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Merritt declines to attend debate against Simpson, says event organizers could be biased

By Glenn Evans
Feb. 25, 2012 at 11 p.m.

One of two Republicans hoping to represent Gregg and Upshur counties in Austin cites potential bias in declining to participate in a March 5 tea party debate.

Tommy Merritt, who aims to retake the Texas House of Representatives seat David Simpson won from him in 2010, issued a statement through his spokeswoman Friday questioning whether organizers of the We The People Longview debate can run an unbiased event.

"The Merritt campaign has deep concerns about how this particular forum will be conducted, given that both of the organizers are on record as publicly supporting the other candidate and in fact are donors and volunteers on his campaign," spokeswoman Meredith Merritt wrote in a request for comment. "Even Mr. Merritt's opponent has outlined that the forums be 'fair, hosted by constituents and not campaigns.' "

The organizers cited in the statement are We The People Longview founders Mike and Cindy Schwartz, both of whom say they do support Simpson - as individuals.

The Texas Ethics Commission lists a $50 contribution to Simpson from Mike Schwartz in August.

"That's a personal contribution, not from We The People," Cindy Schwartz said Friday. "We keep our personal opinions to ourselves. (We The People) do not endorse candidates. We (the Schwartzes) can do as private citizens as we prefer."

Mike Schwartz has announced in the two monthly We The People meetings since the debate invitation went out that "we intend to be very aggressive in letting it be known" that Merritt has chosen not to attend.

We The People Longview, the tea party organization in Gregg County, outlined its formal debate in a Jan. 4 invitation to both Republicans. There is no Democrat in the race, though a second filing period appears likely as a federal court in San Antonio redraws voting boundaries.

Unlike several, less formal candidate forums that remain in limbo pending that court's declaration of a map and a primary date, the tea party debate invitation outlined a strict format.

In its first half hour, each candidate would have 90 seconds to answer questions from moderator and KETK News Director Neal Barton, with no rebuttals. The second half hour was a Lincoln/Douglas-style debate with the opponents grilling each other in timed questions and responses.

The moderator then was to ask audience-suggested questions for 15 minutes, and each candidate would close with a two-minute statement.

"We're giving (Merritt) the same opportunity to come on with David Simpson," Mike Schwartz said. "If he thinks that's biased, that's funny because three-fourths of the debate will be him asking David Simpson questions and David Simpson asking him questions and 15 minutes of questions from the audience."

Like his wife, Schwartz said giving Simpson $50 in the summer was a personal donation apart from the tea party group.

"Would Mr. Merritt feel better if I donated $50 to his campaign?" he asked. "I will donate $50 to his campaign, and will do it by, at the latest, next week."

Simpson called Merritt's absence from the debate unfortunate.

"We the People is a non-partisan group dedicated to educating people about the principles that this country was founded on," Simpson wrote in an email request for comment. "The voters deserve to know how each of us stands on issues that are important to them. The forum format is welcome, but structuring some events as debates would allow voters additional insight into the candidates."

Spokeswoman Merritt indicated the tea party debate was clouded by the Schwartzes' alliance with her father's opponent.

"The facts regarding the founders of this group effectively blur the lines of fairness and (indicate) that the proposed forum doesn't provide voters with a setting for a fair and neutral debate," she wrote.

Merritt added that the former state lawmaker's preference from the beginning of the campaign was that forums be held within 30 days of the primary. As of Friday, that date was May 29 at the earliest.

"We commend the groups that have already chosen to be prudent, and wisely rescheduled their forums," she wrote.



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