BATON ROUGE, La. — The first statewide TV debate in Louisiana’s U.S. Senate race will happen next week without disruption — and without a judge adding anyone to the participant list.
State District Judge Tim Kelley refused Thursday to stop the debate or to force Louisiana Public Broadcasting and the Council for a Better Louisiana to add candidate Troy Hebert to the Oct. 18 debate stage.
“The debate can go on as scheduled,” Kelley said after a two-day hearing considering whether criteria that whittled the 24-candidate field to five debate participants violated the state’s laws or constitution.
Hebert, a former state lawmaker running without party affiliation, filed a lawsuit challenging the criteria as unfair. Two other candidates who didn’t make the cut — Beryl Billiot, an independent, and Charles Marsala, a Republican — later joined him in the lawsuit.
All three men, none of them lawyers, represented themselves in court for the hearing.
Hebert said he’s considering the possibility of an appeal. If he decides to do so, he’ll be on his own. Marsala and Billiot said with less than a week before the debate is scheduled to be held at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, they didn’t have the time for an appeal.
“I think for us it’s a done deal,” Marsala said.
To make it to the debate, participants had to have established campaigns, raised at least $1 million and polled at 5 percent support in an independent poll.
The criteria “shows seriousness of purpose. It shows public support. And I think it’s very reasonable,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana.
He and Beth Courtney, president of Louisiana Public Broadcasting, said a debate with two dozen candidates wouldn’t be useful to the public, because it would provide too little time for candidates to differentiate themselves and dig into issues.
“If you had too many people, I think it would impede the conversation about any significant issues,” Courtney said.
The three candidates challenging the criteria said the requirements favored establishment politicians and the wealthy. They said it made it hard for lesser-known candidates to break into the conversation and to draw voter attention because they’re locked out of a debate that will get widespread attention.
“It’s official: You have to be a millionaire to run for the Senate,” Hebert said after the ruling. “The rest of us, the only role we play is to decide which millionaire we vote for.”
Billiot, a Native American who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year, said it was unfair to use poll numbers when he and other candidates weren’t included in the poll.
“We should vet the candidates based on their ability, their knowledge and their efforts,” he said. Later, he added: “When given the opportunity, the serious candidates do shine.”
Hebert said a taxpayer-financed public broadcasting network shouldn’t be doing any events that appear to promote one candidate or another.
Both Hebert and Marsala suggested they believed the criteria were so stringently drawn to try to keep white supremacist David Duke from the debate, but Erwin denied the requirements were developed with any specific candidate in mind.
It was an unusual hearing, with three non-lawyers testifying, questioning one another and presenting evidence in the courtroom. Though the judge ruled against the preliminary injunction request, he applauded the candidates.
“I know you’re disappointed with the decision, but that does not detract from the fact that you have shown great character,” Kelley said.
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