Jeff Kottkamp: History repeated with legal challenge over gubernatorial debate

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The federal lawsuit filed Thursday by Libertarian Party candidate for governor, Adrian Wyllie, seeking to force his way in to next week’s debate between Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist is another case of history repeating itself.

In 2006, Reform Party candidate for governor, Max Linn, filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to be included in a televised debate between Crist and Jim Davis. Like Wyllie, Linn challenged the criteria used to decide who could and could not participate.

The debate took place in a Tampa television studio and was not open to the public. Chris Matthews was the moderator. Each campaign was permitted to invite only a handful of people to sit in the cramped studio to watch the debate in person. I was sitting next to Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Connie Mack as part of the Crist contingent. Former Gov. Bob Graham was among those present for Davis.

About 20 minutes before the debate was going live, the studio door slammed open and in strutted Max Linn. In his hand he held an order from U.S. District Court Judge James Whittemore that indicated that Linn was permitted to participate in the debate. This prompted a whirlwind of activity. An additional lectern had to be found and properly situated. Another camera and microphone were needed for Linn.

While the studio staff scrambled, Linn confidently walked toward me and Bush and said, “Jeb, do you have a pen?” Bush pulled a pen out of his pocket and politely handed it to the candidate. Without saying another word, Linn took the pen and then walked to the lectern that had been brought in for his use.

Bush and I looked at each other and laughed. Neither one of us had ever met Linn, but he walked into the studio liked he owned the place. And he treated the sitting Governor of Florida like a travel aide.

Linn’s performance during the debate was much like his entrance into the studio. He was loud and brazen. Not surprising since his campaign manager had previously managed Jesse Ventura’s campaign for Governor of Minnesota. After the debate, Linn’s team said, “Max Linn stole the show.”

That was his plan all along — to put on a show. I am not convinced Linn really added anything substantive to the debate. On Election Day, he ended up with less than 2 percent of the vote.

While I understand the arguments for allowing participation in such debates by third party candidates, the fact remains that there are only a handful of televised debates in the race for governor. There is limited time for each candidate to make his or her case.

Because there is so little time, spots in those debates should be limited to serious candidates. The debates, after all, are for the benefit of the voters. And voters don’t benefit when part of a debate is taken up by candidates like Linn.

Today, as in 2006, Wyllie appears to have little chance of victory on Election Day. But the criteria for participating in a debate has never been “chance of victory” but instead has been based on percentage of support based on credible polls.

In the upcoming debate, event sponsors have said that Wyllie must be polling at 15 percent or more to participate. That certainly seems reasonable. If Wyllie hits the 15 percent mark before the debate, he should be treated as a serious candidate. If he doesn’t reach that mark, he simply hasn’t earned the right to participate.

Jeff Kottkamp is President of Jeff Kottkamp, P.A. He served as Florida’s 17th Lieutenant Governor.