October 18, 2014

High school debate sparks House District 34 controversy

By Stephanie Turaj Staff Writer, South County Independent, 10/16/14
South Kingstown High School canceled a planned civic forum between House District 34 incumbent Democrat Teresa Tanzi and Republican challenger Stephen Tetzner, after controversy erupted over the date, the proposed moderator and the Tetzner campaign’s treatment of a student planning the forum.
The move comes weeks after Tetzner sent out a campaign mailer using a body double of Tanzi, alleging she “broke her word” regarding a plan to hold a series of debates.
In July, Tetzner sent out a press release challenging Tanzi to a series of five debates. He said he sent the challenge to Tanzi by registered mail July 15. In September, he sent her a second challenge for a debate, this time using a registered courier to serve her the paperwork.
“Tetzner had said he wanted to have a series of five debates,” Tanzi said. “I said we would have the League of Women Voters [forum] and we would plan this debate at the high school. I thought that would be a bit much, but we would have one in September, one in October, and see how things went. So I started planning for the one in October. I approached the high school about having this there.”
“We kept trying to book with her, book with her,” Tetzner said in an interview this week. “She talked about having a ‘civic event’ at the high school with the students asking questions, and the teacher being a moderator, which I agreed to.”
His postcard mailer went out Sept. 15 to residents of the district, which includes Narragansett, Peace Dale and Wakefield. It depicted a model – with hair similar to Tanzi’s – with her back turned. The postcard said Tanzi had been challenged to a series of debates “for two months” and alleged she “broke her word” after agreeing to participate.
“Instead of additional debates, [Tanzi] proposed a ‘civic event’ at South Kingstown High School,” the postcard read. “She wants to take questions from high school students – non-voters – instead of the taxpayers, homeowners and business people affected by our critical issues. She would rather a high school teacher conduct ‘the event’ rather than an experienced moderator!”
“We did this piece to call her out on the fact that she is avoiding the debates,” Teztner said. “It was delivered to people’s doors on Sept. 17.”
Tetzner had a graphic designer, ScanlonDesign of Massachusetts, begin laying out an advertisement on Sept. 1, he said. The final advertisement was mailed Sept. 15, according to an Oct. 14 letter from art director Franis Scanlon, which he provided to the Independent.
“Tetzner was accusing me of refusing to have debates,” Tanzi said in an interview. “I don’t have the thousands of dollars to send out mailers to contradict the things he has asserted. I’m concerned people will think I’m not willing to debate him; which couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Tanzi said in mid-September, a “civic event or debate” was tentatively scheduled – and promoted on the school’s website – to be held Oct. 8 from 3 to 6 p.m. University of Rhode Island Political Science Professor Maureen Moakley was scheduled to moderate. Tetzner later said he was not contacted before the planning had begun to confirm and was not available at that time.
“The idea was to engage the students, and everyone at the school seemed to like the idea,” Tanzi said in an interview this week. After the students met with us [in a classroom setting], they were supposed to come up with some questions to get a debate going.”
Tanzi confirmed high school senior Glenn Yu took the lead in the planning. In a letter to the editor sent to the Independent (see page A7), Yu alleged Tony Pesaturo, Tetzner’s campaign manager, “ridiculed” him when he tried to set up the forum.
“On September 17, I called Tanzi who was eager to debate Tetzner,” Yu wrote. “The date seemed set; all that was needed was confirmation from Tetzner. That night, I called Tetzner’s campaign adviser, Tony Pesaturo; I explained to him I was calling on behalf of the school and I was trying to plan a debate for Tetzner and Tanzi, something that Tetzner has continually asked for.”
“Upon calling Pesaturo, it seemed that Tetzner did not want a debate,” Yu continued in his letter. “[Pesaturo] told me how demeaning it was that a student “would have the nerve to call [him].” To this, I reacted calmly and told him that there was no need to be rude, to which he laughed at me and ridiculed me further.”
Yu maintains Pesaturo called him back mistakenly, and was again rude.
“I told him that he was alienating his own voters by disrespecting me,” Yu wrote. “He responded I was only in high school and could not vote. To that, I responded “I’m not an orphan. I have parents that can vote.”
Yu contacted Tetzner the following evening, and the candidate apologized for Pestaturo’s actions, Yu wrote.
“[Pesaturo] said when [Yu] called [him], he never identified himself as being a high school student,” Tetzner said in an interview with the Independent. “He just said [Yu} called me and said ‘I’m calling you about the debate Oct. 8.’ And Tony said, ‘What debate? What are you talking about.’ He thought it was a prank call.”
In his letter, Yu said he received Tetzner’s campaign mailer Sept. 19, two days after Yu had contacted Pesaturo.
“Two days after the call, I had made to Tetzner, a flier was sent to my house,” Yu wrote. “[I]n his defense, he had sent the flier before he had all of the details of the debate and believed that the debate was to be hosted by a high school civics teacher. Yet, Tetzner, since sending the flier, has not made an attempt to correct his statement. Moreover, he had just informed me a few days earlier that he would prefer a civics teacher over [University of Rhode Island] Professor Moakley.”
In his letter, Yu said Tetzner told him he would not debate Tanzi because he did not think Moakley “was professional enough.”
In the interview, Tetzner said a debate offers a chance for candidates to respond to each other’s comments, rather than a forum or civic event-style forum, where a moderator asks questions of candidates, and no direct challenges to answers are allowed. He preferred the debate style and said a “civic event,” should be for students only and not open to the public. He added he did not believe Moakley would be an acceptable moderator and provided Yu and the Independent with a list of “professional moderators” he would find acceptable, which included Mark Curtis from ABC6 and WPRI’s Ted Nesi.
In the letter, Yu took issue with Tetzner’s assertion that high school “non-voters” were not as important as “taxpayers, homeowners and businesspeople.”
“The fact was that the students in our school had put in hours of research into creating questions for the debate, time which will not be given back to them,” Yu said. “The students (future taxpayers, homeowners and businesspeople) were to create questions which would be debated in front of adults and members of the community.”
On Sept. 23, Tetzner claimed South Kingstown High School Principal Robert McCarthy canceled the potential event, and ended any possibility of a debate. McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

“Everyone, the school, the students, the teachers, were hurt and outraged at the way they were treated,” Tanzi said. “They pulled out of the debate before [there was] any further conflict.”