Lena Gonzalez won’t debate in the race for the 33rd Senate seat, and that hurts the public

During last fall’s election on a series of Long Beach City Charter amendments, including a measure that would change term limits for most elected leaders, the Post wrote some critical stories on that particular measure: One debating the legality of the measure. Another story featuring an Assemblyman who described the campaign as a “fabrication.” Even a column about a bizarre, oddly-conceived ad by the opponents, featuring the mayor eating.

Despite our coverage, Mayor Robert Garcia and City Auditor Laura Doud showed up to our newsroom Downtown and participated in a live debate with opponents of the charter amendments.

Garcia and Doud had little reason to participate—the amendments were widely supported and were tracking toward passage. Opposition efforts were scattered and limited. But Garcia and Doud debated the opponents nevertheless and readers and voters had more information to guide their thinking and decisions.

The Post has likewise written several critical stories about the Long Beach Police Department, including an investigation in October that raised questions about the department’s policies for investigating officer-involved shootings. A few days after the story ran, the entire command staff of the department, including Chief Robert Luna, came to our newsroom, shared their concerns, and listened to us explain our editorial decisions.

When the city released its 2019 budget recommendation last summer, City Manager Pat West, Garcia and other managers came to our newsroom to explain its nuance and answer our questions.

We are now in the midst of an election season for a new representative to the 33rd state Senate district, which includes nearly one million people (and much of Long Beach).

Just 8% of voters turned out for the primary in March; now the race is down to two candidates: Long Beach Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez, a Democrat, and Cudahy Councilman Jack M. Guerrero, a Republican running in a heavily-leaning Democratic district.

The day after the primary election, the Post extended an invitation to Gonzalez and Guerrero to participate in a livestreamed debate, similar to the one we hosted on the charter amendments in the fall. These debate interactions—particularly when politicians are challenged to think on their feet—give voters a meaningful sense of who they are electing to office.

Guerrero accepted our debate invitation eight days after it was offered. Gonzalez, through a campaign surrogate, ultimately declined to participate in our debate a little over one month after the first invitation, of several, was sent.

As the hometown candidate and the front-runner throughout the campaign, we have covered Gonzalez the most critically and extensively of all the candidates.

Eventually the Post’s management team spoke with Gonzalez by phone two weeks ago, when she expressed concerns of the Post’s coverage of the race. Her observations and her willingness to share with us were helpful, but it was the first time our leadership had heard from the councilwoman during the course of the race, since she participated in a candidate interview with the Post in February. (Guerrero did not participate in a candidate interview with the Post.)

Gonzalez has agreed to participate in a forum hosted by the Wrigley Association on Monday, May 6 at 7 p.m. at Veterans Park, 101 E. 28th St. In the forum, the candidates will answer written questions submitted by audience members at 6:30 p.m.

But a forum is far from a debate; it requires different preparation from the candidates and allows for no responses from one candidate to the other’s accusations. It’s a reading from their own campaign mailers, and it does little to improve the democratic process.

This election, representing nearly one million Californians, is too important for the press to not ask tough questions and to facilitate candidate debates.

Whether elected leaders respond to our questions, to accept debate invitations, to offer feedback, to share their concerns about our coverage—well, we can’t control if they will or do, but our position is that clearly they should.

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David Sommers is publisher of the Long Beach Post. As the publication’s top leader, he is responsible for everything from editorial and advertising to technical and corporate operations. On any given day, you can find him meeting with advertisers, schmoozing with city leaders and poring over tough news decisions. He’s also responsible for fixing the copy machine, setting up officer furniture and keeping the newsroom well-stocked with paper towels and coffee pods.