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 has published a special look at how this year’s candidate debates, scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 25, almost derailed thanks to miscommunication, misunderstandings and discord that often accompanies politics. While all involved have tried to make sure the debates will go on as hoped, the resulting collateral damage may leave a lasting mark. 

The story has 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. We’ve published a comprehensive overview and timeline, as well as several other articles and interviews that add more detail. 

Below we relate the narrative focused on the Republican Town Committee in the story. GOOD Morning Wilton asked RTC Chair Peter Wrampe for comments and submitted lengthier questions about the controversy to him as well. Those responses are included below.

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

A few short days after the Wilton LWV invited candidates to participate in the debates, a conflict arose. It was a reaction 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. He said LWV Convener Tina Gardner informed him that questions about certain subjects would be limited — namely Roe v. Wade and January 6th — because they were national, not local, interest. Denning’s fellow Democratic candidate (for State Senator), Ceci Maher, reported the same experience.

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 Maher quickly issued statements critical of the situation and the League.

Emails shared with GOOD Morning Wilton show that Republican candidates Kim Healy (for State Representative) and Toni Boucher (for State Senate) had corresponded with LWV officials multiple times, they say “to suggest” shorter debate length (50 minutes total, not 60 minutes per race) and staging formats (four candidates in one debate rather than two in two separate head-to-heads).

We learned that Wilton Republican Town Committee Chair Peter Wrampe had also reached out to LWV officials the day after the formal candidate invite had been issued, to “respectfully request” changes to the debate format — reiterating Healy and Boucher’s two requests, but also to ask for something the League had never done before: allow the RTC be to “appoint a representative to join your review committee to vet the questions being asked of the candidates.”

League officials rebuffed the requests to combine two debates into one, but they did agree to shorten each planned one-hour into two 50-minute face-offs. They also gave a definitive ‘No’ to Wrampe’s third request, writing it went against League policy and philosophy:
“… as a non-partisan organization (as well as under our state and national guidelines) we cannot have a representative of the RTC serving as a question screener in a specifically partisan capacity.

“…our screening procedures, which call for two League members, one from each of the major parties, working together side-by-side. … a number of League members from each of the major parties… also serve on their respective town committees. … From the League’s vantage point, what is essential is that screening is done 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.”

The Democrats had been the only candidates to initially accept the invitation before, but they soon considered pulling out of the debates after feeling burned that the LWV. Finally, League officials announced they would reissue the original invitation and debate format with no “tweaks,” and they hoped the candidates would all accept the invite as is.

Gardner and LWV Program Chair Pam Klem made the announcement in a statement that cloaked the identities of the candidates but made it clear the Republicans had overstepped the boundaries, using words like “ultimatum” and “demanded”.

Not long after that, negative 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.

Healy issued her own 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 she’d 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.”

Wrampe told GMW that he would “lay my hand on a bible, I didn’t ask about anything else” other than the requests about timing, candidate numbers and a possible RTC question screener. “It was not brought up by me or any of our two candidates as well.”

He reiterated in writing that there were “absolutely not” any specific topics and/or questions that he asked to be taken off the table. Wrampe also refuted the suggestion that he “demanded” anything or made an “ultimatum,” pointing to the word “request” in his email (shown below).

Wrampe didn’t offer any reaction to the LWV statement that mentioned “ultimatum,” and “demands,” telling GMW, “I have not seen the LWV statement,” and “I never made a demand.”

He called the situation that has transpired “unfortunate, to say the least,” and added, “The Wilton voters deserve better.”

Although the ads about Healy put up by the Democratic Town Committee and State Central Committee’s PAC have been pulled, Wrampe said the ads did not reflect the truth and the groups owe her a public apology, “the same as we do when we ‘speak before we think and check our facts.'”

Wrampe hopes the debate will still take place, but has one suggestion for the League: “The LWV should take a step back and make sure that it is ‘fair and balanced.'”