ENCINITAS — Mayor Catherine Blakespear, the Democratic candidate in the 38th State Senate District race, has declined a public challenge from Republican opponent Matt Gunderson to engage in a series of debates in the weeks before November’s general election.
On Thursday, Gunderson challenged Blakespear via social media, calling for the SANDAG chairwoman to engage in “three public debates or forums, to be hosted by legitimate, nonpartisan news outlets or local organizations.”
“Voters in State Senate District 38 deserve to hear from both candidates about the issues facing our community every day,” wrote Gunderson. “Inflation is rampant, the middle class is being priced out of prosperity, and crime and homelessness are out of control. I look forward to giving voters the chance to hear the differences between their candidates for State Senate.”
But on Friday, Kevin Sabellico, Blakespear’s campaign manager, rejected Gunderson’s challenge, arguing the mayor was not interested in debating her opponent until the Republican challenger had taken a more explicit stance on abortion rights in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.
“Mayor Blakespear has issued a public challenge to Matt Gunderson calling on him to condemn the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, support Proposition 1, and support fully funding Planned Parenthood,” Sabellico said in the statement. “So far, Gunderson has been absolutely silent while women’s rights are under attack. Instead, Gunderson has boasted of the endorsement of radical anti-choice politicians like Newt Gingrich. Until Matt Gunderson tells voters the truth about his position on women’s rights, there will be no debates.”
Gunderson expressed disappointment in Blakespear’s decision, maintaining that his stance on abortion is well-documented and without ambiguity.
“I am a pro-choice Republican. This position is well documented dating back to 1994,” Gunderson said. “As for Newt Gingrich, his wife Callista and I come from the same small town in Wisconsin and have been lifelong friends. They generously gave me $250 each, approximately $68,500 less than Blakespear has received from her predatory developer friends currently devouring Encinitas. (Blakespear’s) refusal to debate is sad, but I guess it’s not shocking given her record of blocking her critics on social media and refusing to answer questions for SANDAG’s egregious misuse of taxpayer money.”
In an interview with The Coast News, Gunderson said the debate proposal was an attempt to provide voters with unfettered access to both candidates in an environment where tough questions and policy issues could be addressed — unscripted.
“Debates force you to answer questions you don’t want to answer,” Gunderson said. “It also puts both candidates in a position to share with the public what they truly feel. The debate atmosphere changes the dynamic to give people a real opportunity to hear from candidates in an unscripted format.”
The GOP candidate also took aim at Blakespear, claiming she “has a tradition and history of not being an open candidate who is transparent with her constituents.”
Gunderson again cited the recent lawsuit from residents against the city over Blakespear’s restriction of participation on her social media pages as an example of her purported lack of transparency.
“She has a history of showing a blatant disregard for people who have different opinions than hers; she’s not someone who engages in candid conversations,” Gunderson said. “So I think that the citizens of the 38th District really deserve the opportunity to hear from both candidates in a transparent and open atmosphere.”
Gunderson also expressed regret voters would not have an opportunity to see the two candidates spar in a debate on key issues, such as the state’s high cost of living, crime and local control over housing development.
“We really need to talk about inflation, about the high cost of living in California, about how the middle class is getting priced out of California, and how we need to address the rampant increase in crime in our district,” Gunderson said. “With Catherine, I’d like to talk about how she’s sold out her city to the state against the interests of local housing control, making it clear that she believes that the best decisions are made in Sacramento and not here locally.”
Blakespear’s decision to forego debates with her opponent is relatively unsurprising while probably unfortunate for district voters, Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political scientist, told The Coast News.
“It’s very normal, and it’s a good political strategy if you’re the frontrunner not to want to debate your opponent, but it’s bad for politics, and it’s bad for civic discourse,” Kousser said. “You’re talking about a million people being represented by someone for the next four years, and they do deserve to hear both people lay out their positions.”
While voters can still hear about the candidates through the traditional forms of campaign messaging — mailers, newspaper ads, television commercials, radio spots — debates provide a unique forum where voters and journalists have the chance to put candidates on the spot to learn their positions on key policy issues, Kousser said.
