MADISON – Democratic congressional candidate Tom Palzewicz wants a debate in the race to represent the Fifth District in suburban Milwaukee but says his Republican opponent isn’t making it easy.
Palzewicz, a Brookfield businessman, says state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau won’t agree to a debate — and won’t return the campaign’s phone calls about setting one up.
Fitzgerald contended he would be willing to debate Palzewicz, but said no one other than Palzewicz has asked him to do one.
“I have had no contact with any civic organization, chamber of commerce, radio station, anybody that said we would like to set up a candidate debate — hasn’t happened,” Fitzgerald told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday.
“Tom dreamed up his own list and locations and moderators and a bunch of stuff and I said, ‘You know, listen, if somebody approaches us about doing a debate, I’ll do it,'” he said.
Palzewicz said Monday that Fitzgerald could help set up a debate if he wanted to.
“We have had zero contact with their campaign,” he said in a statement on Monday. “Who did Fitzgerald talk to when he said he would do a debate? Because it wasn’t us. We would still like to do a debate, so who does he need to talk to for us to organize it? This is very simple, our campaigns should be able to figure this out and move forward. Now that we’re in agreement, let’s have a debate and agree on a moderator.”
Fitzgerald and Palzewicz are competing to replace longtime Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Menomonee Falls who is retiring after his term expires this year. The district, which includes the western suburbs of Milwaukee and stretches to the Dane County border, heavily tilts toward Republicans.
The debate over, well, debates creates a contrast with Sensenbrenner, who is known for holding regular town hall meetings, including with Democratic lawmakers who represent areas of his district.
Sensenbrenner debated Democratic opponents Matt Flynn in 1978 and Bryan Kennedy in 2006, according to the campaign, but did not debate Khary Penebaker in 2016. Palzewicz, who also ran against Sensenbrenner in 2018, said one debate was organized between the two, but it was called off at the last minute because of health reasons.
Those races did not take place during a pandemic that has pushed some organizations to avoid holding in-person events. Debates have been held or sought in other congressional races this year.
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Fitzgerald said he would debate Palzewicz but argued it wouldn’t happen because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Yeah, I’d love to do a sit-down forum,” Fitzgerald said. “But … the Jaycees or the Lions Club or the chambers of commerce, they’re basically not having their regular functions because of COVID, let alone having some type of huge open debate.”
The issue has been percolating for months.
Palzewicz’s campaign publicly accused Fitzgerald of refusing to debate in mid-August in a fundraising email. A couple of weeks later the campaign reached out to media outlets asking them to host a debate.
On Sept. 8, the campaign sent a press release accusing Fitzgerald of not returning phone calls about a debate. A spokeswoman for Fitzgerald did not answer questions from the Journal Sentinel at the time.
On Sept. 18, Palzewicz sent out a press release titled “Where is Scott Fitzgerald?” saying the campaign tried unsuccessfully to contact Fitzgerald by registered letter.
“The Palzewicz campaign sent the letter inviting Fitzgerald to debate the issues in public, but the majority leader has yet to be found to sign for it. His house, his office…no signature,” the release said.
A few days later, Palzewicz sought to raise money off the lack of a debate.
“My team has called his office almost daily since the primary. We have sent emails. We have contacted them on social media. We even sent physical letters to his home and his office. No response,” according to the fundraising pitch sent Sept. 22 asking supporters to call Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald told the Journal Sentinel last week he wasn’t avoiding addressing issues, noting he had done a 30-minute interview with the WisconsinEye Public Affairs Network and interviews with newspapers in the district.
“How many debates have I done in my career? My gosh, I can’t count them all. So it’s not that,” Fitzgerald said.
“I don’t know what Tom’s looking for, if he’s looking for presidential-type, podium-type debates or whatever. But, you know, come on. You can criticize me for lots of stuff, but not being available or not stating where I am on the issues is not one of those things.”
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