Capitol & State

Otter ripped over farcical debate - by both Fulcher and "Today"

Sen. Russ Fulcher says Gov. Butch Otter knew the inclusion of two fringe candidates would turn the Idaho GOP gubernatorial debate into a "circus" and is responsible for the "mockery of the Republican Party and of Idaho" as clips of Wednesday's debate went viral Thursday and Friday.

"Apparently, Gov. Otter is content to have Idaho be a laughingstock so long as it improves his chance of winning an election," Fulcher said. "When I am governor, I will not subject my party or my state to this type of public humiliation."

Otter stood by his requiring Idaho Public Television to invite all four candidates as a condition of his debate appearance.

"A statewide debate that excludes candidates is an exercise in elitism," Otter said. "If some candidates don't meet your personal expectations, don't vote for them. But if they qualify to be on the ballot, they should be able to participate in the process."

Otter's insistence that perennial fringe candidates Harley Brown and Walt Bayes be invited also was noted on "Today" Friday, which drew "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston into the fun with a suggestion that he'd be a great fit for Idaho politics.

Co-host Al Roker introduced the segment saying, "So, political debates can be pretty dry - unless it's a political debate involving the Republican candidates for governor in Idaho. Earlier this week, things got a little out of hand when two fringe contenders from ZZ Top stole the show."

Roker's reference was to the beards worn by Bayes and Brown. "Today" used Brown's "It sucks," and "turd in the punchbowl" clips and the Bayes claim that "half of the Republican Party is Democrats and half of the Democratic Party is communists."

Also pictured was Otter, smiling broadly at the antics. Otter rejected all other face-to-face appearances with Fulcher, including a debate proposed by NBC's Boise affliliate, KTVB-Channel 7.

As the "Today" panel laughed, Tamron Hall said, "That is not an SNL (Saturday Night Live) skit, by the way - actual candidates, actual live debate. And after watching this you can see why the still sitting governor was all too happy to make them part of it."

Co-host Matt Lauer introduced the last joke, referring to guest Bryan Cranston, who was on hand pitching his new film, "Godzilla" and his Broadway show about President Lyndon Johnson, "All the Way."

"Cranston just filed to run for governor of Idaho," snickered Lauer, who, you may recall, got the "get" interview with Idaho GOP Sen. Larry Craig after his 2007 restroom arrest. "He's ready to go."

"He's shaking hands and kissing babies," quipped Hall, as the camera cut to Cranston furiously pumping hands.

The debate clip used by "Today" came from a mashup produced by an editor at its Boise affiliate, Channel 7. Nick McMullin's 2:19 clip helped spread the word Thursday morning and early afternoon. Ironically, McMullin was told by superiors in Boise to take the clip down over copyright concerns.

KTVB General Manager Doug Armstrong said McMullin "meant well, but we need to do right by IPTV's copyright. We took the initiative to call (Idaho Public TV General Manager) Ron Pisaneschi and let him know we honor copyrights. IPTV can always do their own mashup and post it."

The McMullin clip lived on because it was picked up by LiveLeak, the source used by "Today."

On Thursday, Idaho Public TV Executive Producer Bruce Reichert said network executives would meet Friday to discuss whether to take steps to protect their copyright. Reichert said a lawyer was mulling the matter but his initial reaction "was that most of the articles and links seem to be for news purposes, broadly defined, and we have a tradition of not blocking those kinds of things."

Meanwhile, debate moderator Melissa Davlin was hailed as "heroic" by Slate. In an interview Thursday with Mike Pesca, Davlin explained why the the state-operated network agreed to Otter's requirements regarding Bayes and Brown.

"They would not have otherwise met our requirements for the debate, which includes actively campaigning and appearing at different campaign events statewide," Davlin said. "But because the governor insisted as a condition of his appearance in the debate, we went ahead an extended the invitation to Mr. Bayes and Mr. Brown because we felt it was important to put this debate on."

The interview with Davlin begins at 9:50 in the link above. As Pesca bids Davlin farewell, he says, "Idaho Public TV's Melissa Davlin, who, let's face it, won yesterday's Idaho Republican debate."

After Wednesday's debate, Otter told an off-the-record story about the genesis of his view that all candidates should be included. He recounted the tale to Davlin and the reporters on the panel, including myself, asking me and Betsy Russell to turn off recording devices. On Friday, Otter spokesman Jon Hanian told me we could now publish the story.

Brown, one of eight candidates for the 2000 GOP nomination for Congress, had been barred by organizers from a TV debate at the College of Idaho in Caldwell. Otter said Brown showed up and angrily started kicking camera equipment and making a general ruckus. Otter said he asked Brown to come outside, where he promised him that if Brown calmed down, Otter would not agree to appear in any future debates in which Brown was on the ballot without Brown also getting an invitation.

Otter won that race; Brown finished last, with 1.1 percent of the vote. In Brown's last campaign, for Congress in 2010, he ran fourth of five, with 3.9 percent. Bayes, who thanked Otter for making his appearance possible during Wednesday's debate, finished fifth of six GOP candidates in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, with 3 percent.

Fulcher's full statement on Debategate, issued late Thursday, follows:

Although they did not meet the debate's qualifying criteria, governor Otter demanded inclusion of two perennial candidates, Walt Bayes and Harley Brown, as a contingency of his participation in the only debate he would agree to. As a result, the "debate" turned from a serious discussion regarding the position for Idaho's Chief Executive, to a mockery of the Republican Party and of Idaho. Clearly, the governor wanted to take time away from me and minimize exposure to his failed record as governor. Apparently, governor Otter is content to have Idaho be a laughing stock so long as it improves his chance of winning an election.

Idahoans deserve better. A governor should be willing to hold himself accountable and face a legitimate challenger in a public forum. I have nothing against Mr. Brown or Mr. Bayes, but Governor Otter was well aware of the environment he would create when he demanded their inclusion as a contingency of his participation. When I am governor, I will not subject my party or my state to this type of public humiliation.