Candidate forums and debates have been a part of the American political landscape since before the famed Lincoln--Douglas debates of 1858.
In the 21st century, when wide-open campaign finance laws make it possible for cash-rich candidates to produce seemingly endless television campaign ads and slick radio spots, organized debates and political forums offer voters a rare opportunity to see and hear the candidates side by side.
But attempts to organize candidate forums and debates in 2012 have been met with mixed results at best in Kern County, making some wonder if these important tools of the democratic process are withering away or even dying outright for lack of interest by the public and spotty participation by political candidates.
"In previous forums, we have noticed the people who show up are often members of the candidate's staff, family and close supporters," said Lois Watson, president of the League of Women Voters of Kern County. "Very few members of the general public are coming in to get information to help them become better informed."
Watson, who emphasized that her comments are her own and don't necessarily reflect the position of the state organization, said it's nevertheless discouraging to realize that many candidates seem less than determined to participate.
The League has a long history of sponsoring and organizing such events; educating the public about initiatives and candidates is central to its mission. But this year, only two of four candidates in the two local state Assembly races responded to the League's invitation, Watson said.
The campaign of Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, a Republican incumbent running in the 34th Assembly District, did not respond to the invitation, Watson said. Neither did the campaign for Bakersfield City Council member Rudy Salas, a Democrat running for the 32nd Assembly seat.
Grove's Democratic challenger Mari Goodman, a Service Employees International Union organizer from Tehachapi, did accept the invitation, as did Salas' opponent, Republican Pedro Rios, a former Delano City Council member, Watson said. But the League decided it was unwise to push forward without a full compliment of candidates.
"It would have been one-sided -- and kind of embarrassing," Watson said.
"You can't hold a political forum with just one candidate."
The League faced the same problem in the race for the 23rd congressional district. In that race, Republican incumbent Kevin McCarthy is being challenged by journalist and media consultant Terry Phillips, who is running without a party affiliation.
"No way could we get McCarthy to be in a forum with Phillips," Watson said.
Another planned voter education and candidate forum held by the Kern Central Valley Small & Minority Business Coalition experienced similar difficulties.
According to emails between organizer Marvin Dean and campaign representatives, several candidates declined to attend, including McCarthy, who was helping move his son into college that last weekend in August.
But everyone knows a debate between McCarthy, the House Majority Whip, and challenger Phillips would likely be the premier event of Kern's campaign season.
A third debate forum, scheduled for all day Sept. 21 at the Petroleum Club of Bakersfield, has also been unable to land McCarthy, who will be in Washington, D.C. that day as the House or Representatives is scheduled to be in session.
Billed as the Great Kern Debate, and nontraditional in that it includes an entry fee, the event is sponsored by the Kern Association of Health Underwriters, the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors - Kern County, and Takin' Care of Business: The Clay and Marty Radio Show.
Clay Koerner, a co-host of the program, said the $10 advance entry fee -- or $20 at the door -- will help cover the cost of the venue and other expenses. A portion of the ticket price is also going to a variety of nonprofit organizations when they sell tickets.
The event will feature candidates for the Bakersfield City Council, Kern County Board of Supervisors, state Assembly and U.S. Congress, Koerner said. It will also include a health fair and a professional comedian during the lunch break.
However, the event's promotional literature notes that "candidate appearance is not guaranteed."
McCarthy staffer Vince Fong verified that the congressman cannot attend the debate on the 21st as Congress is in session.
However, McCarthy has committed to a debate of some kind organized by KGET Channel 17, said the local station's News Director John Pilios.
"Both Terry Phillips and Kevin McCarthy have committed to do that debate," Pilios said.
While it's tentatively scheduled for taping on Oct. 10, to be broadcast on Oct. 14, those dates are not yet firm, said Pilios.
Still, getting the two candidates in the same room on the same day would definitely be a coup for KGET.
And a great debate for the rest of us.