SALEM — The Independent Party of Oregon has threatened legal action if organizers of several upcoming gubernatorial debates exclude their nominee, Patrick Starnes.
“I hope we don’t have to come to court,” Starnes said Monday. “I would rather just come to the debates.”
Starnes, a cabinet maker from Brownsville, won the IPO nomination earlier this month. He is up against Democrat incumbent Gov. Kate Brown and GOP nominee Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend.
Starnes said he has not been invited to participate in any debates or forums involving his opponents.
Under Oregon law, unless the organizers of any public forum or debate invite all major-party candidates for the office they are required to report the cost of the debate and advertising for the debate as an in-kind campaign contributions to the candidates who were invited.
The IPO became Oregon’s third major political party in 2015 after party members made up more than 5 percent of voters who turned out for the 2014 general election.
“Our party intends to pursue all state and federal remedies available to us to ensure our candidate’s participation in these debates,” said IPO Co-Chair Rob Harris.
Last week, Buehler announced that he had accepted invitations for debates and forums hosted by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, KOBI-NBC TV in Medford, KATU-ABC TV in conjunction with Portland State University in Portland, KGW-NBC TV in Portland and the nonprofit Children First of Oregon.
Chris Broderick, a spokesman at PSU, said the governor had declined the invitation from PSU and KATU-ABC TV.
“As of today we don’t have a debate,” Broderick said. “Hopefully there will be more debates, and we can host one.”
None of the other debate and forum organizers were immediately available for comment as of 5 p.m. Monday.
The governor has called for three debates but has yet to schedule those events, said Christian Gaston, her campaign communications director.
Charitable and educational nonprofit corporations are prohibited from making campaign contributions to support or oppose candidates for public office, under the Internal Revenue Code.
The Federal Communications Commission requires broadcast TV and radio stations to treat candidates for the same office in an equal manner. Known as the “equal time” rule, it applies to federal, state and local candidates who are legally qualified as a candidate, according to an article by the Radio+Television Business Report.
Non-charitable and educational organizations can exclude candidates, but they must report on ORESTAR — the state campaign finance system — the cost of the debate and related publicity as in-kind contributions to the participating candidates, said Harris, who is a lawyer.
“Head-to-head debates are among the most critical opportunities for candidates to draw distinctions between themselves that enable voters to make informed decisions,” said Sal Peralta, IPO secretary, “so the value is more than economic one.”