CANTON — What is likely to be the only debate in the 116th District Assembly race, held on Oct. 8 at SUNY Canton, is still the subject of controversy.
The Republican challenger, Mark C. Walczyk, is running against incumbent Assemblywoman Addie A. E. Jenne, D-Theresa.
Lenore E. VanderZee, SUNY Canton executive director of university relations, moderated the debate. Most of the questions were asked by local reporters, with three questions coming from the audience.
On Friday, Mr. Walczyk tweeted an investigation by the right-wing news site, the Washington Free Beacon, that claimed Ms. VanderZee was effectively a Democratic partisan.
“The same ‘non-partisan’ (Ms. VanderZee) hijacked the moderator position after we invited @WDTnews for the only debate @AddieJenne agreed to at SUNY Canton. Now we know why questions from the audience about corruption, taxes, Second Amendment rights, etc. never got asked.” Mr. Walczyk wrote in his Tweet.
The questions from the audience, however, were not screened by Ms. VanderZee, but by two other SUNY Canton employees. One was Professor Charles Fenner, a registered Republican, the other was Senior Media Relations Manager Gregory E. Kie, an independent who votes Democratic.
According to Mr. Fenner, both him and Mr. Kie selected one question from the list and choose the third jointly. Mr. Fenner selected a question about job opportunities, Mr. Kie selected one about college graduates leaving the area. They choose a question about the construction of a Rooftop highway across the north country.
“All the questions are good, however, choosing one over another is made in the moment, and at the time I thought those were the two best,” Mr. Fenner told the Times.
The 10 questions not asked were sent to the candidates after the debate, covering topics from climate change to signs on Amish wagons. There were two duplicate questions about the gun rights and two about LGBTQ rights.
Asked about Mr. Walczyk’s comments, Mr. Fenner said he was not interested in getting into the politics of the situation.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a professor,” he said. “I believe Mark was emphasizing issues that are important to his camp.”
As for whether Ms. VanderZee moderated the debate well, Mr. Fenner deferred.
“I think that has to be left to the voters,” he said.
He did say he appreciated the debate format gave equal time to both candidates.
Mr. Walczyk stood by his criticism on Monday.
“I know some members of the audience who were disappointed that their questions were filtered out,” he said.
He said Ms. VanderZee was not impartial.
“I had invited the Watertown Daily Times to moderate,” he said. “The other camp invited Lenore to do it ... She set up the process.”
Asked if he felt the process for selecting questions from the audience, which did not involve Ms. VanderZee, was not fair, Mr. Walczyk repeated his criticism.
“I think it’s important when you’re setting up the system to be as impartial as possible,” he said.
He declined to voice any particular objections to the way audience questions were screened beyond his objections to Ms. VanderZee setting up the debate.
Ms. Jenne was unfamiliar with Mr. Walczyk’s criticism of the debate when asked about the issue Monday.
“I know there were multiple people involved in taking questions from the audience,” she said.
Ms. Jenne said she felt like residents knew her views on a wide range of issues, and expressed her wish that there had been more debates.
“I had agreed to attend other debates in the district,” Ms. Jenne said, saying she was open to a televised debate on Channel 7 that Mr. Walczyk did not respond to.
Mr. Walczyk criticized Ms. Jenne for not being available for a debate today at the Italian American Civic Association.
“I’m happy to do a Channel 7 debate,” he said. “She tried to put it on top of the one I already challenged her to in public” at the Civic Association.
Mr. Walczyk issued a challenge via a news release on Sept. 28 to hold two debates, the one at SUNY Canton and the one at the Civic Association. After the debate at SUNY Canton, Mr. Walczyk said that challenge had been his notification to the Jenne campaign and he was unsure if anyone had reached out directly from his campaign to hers. Ms. Jenne’s campaign has repeatedly said she is unavailable that day and time.
Ms. VanderZee has been the subject of another story recently that caused the Free Beacon investigation. North Country Public Radio recently investigated an incident from April of 2017 where Ms. VanderZee was invited to moderate a town hall involving U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik. According to emails NCPR reviewed after a freedom of information request, Ms. Stefanik’s office in D.C. apparently pressured SUNY to not have Ms. VanderZee moderate the town hall.
NCPR characterized Ms. VanderZee as a registered Democrat but not openly partisan in the story. The Free Beacon found pictures of her attending the anti-Trump Women’s March wearing a pink “pussy hat” and carrying a sign, as well as marching with Anna Sorenson, who went on to be the campaign manager of Ms. Stefanik’s Democratic challenger, Tedra Cobb. NCPR stood by its reporting.