Two Republican assemblyman from the 40th district have decided not to participate in a debate tomorrow night after the Bergen County League of Women Voters (LWV) refused to assure them that questions from the audience wouldn’t be screened by allies of their Democratic opponents.
Incumbents Kevin Rooney (R-Wyckoff) and Christopher DePhillips (R-Wyckoff) complained after a debate sponsored by the Wayne League of Women Voters that had initially allowed a local Democratic candidate to be part of a group that was screening questions and determining what questions would be asked.
“The process was broken,” DePhillips told the New Jersey Globe. “The process was unfair.”The LWV announced on their website that the forum had been cancelled.
DePhillips said that after the Wayne debate, he and Rooney sought certain assurances that the Bergen County debate would not mirror the one in Wayne.
The LWV, the Republicans said, agreed to not allow questions from elected officials from either party, but rejected their request that questions be limited to one per topic, and that each side could ask five questions apiece.
“We tried to work it out,” DePhillips said. “We were disappointed that they did not agree to reasonable conditions. We would have participated.”
The Democratic challengers, Little Falls Councilwoman Maria Martini Cordonnier and former Bergen County Freeholder Julie O’Brien (D-Ramsey), slammed Rooney and DePhillips for backing out of the second debate.
“Free and open debate is one of the pillars of our democracy and refusing to engage with Maria and me shows a lack of respect for their constituents and their office,” O’Brien said in a statement released on Sunday afternoon. “The residents of the 40th district deserve so much better.”
A video of the Wayne debate posted on the LWV website confirms that questions on energy and the environment advocated by the local Democrats dominated the questions asked of the 40th district candidates. It also shows that the debate was sparsely attended.
“We are very disappointed in Assemblymen Rooney and DePhillips. As an elected official, you need to answer for your record even if you don’t like the questions,” said Cordonnier. “Their decision to pull out of a League of Women Voters debate sends a message to voters that they are not prepared to defend their records.”
O’Brien suggested that Rooney and DePhillips “are ashamed of their records on women’s healthcare, gun safety and the environment.
“When they are unable to control the narrative they choose to hide,” O’Brien said.
The national LWV has published debate guidelines for debates sponsored by their local affiliates, noting that “all Leagues bear the responsibility of safeguarding this nonpartisan policy and the organization’s nonpartisan reputation.”
The 40th district, which includes parts of Bergen, Passaic, Morris and Essex counties and extends from Waldwick to Cedar Grove, has elected only Republicans since it was first created in 1973.
Indeed, no legislative district in New Jersey has gone longer without electing a Democrat than the 40th.
The district has 7,892 more Republicans than Democrats, down from an +11,914 registration edge when the district was redrawn eight years ago.