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Staff File Photo By C.B. Schmelter / U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Chattanooga, said he would not be able to participate in a Zoom debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters because he is "focused on listening to the concerns of the people he represents."

When elected officials are unwilling to debate their opponents, voters often think they have something to hide.

We don't believe this is the case with U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, and state Reps. Robin Smith and Esther Helton, but all four have chosen not to be part of a debate series that was to be held next week sponsored by the League of Women Voters in partnership with the Chattanooga Times Free Press and WRCB-TV.

The debates were to be held over Zoom and subsequently made available on Facebook and YouTube.

No law says the candidates must debate each other, and most incumbents say a debate only gives lesser known opponents more exposure.

Nevertheless, the League of Women Voters locally and across the country has a history of sponsoring debates or forums that allow the public to see the candidates and evaluate their answers to questions on current issues.

We don't know the parameters for the debate the local group presented to the candidates, but they were agreed to by the challengers, Democrats Meg Gorman (vs. Fleischmann), Glenn Scruggs (vs. Gardenhire in Senate District 10), Joan Farrell (vs. Smith in House District 26) and Joseph Udeaja (vs. Helton in House District 30).

Fleischmann, Gardenhire and Smith are all veteran public speakers, and Helton is both a state representative and East Ridge city councilwoman, so a debate stage shouldn't scare any of them.

League of Women voters representatives said none of the four responded to the invitation to debate before the deadline, "thereby declining the offer."

A spokesman for Fleischmann, in an email to WRCB, said the congressman was "focused on securing funding relief for Tennessee businesses and families" and was "focused on listening to the concerns of the people he represents and offering real solutions."

Gardenhire later confirmed to the television station that he did not plan to participate and said that he was "running my campaign on my record."

We believe he has a good record and wish he chosen to extol it in the debate format.

Smith, in an email to this page, showed that she had an event involving health care access on her calendar for the same time that had been scheduled for at least two months. Helton, in her 2018 race for the open District 30 seat, said she chose not to debate that year because "I would have everything to lose."

We think the public is always better served when it hears from its elected representatives, if available, in a format they cannot control. It allows them to defend their record and explain why they deserve to remain in office, and it allows their opponents to criticize those records and tout what they'd do. But it also offers a sense of fairness we see too little of in today's politics.

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