Trumbull first selectman campaigns trade barbs after debate cancellation

For the second time in a week, a traditional political debate in Trumbull has been canceled. This time it was an inability to agree on a date that led to acrimony and finger-pointing after organizers called off the event.

“We just couldn’t coordinate between the two campaigns, the venue, and the League of Women Voters,” said Trumbull Chamber of Commerce spokesman Jeff Bishop. “We had some back and forth with five or six different dates, but none of them worked.”

Starting in August, the chamber and the Trumbull Rotary Club had planned a joint debate between First Selectman Vicki Tesoro and Republican challenger Michael Herbst, with the League of Women Voters moderating. Plans had proceeded slowly until Sept. 26 — the same day that a planned PTSA Council Board of Education candidates forum on Oct. 16 was canceled due to six out of 10 candidates declining the invitation to attend.

The school board debate cancellation meant that the proposed venue, Madison Middle School, and the League were available, and Bishop proposed that date to the two campaigns. Tesoro agreed to the time and place, but the Herbst campaign said their side had a scheduling conflict and proposed the following week, Oct. 23, as an alternative.

But no venue was available that night, and school officials suggested Oct. 22 or Oct. 24 as potential dates, according to GOP spokesman Rick Costantini. Bishop said the alternate dates were offered too late to be considered.

“After the Republicans said they couldn’t do the 16th, and Trumbull High was not available for the 23rd, that meant that after six weeks of work, we were right back at the beginning,” he said. “The school offered us the 22nd or 24th, but by then the Chamber and the Rotary had decided that we were spending way too much time on this and we pulled the plug.”

Bishop sent one last email to Costantini informing him that Oct. 23 was out, and asking if there was any way Herbst could make it on Oct. 16. Costantini confirmed Oct. 16 was impossible, and Bishop informed the two sides on Monday, Oct. 7 that the debate was canceled.

The cancellation means the two candidates will not have any public debates. The Oct. 24 event will take place in the Cablevision studio.

On Wednesday, the Democrats issued a statement laying blame for the cancellation squarely on the GOP doorstep. The Republicans responded with a statement of their own, accusing the Democrats of hypocrisy.

“In 2015 and 2017, Mrs. Tesoro repeatedly rebuked calls for multiple debates by the Republican Party and would only agree to participate in two,” Costantini said. “She, along with the current chairman of the Democratic Party, stated over and over again that Trumbull residents didn’t need or want more than two debates. ... It’s amazing what a difference four years can make.”

Costantini blamed the Tesoro campaign for the event falling apart.

“Rather than try and negotiate a date that worked for everyone, the Herbst campaign was basically told it’s the 16th or nothing,” Costantini wrote. “However, we shouldn’t be surprised at all by these actions from Team Tesoro.”

But Tesoro had nothing to do with the dates, said Democratic Party Chairman Tom Kelly.

“The only date that we were ever told about was Oct. 16,” Kelly said. “After we agreed, no one ever came back to us with any alternate dates.” Bishop confirmed that the Democrats had not been part of the discussion on a possible rescheduling.

Kelly chided the Herbst camp for blaming Democrats when the issue had been out of their hands.

“If you have this much trouble negotiating with the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary, that doesn’t really speak well for your campaign,” he said.