Outside the fall presidential debates, there are a lot of people who don’t know about the Commission on Presidential Debates, mostly because it keeps its internal matters quiet. For instance, few noticed that the CPD swapped co-chairs in January, with Michael D. McCurry being replaced by Dorothy S. Ridings. Even McCurry’s Wikipedia page still says he co-chairs the debate commission.
As previously reported on IVN, McCurry is most known as President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, though he did serve on the Democratic National Committee before that. Ridings, who was already a member of the debate commission, is a former president of the League of Women Voters (from 1982-1986), right before the League walked away from presidential debates.
Before the Commission on Presidential Debates took over the debates, the League of Women Voters was the primary sponsor of them, dating back to 1976. However, the parties wanted a greater say in how the debates were conducted, and thus in 1985 signed an agreement to become primary sponsors.
According to a 1985 article in the New York Times, the League criticized the parties’ efforts to take over the debates, including Ridings, who questioned how third party and independent candidates would fare under Republican and Democratic sponsorship.
Thus, in 1987 the Commission on Presidential Debates was formed, created by party chairs Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr, (Republican, still a co-chair) and Paul G. Kirk, Jr (Democrat).
The League remained on as a co-sponsor of the fall debates until the next presidential election in 1988. In October 1988, the League withdrew its sponsorship because the organization believed “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”
Though the debate commission is registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, its operations have largely been controlled by people loyal to the Republican and Democratic Parties — a bipartisan effort. Ethical questions have even surfaced over the extent of this loyalty. McCurry, for instance, gave money to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign while a co-chair of the CPD. Fahrenkopf also has a long history of campaign and party donations.
What the co-chair swap means for the future of the debate commission is currently unknown. The CPD already reportedly lost a third of its members while it was the subject of two lawsuits filed against it and the FEC. A federal judge ruled in favor of Peter Ackerman and Level the Playing Field, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against the FEC, who are challenging the CPD’s rules that determine which candidates make it on the debate stage.
The other case, an anti-trust lawsuit filed by Gov. Gary Johnson, Dr. Jill Stein, their respective parties, and affiliated groups, will get another day in court on April 21 before the D.C. Court of Appeals. This may be the beginning of dramatic change to how the Commission on Presidential Debates functions and operates.