Dr. Steven Porter, the Democratic candidate for the 3rd Congressional District seat held by six-term Republican Rep. Phil English, has formally committed to attend a radio debate in Erie.

Porter said Wednesday, however, he was doing so “with mixed feelings.” Earlier this week he said he had concerns about the Nov. 2 debate being hosted by WJET radio in Erie and the Manufacturers Association of Northwestern Pennsylvania. The debate will air from 4 to 5 p.m.

English and Constitution Party candidate Tim Hagberg have also agreed to attend, although Porter said he would have preferred a more public and less partisan venue.

Jeff Johns, the station’s program director, will moderate the debate. Sheila Sterrett, director of government affairs for the manufacturers association, will also provide questions. Questions will also be accepted by fax or e-mail from listeners of the station that, among its programming, carries talk shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

“That WJET broadcasts to a conservative audience and carries programs like the Rush Limbaugh Show is not my major concern, though it does raise the question of fairness in what may be the absence of other political points of view,” Porter said in a news release.

Johns said he was puzzled by Porter’s concerns about fairness when every candidate will be asked the same questions.

“It’s pretty hard to slant a question that all of them are going to answer,” he said.

Johns emphasized he doesn’t think anyone who’s ever been in a debate hosted by the station – whether Republican, Democrat, Constitution, Green or any other party – would argue it wasn’t fair.

More significant to Porter than the fairness issue was what he described as the “deliberate exclusion of the students of Mercyhurst College.”

Students at the school in Erie had expressed an interest in co-hosting the debate, which Porter believed would have been a valuable learning experience.

“As a teacher all my life, getting students to participate in the processes of our democracy has been of paramount importance,” he said. “Here we have students eager and willing to participate and we see their enthusiasm dashed for reasons which in my mind are hardly justifiable.”

Porter said he asked Johns about moving the debate to Mercyhurst, but Johns cited “technical considerations” in refusing, though Porter maintained he has previously participated in on-location broadcasts with Johns.

Johns explained that the issue isn’t that the station doesn’t have the technical capability.

“But it seemed a little silly to go through the machinations of setting up a remote broadcast when we have the facilities to host this kind of event,” he said.

Debate rules allow each candidate to bring five supporters to sit in what Johns described as a bleacher-like setting just outside the studio. A handful of additional seats will also be available for media covering the event. A glass window and piped-in sound will allow those on hand to observe the debate.

Hagberg and Porter are scheduled to debate Oct. 31 at Pennsylvania State University’s Shenango Campus in downtown Sharon, but English hasn’t committed to attend the event sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Mercer County.

Porter, however, noted another local debate is in the works, possibly for Oct. 24, that English might agree to. It would be aired on WPIC radio and its sister FM station WLLF.

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