10th District race debate still elusive

On Aug. 8, Republican state Senate nominee Todd Gardenhire pledged at least two debates with Democrat Andraé McGary, saying 10th District voters deserve a chance to examine their choices.

Since then, Gardenhire has skipped several opportunities to fulfill his promise.

A radio talk show host, a Libertarian group and the Chattanooga Voter Empowerment Movement on Wednesday said Gardenhire refused or ignored their separate debate requests while McGary quickly accepted all three invitations.

"We're not waiting on this clown," said McGary, 32, a Chattanooga city councilman and Democrat. "His language about being exuberant or excited about debating is a bunch of lies."

Both men are seeking the soon-to-be-vacated 10th District Senate seat, which covers parts of Bradley and Hamilton counties. Gardenhire recently said he and McGary are ideological opposites, but it's unclear how many times he'll try to prove it on a debate stage.

In the first of three telephone interviews Wednesday, Gardenhire said the voter empowerment group -- mostly composed of black ministers and the local NAACP -- neglected to notify him about the organization's Sept. 27 debate.

"I haven't heard a word from them," he said. "Seriously."

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But the group's coordinator, Raquetta Dotley, provided the Chattanooga Times Free Press with a copy of an invitation she sent by email on Aug. 27.

Questioned about the email in a second interview, Gardenhire, 64, admitted "an oversight" in checking the mailbox, which is advertised on some of his campaign materials.

"My son set that email up," he said. "I'm not blaming anybody else, but I haven't been checking it. ... I have another event that day, so I'll have to look at my schedule."

In a subsequent voice mail, Gardenhire said he'll attend the Sept. 27 debate.

"Sorry for the confusion," he said. "Totally my fault, nobody's else's. Can't blame it on any other person."

Others haven't been able to pin him down. Last month, the Chattanooga-based Libertarian Party of Southeastern Tennessee announced an Aug. 30 debate. Facebook messages to both candidates went out weeks in advance. McGary accepted and attended, but organizers never heard from Gardenhire.

Gardenhire said he only saw the Libertarians' invitation this week because it was the first time he checked his campaign Facebook account since the Aug. 2 Republican primary.

"Making contact with somebody," he said, "isn't the same thing as sending a Facebook message."

The head of the Libertarian group endorsed McGary last week.

Red Bank resident Bob Moore occasionally fills in for talk show host Brian Joyce on WGOW-FM's "Live and Local." McGary hosted the show before he entered the state Senate race.

Moore said he separately asked both candidates if they would debate on one of his August shows.

"Andraé immediately said yes," Moore said, "but before I could get the words out, Gardenhire said it's never going to happen."

Gardenhire said "radio talk shows aren't good places for debates -- you get 30 seconds to answer a question and you're interrupted by the host or somebody else."

McGary doubted that explanation.

"He's giving you a bunch of lip service," he said. "Let's debate the issues."