The Greater York Region Chamber of Commerce has canceled its gubernatorial debate that had been scheduled for Aug. 27.
Independent candidate Eliot Cutler was the only candidate to confirm his attendance for the event. According to a statement from the chamber Wednesday, Republican Gov. Paul LePage declined to attend the debate because of a scheduling conflict. The chamber said it has contacted LePage to find a date that works for his schedule.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud’s campaign said the congressman, who is the Democratic candidate for governor, also had a scheduling conflict, but would attend if LePage did, according to the statement.
“The questions that would have been asked by our moderator were solicited from our membership,” the chamber wrote. “It is the chamber’s responsibility to remain neutral, and not endorse any one candidate. Therefore, without the cooperation of all three candidates, we do not have a debate.”
The decision is a major reversal for the group. Holly Roberts, the chamber director, told the Press Herald this month that it would hold the public forum “no matter what.”
Roberts was not available to comment Wednesday, and a chamber staffer said she was in meetings and wouldn’t be available to speak until Thursday morning, and an email requesting comment was not answered.
Roberts said previously that chamber members were tired of the political gamesmanship of the election, and that voters deserve answers to their questions about the economy and economic development.
“We are disappointed that the debate won’t happen because the businesses in southern Maine contribute a significant amount of revenue to the state’s economy,” the chamber said in its statement. “The voters in every region of the state have the right to request that any candidate for office provide time to respond to questions.”
Four years ago, when the gubernatorial field was wide open and the candidates were less known to the public, there were 18 debates in the two months before the general election.
This election season, the first of six debates is scheduled for Oct. 8, giving the public fewer opportunities to hear the candidates face one another and answer questions directly within a shorter period before Election Day.
A spokeswoman for Cutler, who has pushed for more debates in this year’s campaign, assailed his opponents, saying they were hiding from the public. Cutler vowed to hold a series of sessions with the public throughout Maine.
“We’re going to give voters what they want,” said Crystal Canney, Cutler’s spokeswoman.
Michaud’s campaign said he has not changed his position on debates, and that the congressman will attend debates that are also attended by both of his opponents.
“We look forward to the six debates that have already been scheduled – most of which will be broadcast on television for everyone to see regardless of where they live in the state,” Lizzy Reinholt, Michaud’s campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement Wednesday.
Alex Willette, a spokesman for LePage’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.