Anne Sterling says she's helped organize more debates than she can count in her 30 years as a volunteer with the Virginia League of Women Voters.
"I've done almost every job that there is with debates, and I've done debates in small town halls, large high-school auditoriums, and on television," says Sterling, the president of the league, a nonpartisan civic organization formed with the goal of helping women become involved in politics.
During those 30 years with the league, Sterling says, she's never heard a candidate write off one of her organization's forums as a "left-wing, stacked" event, as Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli recently did.
"I honestly, with all my heart, believe it's a very fair event," she says. "We're scrupulously careful about the way every debate is planned — whether it is for the local water commissioner or the governor of the state."
The first gubernatorial debate of the campaign season is scheduled for Saturday at the Homestead in Bath County. But unpleasantness and uncertainty still surrounds the forum traditionally organized by the league in conjunction with AARP Virginia.
Billed as a people's debate, and set to broadcast from CBS-6 studios, participants have included Tim Kaine and George Allen during last year's Senate race, and Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds in the previous gubernatorial campaign.
The Democratic candidate for governor, Terry McAuliffe, has agreed to participate this year, but the league and the AARP say Cuccinelli, who called for 15 debates across the state, never responded to their invitation. Asked by reporters why, Cuccinelli was incredulous.
"Oh, the left wing, stacked debate," he said. "Well, you've got MSNBC as the proposed folks running it."
MSNBC isn't involved, though the planned host, Norah O'Donnell, worked as the network's chief Washington correspondent before becoming co-host of "CBS This Morning."
Cuccinelli campaign strategist Chris LaCivita later told The Virginian-Pilot his candidate is willing to compromise: "If Terry McAuliffe agrees to a debate with Ken Cuccinelli hosted by Sean Hannity and put on by the NRA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, we'd be happy to attend."
The League of Women Voters isn't amused by the comparison, but remains hopeful Cuccinelli will agree to participate in its forum. "This is the kind of thing that you really cannot allow yourself to get distracted by," Sterling says. "We feel very confident in the reputation we try so hard to keep polished over 94 years."