The candidate debates that Ted Lina’s AP students sponsor and host at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute have ranked as one of the premier campaign events each year for more than three decades.
Candidates for Congress, county executive, mayor and other offices answered questions in a packed gymnasium that routinely draws a crowd of local reporters and often proves a key development in campaigns.
Not this year.
Though Democrat Bernard A. Tolbert said he would participate on any date to debate the race for Erie County sheriff, Republican incumbent Timothy B. Howard never replied to the debate invitation, school officials say.
“In September, Ted reached out to the two candidates,” explained Suzanne Badgley, St. Joe’s director of marketing and communications. “The Tolbert campaign accepted, but we received no response on behalf of the incumbent. Ted is hopeful he will still receive a reply.”
The students did not consider any other contest for their debate because the sheriff election was deemed the most interesting, she said.
None of the proposed dates worked for the sheriff, said Christopher M. Grant, spokesman for the Howard campaign. He also said that, at the time Howard was invited, Tolbert had not committed to anything and the re-election team decided not to participate.
And Howard has showed up at three candidate forums that his opponent skipped, Grant said. Those were sponsored by Southeast Works, the Western New York Independent Living Center and the Dick/George Urban Community Association.
Asked why Howard would not commit to a debate that usually ranks as a “must” for local candidates, Grant said the forum sponsored by Southeast Works accomplished the same purpose for the GOP candidate.
“Southeast Works is just as much a part of the election season as the one at St. Joe’s,” Grant said.
Tolbert spokeswoman Christina M. Abt said the challenger accepted the St. Joe’s invitation as soon as it arrived, but that the school was unable to schedule a debate because the sheriff did not respond.
“The first time they called, I said yes,” she said. ”That was back in September.”
Abt said Tolbert had scheduling conflicts at the events Howard attended, and countered that Tolbert showed up at two League of Women Voters candidates nights in East Aurora and Hamburg, which did not feature presentations by the sheriff candidates because Howard did not show.
“He’s been to three events; he’s the sheriff and has a busy schedule,” Grant said.
Badgley said the St. Joe’s event has always ranked as important for candidates as well as students, who design the program, handle the technical arrangements and pose the questions.
“It’s such a great and unique experience for our students,” she said.