HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi is hosting a debate for fourth district congressional candidates Wednesday, but incumbent Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo will not attend.
"It's typical Steven Palazzo," said Mark Gladney, the Democratic candidate. "He'll use whatever he can to cover his tracks. He's not here for anybody, but himself."
Palazzo refused to debate challenger Gene Taylor ahead of a Republican primary for the same seat in 2014.
"It's really disheartening because he's rarely seen in public," Libertarian candidate Ric McCluskey said. "It's all three of our alma mater, so I would hope Congressman Palazzo would show up, but we understand that it may expose some of his weaknesses. So we get it."
Gladney said, "He's a dodger. He's dodging everything. He's dodging. He refuses to show up anywhere. I'm very irritated that he doesn't have the character or the intestinal fortitude to show up and meet his constituents and explain his positions on the issues and defend the things that he's done while he's been in office. That's what democracy is supposed to be about. It's supposed to be about the fact that we debate the issues intellectually. We quit hiding, and we come out and we give the voters a clear cut choice on what they need to do. I just personally feel like Palazzo has dodged again."
Palazzo's campaign said scheduling conflicts will prevent the representative, who is running for his fourth term, from attending Wednesday night.
"Congressman Palazzo is attending the Salute to the Military Tuesday night," said Jill Duckworth, a spokesperson for Palazzo, in an email. "Wednesday he is welcoming the Sergeant Major of the entire U.S. Marine Corps to South Mississippi before attending his son's junior varsity football game that evening. Thursday Congressman Palazzo is hosting more than 400 high school students at his annual Youth Leadership Summit at (Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College) all day before heading to Ellisville to participate in the Jones County Junior College Championship Ring Ceremony Thursday night."
Paul Strait, an assistant professor in USM's Department of Communication and the director of forensics, said the Gladney and McCluskey campaigns were quick to accept the debate invitation, and Palazzo's said it would decide closer to the date if the congressman would attend.
"The Palazzo campaign got back to us early on to say they would get back to us later, and we heard from them last week that they weren't attending," Strait said. "I think as the incumbent, perhaps they don't have as much to gain by participating the other campaigns, so in that sense, it's not super surprising."
Gladney said, "(There is) a 98 percent reelection rate for incumbents in congress, and the voters are getting tired of it."
McCluskey and Gladney said Palazzo's lack of participation in the debate is unfair to voters.
"When you have the voters taking time out of their day to partake in a democratic process, and you have an incumbent who refuses to do that, it just goes to show what the establishment, not just this state, but this nation, what their M.O. is," McCluskey said.
Gladney said, "It smacks of an elitism that Palazzo thinks that he doesn't have to, and I've got to tell you, it's wrong. The voters are getting screwed over right now."
The debate between Gladney and McCluskey is Wednesday, Oct. 26 from 6:30 to 7:30 in the Thad Cochran Center Ballroom I. Strait said attendees will be able to submit questions through their cell phones, so moderators can prescreen them before posing them to candidates. He also said there will be some predetermined questions asked by moderators. Candidates will be available for a meet-and-greet from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.