BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A judge denied a lawsuit Thursday that claimed the restrictions placed on a public funded debate for Louisiana's U.S. Senate seat were unfair.
Judge Timothy Kelley said the three senate candidates who filed the suit failed to demonstrate that the criteria to participate in the debate, including a million-dollar benchmark, were unreasonable. All three candidates represented themselves in the court.
"How in the world can a public entity demand that you must have one million dollars in your bank account in order to run?" said independent Senate candidate Troy Hebert in reaction to the judge's ruling.
Hebert, the former head of Louisiana's Alcohol and Tobacco Control, took Louisiana Public Broadcasting (LPB) and the Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL) to court after he learned the criteria for their debate excluded him from participating. The debate is slated for October 18.
During the hearing, Hebert along with independent Beryl Billiot and Republican Charles Marsala, argued that the debate was "pay to play" and gave an advantage to wealthier and more established candidates while suppressing the voices of candidates who had not raised as much money.
"This just forwards the ideology that you have to be rich to play," Billiot said after the ruling was made.
According to a press release by LPB and CABL, in order to participate, candidates must:
- Establish a campaign committee with a treasurer and campaign staff, and filed campaign finance reporters with the Federal Election Commission prior to the debate
- Poll at least 5 percent in a nonpartisan or news media poll recognized by CABL released after qualifying
- Raise at least $1 million in campaign funds prior to the debate
All three of the candidates in court failed to meet the latter two standards.
Hebert polled at 0.8 percent in a recent poll conducted by Southern Media & Opinion Research. Marsala and Billiot were not even listed as options on the poll.
Leaders from both LPB and CABL said the criteria were designed to show whether a candidate is a serious contender and has public support.
"We all are unhappy you have to spend too much money in campaigns, I think the public thinks that as well," said Beth Courtney, the president of LPB. "But I think the data CABL gave to us shows that to be a viable candidate, a realistic candidate in the past four races, you have to spend a lot of money."
With 24 candidates on the ballot, the debate organizers also said they needed to cut back on the number of the people on stage in order to have a meaningful conversation.
"I think the judge reiterated what we believe: that it is a reasonable and fair criteria. It didn't really exclude anybody for any untoward purpose," said Barry Erwin, the president of CABL.
In disagreeing with the decision, the three candidates said the rules reinforce the influence money has in politics.
"People want to see other ideas, we've heard that 70 percent of people are dissatisfied with Congress and yet we're putting two congressmen in the debate. So how do you fix the situation without changing the system?" Marsala said.
Still, all three men said it is unclear whether they will appeal the court's decision.
When asked if they would consider lowering the monetary benchmark down the road, Courtney said it is "something we'll examine every time we do a debate."
In making his decision, Kelley also cited a previous Supreme Court decision that deals with a similar scenario.
Raycom Media, which owns WAFB, will be airing a senate debate on November 2. There is no fundraising requirement for candidates to participate, though they do need to be polling at 5 percent in a poll commissioned by Raycom. Candidates also must be officially qualified to run, have made a public announcement of their intention to run, have a campaign committee, and also have a campaign headquarters and staff.