“Most of what voters learn in the campaign, the messages they hear are the candidates answering the questions they want to answer. Everything is put into glossy mailers to help you look as good as possible,” Kousser said. “Debates allow voters and the media to drive the questions, to put the toughest questions before candidates to get them on record with commitments, promises, viewpoints, and to discuss the controversies of the day. That’s why they play a vital role that advertisements, tweets, etc. can’t replace.”
Kousser was critical of Blakespear’s rationale for turning down the debate and expressed concern about what he described as a more extensive pattern statewide of Democratic frontrunners avoiding debates with challengers.
“As far as [Gunderson] not taking a clear stance on Roe vs. Wade — that excuse doesn’t hold much water in my mind. A debate is a way to make someone take that stance on a controversial issue,” Kousser said. “There’s been this breakdown statewide for the infrastructure to demand debates. We don’t have a debate commission at the state level as we do at the federal level, so we don’t have as many prominent debates statewide. I really do worry as California becomes more of a blue state every year that Democratic frontrunners may use their political strength never to have to debate because they simply don’t need to.”
Voters had mixed reactions to the news. When asked for comments, some blamed Gunderson for not taking a clear enough stance on abortion and women’s reproductive rights.
“It is clear that Gunderson is only doing this debate publicity stunt because he just got polling back, which shows him losing the race,” said San Diego resident Jared Sclar. “Gunderson seems to hold a tenuous relationship with the truth, taking every opportunity to obfuscate what he is trying to sell to the voters. He is, after all, unironically, a used car salesman.”
“Reproductive rights are on the ballot across the nation, and candidates must state their positions on this critical issue clearly and consistently, which Mr. Gunderson has not done,” said Encinitas resident Nancy Hardwick. “Mayor Blakespear has been crystal clear that a woman’s right to choose is a fundamental right that should be protected and upheld in California and across the U.S.”
But many district residents expressed disappointment in Blakespear’s decision. Some characterized her response to Gunderson’s challenge as deflecting a legitimate attempt by her opponent to engage in civic discourse. Others pointed out that Gunderson had already publicly taken a clear pro-choice policy stance in past statements.
“Blakespear’s stance to not debate unless Matt makes clear his position on abortion is bizarre and disturbing,” said Encinitas resident Steven Golden. “Besides the fact that he already stated he is pro-choice, why would her opponent’s stance on one issue determines whether or not to debate him?”
“Does she engage only with those whose stance on abortion rights is ‘clear’ to her? Gunderson has stated repeatedly that he is pro-choice,” said former Encinitas council candidate Susan Turney. “What does his position on abortion rights have to do with discussing issues of local control, overdevelopment, crumbling infrastructure, public safety, and government transparency? What is clear is her signal that she hopes to make abortion rights the centerpiece of her campaign. She certainly can’t run or debate on her abysmal record.”
“This seems like a very weak virtue signal/grandstanding way of dodging a debate,” said former Encinitas mayor Jerome Stocks. “The [abortion] question should be part of a debate, not a litmus test qualifier to accept a debate, in my opinion. The public deserves to know the positions of both candidates on a number of issues.”
“Once again, Blakespear prevaricates. She hints that because he is a Republican, Gunderson must be pro-life. That’s all she is doing here — she’s lying,” said Bhavani Kirnak. “Gunderson has been extremely clear about his position on abortion. He is pro-choice but has mentioned certain conditions, such as no late-term abortions and informing parents. Blakespear knows this.”
“In a democracy, it’s important to hear both sides of any issue,” said Lorri Greene, an Encinitas resident and administrator of the Facebook group Encinitas Votes. “By not debating your opponent, people don’t know what you stand for, what you will fight for, and most importantly, ‘Will you work with people on both sides of the aisle?’ I can’t speak for the Mayor, but I think she’s not making a good choice.
“Can you imagine if two people were running for Governor and one said I won’t debate you unless you see things my way? This is ridiculous. I am very much pro-choice, but if the Mayor is really using this as an excuse not to debate, then it tells me she only would represent one group of citizens. And, for me, that spells disaster no matter what level of government we’re talking about.”