Well before the traditional Labor Day start to the campaign season, the first flare-up in the 35th Assembly District campaign has taken place. It centers around a common campaign issue: Whether one candidate, fearful of a face-to-face encounter, ducked a forum and disrepected an important constituent group in the process.
The particulars: Last Thursday the Oxnard Chamber of Commerce hosted a breakfast event at which it orginally hoped to hear from both Republican Mike Stoker and Democrat Das Williams. Only Stoker participated, a fact that he crowed about in a press release issued the next day.
"The first time Mr. Stoker and the chamber members and guests attending found out about Mr. Williams' last-minute withdrawal from the debate was when it was announced by the moderator of the debate," said the press release from the Stoker campaign.
It quoted the following response from Stoker himself: "You can run but you can't hide, Mr. Williams' absence was not by chance but by design. The fact that he is afraid to interface with voters and constituents who might not share his extreme far left perspective is no reason not to show up for a previously scheduled forum."
When I called Williams, he presented a far different story. "We never agreed to attend," he said, noting that he received the initial invitation the Friday after the June 8 primary and it demanded a response by the following Monday, which he wasn't prepared to give.
So who's right? Maybe a little of both.
George Cogswell, the publisher and president of the Ventura County Star who is serving this year as chairman of the board of the Oxnard Chamber, told me that in discussions with staff, "Everything I heard was that he never gave a firm commitment he was going to be there. He was not simply a no-show in my mind."
Cogswell added, however, that Williams privately objected to the format, wanted to be advised of any questions he'd be asked in advance and expressed fears that the event was designed to be a "setup" designed to promote Stoker at Williams' expense.
Perhaps it would be reasonable, then, to conclude that Williams didn't run from the event but did in fact try to hide.
Williams said his schedule ultimately took him to Burbank that day to meet with experts discussing University of California policies -- a not inconsequential issue in an Assembly district that includes the UC Santa Barbara campus.
In any event, these disputes over candidates about ground rules for candidates' forums are always tiresome. When an established community group such as a chamber of commerce wants to hear from candidates and a day can be arranged that fits both candidates' schedules, they ought to show up.
Both candidates say they anticipate there will be opportunities for face-to-face encounters as the campaign unfolds.
"I've debated Mike before, and I'll debate him again," Williams said.
"I intend to attend as many forums as possible," Stoker promises.