The show must go on: MPBN to host debate with just one gubernatorial candidate

Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler during an Oct. 15 debate in Augusta. BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler during an Oct. 15 debate in Augusta. BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett.

Maine Public Broadcasting Network has announced it will hold its regular gubernatorial debate on Thursday, Oct. 23, at Husson University’s Gracie Theater in Bangor.

Well, actually, “debate” may no longer be an accurate descriptor for the event, as only independent candidate Eliot Cutler will be in attendance.

Incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage has declined an invitation to participate, and Democratic candidate and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud has said he will only show up if LePage is there. That leaves Eliot Cutler, alone.

Cutler will be interviewed, one-on-one, by MPBN’s Jennifer Rooks for a half-hour. Two empty podiums — one for each of his opponents — will appear beside him. He will be asked questions written by MPBN staff, as well as questions submitted by viewers and listeners.

After the half-hour debate, MPBN will re-broadcast a 1972 debate between then-U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, and her Democratic opponent, William Hathaway. The challenger won the election, unseating Chase Smith after a 24-year tenure.

The debate will be broadcast live on MPBN television, radio and online. The network has been hosting debates since the 1960s, according to Mal Leary, managing editor of the network’s Maine Capitol Connection TV channel and producer for the debates.

The three candidates had already appeared in five debates in the past two weeks, including three that were televised throughout broad swaths of central and southern Maine. But Leary said MPBN is the only network that truly broadcasts statewide, including in the sparsely populated Aroostook and Washington counties.

“They’re bypassing the biggest venue of all these debates,” Leary said Wednesday.

Leary said LePage had not confirmed his absence until early Wednesday morning. For the previous weeks, the campaign’s official word had been only that they “could not commit at this time,” he said.

Leary said consideration was never given to cancelling the debate, and it’s clear why: Doing so would end a roughly half-century tradition of publicly broadcast debates, setting a precedent for future years where the network’s programming would be out of its own hands. For the network’s integrity, the show had to go on.

Plus, high-level officials at the network are still hoping the other two candidates may have a last-minute change of heart.

“We are still hoping that all three candidates appear at the debate at Gracie,” said MPBN News Director Keith Shortall in a news release. “We have a history of holding these debates as a public service to the people of Maine and we feel that the candidates have a responsibility to make themselves available to express their views and allow Maine’s citizens to make an informed choice on November 4.”

MPBN’s debate will begin at 8 p.m. Thursday. It will be rebroadcast at 1 p.m. Friday on MPBN Radio and on Sunday on MPBN Television.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.