ASHLAND - Just one week before voters in Ohio's 7th Congressional District head to the polls to select their U.S. Representative, incumbent Bob Gibbs (R) and challenger Ken Harbaugh (D) will face off in a debate at Ashland University.
The Oct. 29 matchup is one Harbaugh says voters have been asking for since April.
"I'm disappointed that it took this long. I'm disappointed the Gibbs campaign has delayed as long as they possibly can," Harbaugh said. "But we got our debate. By we, I mean all of us-- the VFWs, the Legion halls, the unions, the student groups that have been pushing for it."
Gibbs said Harbaugh's characterization of him as avoiding debate is unfair.
"I don't have a problem debating," Gibbs said. "I've debated some of my opponents in the past. I just don't think it made a lot of sense to just have a circus all the time. This is more structured, and hopefully it's worthwhile for people that choose to attend."
Gibbs said his opponents have been calling for debates and town halls "because they really have nothing to run on."
"The question is really results versus resistance, and the Democratic party in Washington, D.C. has been all about resistance and obstruction," Gibbs said.
Harbaugh has repeatedly said his allegiance is to "country over party" and that the idea of candidates for public office having public debates is "Democracy 101."
"Voters are entitled to be able to make an informed decision," Harbaugh said.
The 7th district includes all of Ashland, Knox, Holmes and Coshocton counties as well as parts of Richland, Huron, Lorain, Medina, Stark and Tuscarawas counties.
The debate will be hosted by the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University with assistance from the Ashland University College Republicans, the Ashland University Young Democrats and the university's chapter of Students for Liberty.
Ashbrook Center Student Programs Manager Ben Kunkel said the center agreed to host the debate after students from both sides of the political aisle approached the center to ask if Ashbrook would host. The students had already received verbal confirmations from both candidates that they would participate in the debate, Kunkel said.
Brian Nguyen Le, co-chairman of the debate planning committee and president of Ashland University College Democrats, said the Ashbrook program handed the non-partisan planning committee broad freedom to plan the debate, including the venue and format.
"I'm grateful to The Ashbrook Center for stepping up and hosting," Harbaugh said. "The important thing is for people to be able to hear from both candidates side-by-side and make that choice. Do you want to send someone back who hasn't done a legit town hall for as long as anyone can remember, who has taken $1 million from corporate PACs, or do you want some new blood?"
Gibbs responded by saying, "That's an actual lie. I just held a town hall on our spring break in Shelby at the Kehoe Center." He added that he has had about 30 live or Tele-Town Hall events during his time in office.
Gibbs did not dispute that he has taken money from political action committees but said the reason Harbaugh has not is because "no PACs will give him any money."
While Gibbs argued corporate PACs are not problematic because they are made up voluntary individual contributions from people who work for a company, Harbaugh said not accepting corporate PAC money makes him independent of special interests.
The debate will be moderated by political science professor and Ashbrook Scholars program co-chair Jeff Sikkenga and The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram editorial page editor Brad Dicken, Kunkel said.
The moderators will choose the questions, both writing questions of their own and selecting questions from a pool of questions submitted from the public via a Google form, Kunkel said. As of Monday, Kunkel said, the Google form was not yet available.
Kunkel said event organizers chose Dicken as a moderator in an effort to show the nonpartisan nature of the event.
The Chronicle-Telegram printed an editorial in September calling for the candidates to debate. Shortly thereafter, Harbaugh's campaign published a video showing Harbaugh approaching Gibbs in person to ask for a debate and Gibbs responding, "We'll see."
In the week that followed, residents held several “Advocate for Debate” protest events throughout the district.
Harbaugh's camp only learned the debate was finalized after it was announced to media, the campaign said in an emailed statement Monday.
"Our campaign was alerted to the fact that Rep. Gibbs had finally agreed to one single debate when the Mount Vernon News ran a story about it about a week and a half ago," the statement said. "It seems that after students, teachers, bricklayers, veterans, retirees, and union workers asked for a debate, Gibbs finally agreed."
Asked why the debate is taking place so close to the election, Gibbs cited a back-and-forth exchange between campaigns as well as scheduling conflicts. Ultimately, he said, "That's just how it worked out."
The debate begins at 7 p.m. Oct. 29 in the Myers Convocation Center, 638 Jefferson Street, on Ashland University's campus.
The event is free, but anyone interested in attending must contact one of the two campaigns for a ticket.