By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – Over the decades, the League of Women Voters of Greater Green Bay (LWVGGB) has become a household name when it comes to local, county, state and national elections.
“The league is unique as it embraces diversity and inclusion,” said Karen Schley, a LWVGGB board member in charge of voter services with an emphasis on candidate forums. “All are welcome. We even have male members in the league.”
From the beginning, LWVGGB has been bridging the gap between candidates and their constituents.
In 1928, the national league hosted Meet the Candidate, the first nationally broadcast forum on radio.
Forums were, and still are, meant to give citizens an avenue to meet candidates and ask questions important to them.
“It also allows the candidates to inform the voters about their ideas and make things better for the community,” she said.
Schley said as much as the league would like to, they aren’t able to host a forum for every race.
LWVGGB decides which forums to host based upon public interest.
“For example, the mayor’s forum when former Mayor Jim Schmidt was stepping down after 16 years in office provided an overflowing auditorium,” she said.
The league has prided itself on being non-partisan, not supporting or opposing candidates for public office.
“Our purpose is to promote the informed and (encourage) participation of citizens in government,” Schley said. “We are known to hold fair and informative forums with our goal being to inform voters about important issues that will affect them, as well as their family.”
Schley said invites for forums are sent out to each candidate through email.
“Some candidates respond very quickly,” she said. “Other candidates need a second or third email and a phone call, or two.”
Schley said once candidates accept an invitation, a date and time is worked out for all involved.
“The process starts about a month ahead of time with many follow-ups,” she said. “Some candidates do not respond.”
Schely said most candidates agree to participate in league forums, but there are some that choose not to.
“Candidates are anxious to accept an invitation to a League of Women Voters forum because of our reputation and standing in the community,” she said. “The few that don’t (participate) are losing out on an opportunity to share their message with the voters. That is their choice.”
There are some narratives out there, however, which claim the group tends to tilt to the left, which sometimes discourages Republicans to participate in league forums.
Drew Kirsteatter, Republican candidate for the 90th Assembly District, recently participated in a league forum, but had been discouraged to do so.
“I did have a couple people mention that they had seen the league be pretty unfair to other Republican candidates and encouraged me not to participate, largely because of how new I am to the political scene,” Kirsteatter said. “I’ve heard from several people who have more personal experience with the league and the majority of them say they’re supportive of left-leaning policies and candidates, but I’ve never personally seen evidence.”
Kirsteatter still chose to participate in the forum, and said he is glad he did.
“My own experience with (the league) has all been largely fair and nonpartisan,” he said. “I chose to participate anyway because all of my interactions with the league up to that point has been very fair and polite, and because to the best of my knowledge there weren’t any other organizations trying to set up a forum. I decided something, even if it was a little slanted or unfair, was better than nothing.”
Kirsteatter said he thinks the league did a great job with the forum.
“The questions seemed balanced, the format was equal and everyone was very friendly and easy to work with,” he said.
David Steffen, Republican incumbent for the 4th Assembly District said he is not participating in this year’s league event because of a scheduling conflict.
“While I attend as many neighborhood meetings, community events, listening sessions, village board meetings and other gatherings as I can, I am physically unable to attend every event scheduled in the district,” Steffen said. “It should be noted that (the league) set the date and time of their 2020 event without checking to see if it worked for me. I asked (the league) to schedule a second forum, but they have declined. In the future, LWV should work with candidates to find mutually agreed upon dates for their forums – not just set it and demand all candidates show up.”
Steffen said while he is unable to attend the event, he did submit written answers to all of the candidate questions.
He said a Green Bay neighborhood association is working to host a candidate forum in the coming weeks that he plans to participate in.
“Unlike (the league), this group is appropriately and respectfully working to ensure the date works for the candidates,” Steffen said.
He said he participated in a league forum six years ago.
In the 88th Assembly District, challenger Kristin Lyerly accepted an invite to a league forum, but incumbent Rep. John Macco did not.
Macco failed to return messages for comment on this story.
During in-person forums, questions are sparked from audience members.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the league to take its forums online, but Schley said the premise is still the same – but questions are gathered through email.
“The league wants to take every precaution to ensure the health and safety of its members as well as that of the public during this uncertain time,” she said.
All questions are vetted by league members.
“We try to (ask) all the questions,” she said. “Some are duplicated or very similar in nature. If a question is inappropriate or is a question that all candidates cannot answer, it will not be asked.”
While probably best known for its candidate forums, Schley said they are just the tip of the iceberg of what the league does.
“Besides forums, which is actually a small part of the league, we have numerous working committees, such as education, environment/climate, health care, newly formed fair elections, events, communication and immigration. The league also has a monthly newsletter,” she said.
Currently, the league has approximately 100 members, and Schley said membership is growing.
“I became a member about four year ago when I was invited to a meeting and saw the dedication of everyone to the important issues that affect everyone in our community,” she said. “That made we want to get involved.”
For more information on the league visit them on Facebook or online at my.lwv.org/wisconsin/greater-green-bay.