Assemblywoman Mia Bonta (D-Alameda) refused to a debate with her opponent, Mindy Pechenuk, on Thursday, becoming the latest in high-profile incumbent refusing to enter debates only weeks before the election.
Throughout September, debates have been pursued by many GOP candidates and denied by Democrat incumbents, such as Attorney General Rob Bonta, the husband of Assemblywoman Bonta, refusing to debate Republican challenger Nathan Hochman. Some candidates have relented in recent weeks due to polling shifts or public pressure. Most notably, Governor Gavin Newsom had dodged the debate issue for weeks before significant media pressure for a debate with candidate and Senator Brian Dahle (R-Bieber) next month.
Despite some success, refusals continue, with Assemblywoman Bonta’s in particular coming out of nowhere. On Wednesday, the Pechenuk campaign received an e-mail from the League of Women Voters (LWV) Oakland, who have been willing to host a debate for the Assembly District 18 candidates, informing them that the debate would not be happening due to Bonta’s unwillingness to participate.
“Thanks for following up,” read the email from LWV Oakland. “We just heard back from the Bonta campaign that she is unavailable to participate in a candidate forum. We cannot do a forum without both candidates.”
Pechenuk expressed disappointment on Thursday, calling her opponent “Missing In Action (M.I.A.) Bonta” and wondered why the Assemblywoman did not want to debate her, while pointing out numerous campaign issues.
“I thank The League of Women Voters who were willing to set up a debate in October 2022 for the Assembly District 18 race, which would be a debate between Mia Bonta (Incumbent) and myself,” said Pechenuk on Thursday. “I welcome the debate. I believe the voters have a right to see us in action so they can decide how to vote and how to get involved.”
“I stand for building nuclear and desalination plants to ensure abundant energy and water supplies at reasonable prices to our state. I will fight tooth and nail against the nonsensical so-called ‘Green’ Agenda, a depopulation policy which will destroy farmers and producers. It will impoverish all of our working and poor citizens with skyrocketing prices, blackouts and food shortages.”
“Mia and her husband, Rob Bonta, the current Attorney General, are both running for re-election. Both have been in favor of the cannabis lobby and drug lobby. They have had the power of their positions to shut down the drug cartels and fentanyl, while the problem has gotten worse and worse. There were over 108,000 overdose deaths from drugs in 2021 mostly from fentanyl, and California leads the way.”
“Why will Missing In Action not debate me?”
Election experts have noted that many incumbents with comfortable polling percentages or estimated votes often refuse to debate due to costs or not wanting to give their opponent more of a voice on a bigger stage on equal footing with them. They said that Bonta’s was no exception to this trend.
Bonta refuses to debate
“We see this strategy in elections all the time,” noted Justine Rollins, a political advisor and debate organizer, to the Globe on Thursday. “On the presidential level, it’s why we don’t see the more fringe candidates in primary debates after the first few times and it’s why third party candidates keep getting more restrictions like higher minimum polling percentages added on. The other candidates don’t want to bother with someone polling so lowly or giving a forum for them to bring in new ideas and issues. Look at what Perot did in 1992 when he got in on the debates. 19% of the presidential vote was his in part due to being on that stage.”
“In Bonta’s East Bay District, registered Democrats comprise of 64% of all voters. Can you guess the GOP percentage? 6%. To some, it makes sense that Bonta doesn’t want to debate someone with such a remote chance of winning. In this district and others, incumbents and leading candidates 10 points or more ahead see a debate as an unnecessary risk, a platform for their opponent to no benefit for them, a waste of time, a waste of money, a waste of resources. There’s a lot of reasons.”
“The thing is though, debates are incredibly important. Besides bringing up new ideas and issues, and putting in political accountability, debates really show where the candidates are at and what they think. A debate allows people to exit their political echo chamber and hear the others ideas and views. Is it objective? No, but they do change people’s minds. More Pechenuk, this is an opportunity to make her case on a big stage. For Bonta, she can prove that she plays fair, and if she does well, have a ton of great sound bites the next day.”
“Even more, Bonta could finally have Assembly-level debate experience. She hasn’t won an Assembly seat outright just yet. She won a special election, but not a general election. And that special election last year in the run-off? She only squeaked by with 56% of the vote. A debate could really help her here, especially if she is thinking of a higher office in the future.”
“But the big reason to go in on a debate? It’s part of an election and gives voters a better way to decide. Candidates who refuse debates, to many voters, just don’t seem to care about the process and are cowards to many others because they won’t face their opponents on the same playing field.”
As of Thursday, the Bonta campaign has not reversed their position for a debate.
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