West Side Showdown Update

Ben Bentzin has spent tens of thousands of dollars on heavily rotated TV ads leading up to the Jan. 17 special election. But the telegenic Republican millionaire refused to participate in a live broadcast of a candidates' forum Wednesday night, Jan. 11 – until the event's sponsor agreed to drastically limit televised access to the viewing public.

The hastily called election has left little time for candidates in the four-way race to stump for votes and raise funds. A televised forum sponsored by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce would have given district voters a chance to view all four hopefuls in an unscripted light. It also would have provided precious air time for at least three of the hopefuls eager to convey their campaign platforms.

Donna Howard, Kathy Rider, and Ben Easton had all readily agreed to participate in the televised event, which would have aired Wednesday on the AISD cable access channel and been rebroadcast periodically before next week's election. The chamber initially agreed to scrap the TV cameras, but after a letter of complaint Tuesday from Travis Co. Democratic Party Chair Chris Elliott, the chamber and Bentzin renegotiated a new plan: Now, a taped broadcast of the event will air on Time Warner's on-demand cable channel 1400, limiting access to TW digital cable subscribers instead of a broader audience of basic cable subscribers.

Without specifically naming Bentzin as the spoiler, the chamber defended its decision to acquiesce to his demands. "It was very important to the chamber that all the candidates participate in the forum," said Saralee Tiede. "With any kind of forum like this, there is always some kind of negotiating that goes on." The negotiating on the part of Bentzin's campaign also included the chamber's providing candidates with a list of questions in advance, while prohibiting audience questions altogether. In a 2004 candidates' forum the chamber hosted, audience members were invited to submit written questions to the moderator.

Howard and Rider both expressed dismay that one candidate in a four-way race was able to call the shots on the format. "I think it's inappropriate," said Rider. "It raises questions in my mind about why a candidate would want to run for office when he's not willing to go before TV cameras."

The incident mirrors a similar demand made by Baxter and two other Republican candidates in the 2004 House races. In that case, Baxter, along with Jack Stick and Alan Askew, essentially dictated the format of what was supposed to have been an unscripted candidates' debate aired on KLRU-TV. Instead, the station agreed to the candidates' demands for individual softball interviews. Stick and Askew went on to lose to Democrats Mark Strama and Patrick Rose, while Baxter won by only a couple of whiskers.

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  • West Side Showdown

    The new political year begins with a four-way speed race for House District 48

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