the rules of the debate.”

  • In her interview with GMW Kim said (among other things), “I 100% believe that women have the right to make their own decisions about their own bodies. Full stop, no questions. No man should ever.” What is your reaction to that statement?

DTC leaders declined to comment before Healy’s full interview had been published.

  • Will Kim’s statement [made Tuesday, Sept. 20] convince you to take the DTC-sponsored ad down?

While Rossi said the DTC ads were scheduled for a limited run ending Wednesday morning, Sept. 21, they came down a day earlier — the day of Healy’s statement. “The ads have raised the issue and were stopped today.” Rossi said.