Brown Backs Out of Kennedy Institute Debate

A day after tentatively agreeing to a debate co-sponsored by the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate and University of Massachusetts Boston, Senator Scott Brown said Tuesday that he would not participate in the event because of what he felt would be a partisan bias against him.

Hours later, and after Democratic opponent Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren criticized his decision, Brown announced that he would participate in a Boston media consortium debate already agreed to by Warren.

At issue was the politics of Victoria R. Kennedy, the wife of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56 and the chairwoman of the EMK Institute. Brown wrote Monday that he would only participate in the debate if Kennedy agreed to remain politically neutral throughout the race, withholding her likely endorsement for Warren.

It became clear Tuesday that Brown's request would not be met when a letter from EMK Institute CEO Lisa McBirney and University of Massachusetts Boston representative Christopher Hogan declined Brown's request.

"This non-endorsement pledge is unprecedented and is not being required of any other persons or entities,” McBirney and Hogan wrote. “To us, such a pledge seems inappropriate when a non-media sponsor issues a debate invitation. We can assure both campaigns that the debate will be fair, just as the one we cosponsored between Senator Brown and Attorney General Martha Coakley in 2010 was fair.”

Brown's campaign officially withdrew from the debate after receiving the letter.

“We respect Vicki Kennedy’s decision but we regret that we cannot accept a debate invitation from someone who plans to endorse Scott Brown’s opponent,” Brown's campaign manager Jim Barnett said in a statement. “The Kennedy Institute cannot hold itself out as a nonpartisan debate sponsor while the president of its board of trustees gets involved in the race on behalf of one of the candidates.”

Shortly after declining Kennedy, Brown's campaign announced that it would agree to another debate sponsored by a consortium of Boston media. The debate is the third televised engagement agreed to by both candidates.

Brown has also accepted two radio debates that Warren has yet to agree to, the first of which is slated for June 27.

The Kennedy invitation has exposed Brown to criticism as Warren quickly accepted the invitation last week and urged her opponent to do the same.

The Democratic camp almost immediately seized on Brown’s refusal to participate in the Kennedy debate, saying that he has been consistently noncommittal when discussing debates and making new its challenge for him to accept a televised Boston media consortium debate, which he later accepted.

Republican political consultant Todd Domke said Brown's decision to decline the invitation was fair, especially considering Kennedy's ties to Massachusetts Democrats.

"Brown had good reason to ask Vicki Kennedy if she would maintain her policy of neutrality," Donke wrote in an email. "It's understood that supposedly neutral debate sponsors will not then turn into partisan pundits. Brown didn't want this debate to be a trap."

Domke said that the highly publicized back and forth over debates should have little effect on either candidate’s actual political chances.

"This early, voters don't care about debates," Domke wrote. "Voters are savvy about understanding that politicians are political, that they'll try to negotiate debates to their advantage, and avoid debates that could be rigged."

—Staff writer Nicholas P. Fandos can be reached at nicholasfandos@college.harvard.edu.

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