Chamber cancels candidate forums after GOP objects to venue; Seaton to hold own forum instead

A District 31 State Representative candidate event will happen Sept. 25 at Alice’s Champagne Palace — but it will only be for candidate and incumbent Rep. Paul Seaton, won’t be under the auspices of the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, and won’t have the approval of the District 31 Republican Party Chair.

At a Homer City Council and Mayoral Debate held Tuesday night by the chamber at Alice’s, Seaton, NP-Homer, said he had booked the popular Pioneer Avenue bar and restaurant for the night the chamber originally planned to hold a forum with him and Republican Party candidate Sarah Vance. Seaton is running as an independent or nonpartisan candidate as the Democratic Party nominee.

“We will have a town hall event,” Seaton said Tuesday. “… We’ll have a dialogue. I believe in dialogue with community members and not just posting something on Facebook in a one-way conversation.”

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Kelly Cooper will moderate the town hall, Seaton said. Vance won’t be at Seaton’s forum.

Homer Chamber of Commerce director Debbie Speakman said she invited candidates for representative and borough assembly to make a statement at the Sept. 11 event. Seaton was the only candidate who spoke.

On Monday, Speakman announced in an email that the chamber had canceled a forum planned at Alice’s on Sept. 25 for District 31 Representative candidates and candidates for District 9 Kenai Borough Assembly members. Speakman wrote that the chamber canceled the event “because of stipulations previously unknown” by the District 31 Republican Party Chair Nona Safra.

Last Thursday, Sept. 6, Safra sent a press release outlining the Republican Party’s terms for debates, forums or round tables. She wrote that the District 31 GOP would not participate in any debates before Oct. 15, would not approve debates in bars or anyplace alcohol is served, and that the time, date, moderator and location would require prior approval by her.

The stipulations also apply to the District 9 assembly race, Safra wrote, even though the election is Oct. 2 and assembly races are nonpartisan. Troy Jones is running against ncumbent assembly member Willy Dunne. In her Tuesday email, Safra clarified the District 31 Republican Party’s position on any assembly candidate forums.

“The assembly election is a nonpartisan race and it is the candidate’s choice to participate or not even if the District does not support the choice of venue,” she wrote.

In an email, Vance responded to questions about the debate cancellation. She wrote that she would make decisions regarding debates, not the party.

“… Only I speak for me as a candidate or my campaign,” she wrote. “All decisions regarding forums, interviews, round tables, and events will come directly from the campaign. … I truly do appreciate the enthusiasm of local Republicans, but no one in the Party speaks for me. My first duty is directly to the people of District 31.”

“My campaign is currently being organized across the district to listen to the people, focus on the issues and defeat the Democrat nominee, Paul Seaton,” Vance wrote. “I am excited to listen, learn and answer important questions on topics ranging from protecting the PFD to crime.”

Vance said in her email that she looks forward to debating Seaton in October “upon mutually agreed terms.” In a follow-up email, she wrote, “The preferred venue and moderator should be neutral in order to accommodate all voters in the district.”

The chamber sponsored a debate for candidates for governor and lieutenant governor at Alice’s in August.

“I found it was awkward and the noise level from having food and drinks served was distracting during the event,” Safra wrote last week. “… There were many people who made the same observation.”

In a follow-up email on Tuesday, Safra said some people found noise from food and beverage service distracting and others were bothered by cigarette smoke coming in through the open back door. Safra suggested other venues such as the Homer Elks Lodge, which has a downstairs meeting hall separate from a bar, the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, Homer High School or Kachemak Bay Campus.

In a phone interview on Tuesday, Speakman said the chamber’s legislative committee had been working on a debate schedule since last April.

Had the Republican Party communicated its stipulations earlier, the chamber would have made some adjustments, Speakman said. In emails last week, Safra wrote that the Republican Party had been asking the chamber since last July to move the debates to another venue.

Seaton also said he regrets that the chamber cancelled the forum.

“I’m disappointed that a community organization as diverse as the chamber of commerce is not cooperated with by the Republican Party,” he said. “I’m going to be available.”

Speakman said the chamber had confirmed with Jones that he would attend the assembly candidate forum, but since receiving Safra’s email she had left unanswered messages with Jones asking if he would still attend.

In the past, chamber forums have been held at the Homer Elks Lodge, which also serves alcohol, and at the Kachemak Community Center, which does not. Handicapped accessibility has been somewhat of an issue at past events at Homer Elks Lodge, Speakman said.

“We thought, let’s think outside the box,” Speakman said. “We wanted a place people could come to after work, grab dinner — a place that might draw a more diverse crowd as well.”

At prior forums attendance was about 80 people, Speakman said. The August forum had about 150, with some visitors sitting upstairs.

“That was a huge success and we got a lot of compliments,” Speakman said. “… They liked the venue. It’s (Alice’s) become kind of Homer’s living room.”

Tuesday’s Homer City Council and mayoral forum held at Alice’s saw a turnout of 50-60 people.

The candidate events are set up more as forums than as debates, she said. Chamber members generate questions, and candidates see the questions the week before.

“It’s really a time for them (voters) to meet and see these candidates and talk about the issues that affect their businesses,” Speakman said.

She described chamber members as being fairly conservative.

“A lot of our members are fiscally conservative, small government,” Speakman said.

Holding a forum at a bar also might apply to younger voters, Speakman said.

“That was our goal, to get a diverse crowd,” she said. “It was a place they felt comfortable and not intimidated … They could get food and eat dinner after a long day of work.”

District 31 Democratic Party Chair Taz Tally said he had no concerns with holding events at Alice’s.

“Absolutely not,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I’m sorry — that’s just a fairly disingenuous reason not to participate in a debate. The timing is irrelevant. Alice’s is a good venue. … We just had a debate — the place was packed.”

Tally said he agreed with Speakman that holding a forum at Alice’s helped promote diversity.

“It’s community oriented,” he said. “Debates don’t have to be sterile. … Why shouldn’t a political gathering be an enjoyable prospect rather than sit in a chair and listen?”

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