TV personality plays role in 13th district congressional race

by Amy Kingsley

The race between Rep. Brad Miller and his challenger Vernon Robinson has been as much about style as substance. It is also, as of several weeks ago, about Winston-Salem television broadcaster Jim Longworth and whether the candidates will meet in a public debate before Nov. 7.

That’s because Longworth has gone on the offensive against Miller after the incumbent decided not to appear on his weekly public affairs TV show “Triad Today.” Longworth attacked Miller in his regular YES! Weekly column on Sept. 27, accusing him to being afraid of a “no-holds-barred” joint appearance with his outspoken rival. At issue is whether Miller’s campaign manger confirmed the debate appearance, a fact disputed by both parties.

LuAnn Canipe, who works for the Miller campaign, said campaign manager Denise Turner told Longworth over the summer that they would put his appearance request in a stack to consider and that they would get back to him closer to the election. Later on, Canipe said, she called Longworth to decline the invitation.

Longworth disputed Canipe’s version of events.

“LuAnn Canipe is in no position to either confirm or dispute the promise that Denise Turner made to me verbally via telephone in June,” Longworth wrote in response to e-mailed questions. “The conversation took place between me and Denise exclusively. During that conversation, Denise gushed over how highly the congressman thought of ‘Triad Today,’ and was aware of our award-winning political debate interviews.”

The rift between the broadcaster and politician has grown from that misunderstanding into a full-fledged feud.

“No one has ever put their ass on full display the way Jim Longworth has,” Miller told YES! Weekly in an Oct. 3 interview.

After Canipe called to decline the appearance, Longworth screamed at campaign manager Turner over the phone and then hung up on her, Miller said. Longworth claimed Turner was the first to raise her voice but acknowledged the hang-up. That incident prompted Canipe to call the ABC station in which “Triad Today” is filmed to set the record straight.

Longworth interpreted the call as an attempt to get him fired, an allegation he included in both columns about Miller.

“They did not try to get him fired,” said Ron Inman, the station manager at ABC 45 who took the calls. “Jim felt they committed to something and that’s the contention between them. They wanted to assure me that they did not back out.”

Canipe did complain about Longworth’s attitude and interactions with the staff, Inman said.

“Hey, a hang-up from a journalist is really unprofessional,” Canipe said.

Miller acknowledged that he is weighing potential joint appearances with Robinson more carefully than he did in previous elections.

“Frankly Vernon Robinson is unusual,” Miller said. “When we decide on a debate, we want it to be presided over by a legitimate journalist with real, neutral rules.”

Longworth, who is a television producer, has not been the only local broadcaster cut out of the process by Miller’s requirements. The campaign also declined an appearance request by Brad Krantz and Britt Whitmire, who host a show on the talk radio station WZTK-FM.

“Clearly he doesn’t have to do our show,” Krantz said. “But our radio station is the only one that covers the whole metro area, the whole 13th District from Raleigh to Greensboro. If I were a politician and I were interested in reaching out to voters, I would probably do it.”

In their format, Krantz and Whitmire interview each candidate for 20 minutes. After the first show with Robinson and Miller, both candidates ended up angry at the interviewers, Krantz said.

Krantz said their format is not intended to resemble the polite atmosphere of an editorial board meeting, and that they would likely make an issue out of the ugliness of the race. Robinson has produced a number of outlandish television ads distorting Miller’s voting record, and the incumbent responded with several image ads that do not mention his opponent.

“When you put the television commercials next to each other, you wouldn’t even know they were running in the same race,” Krantz said.

Miller said he would only face Robinson in a setting moderated by professional journalists with neutral rules fair to both parties. He has agreed to appear on WTVD in Durham, WRAL in Raleigh and WXII in Winston-Salem. He’s also accepted a joint appearance with Robinson in front of the editorial board at the Greensboro News & Record.

“If someone acts a fool in that setting it will be very public,” Miller said. “And we want a journalist without an axe to grind.”

Miller described Longworth as “a jackleg, and an attention-seeking self-promoter.” Longworth for his part took particular umbrage at the Miller camp’s doubts about his journalistic credentials.

“My background in news and public affairs far exceeds that of any single anchor or reporter in this market, including two years lecturing at the college level and thirty years experience in producing news and public affairs programming,” Longworth wrote. “Moreover, as I stated in my column this week, ‘Triad Today’ is the only program (or station) in this market to have received the prestigious Spectrum of Democracy Award from the NC Center for Voter Education.”

In a last-ditch attempt to convince Miller to appear on the show, Longworth called the congressman’s private cell phone. The television producer described the call as an attempt to offer an olive branch, but Miller disagreed.

“He called me,” Miller said, “and I did not welcome his call. The phone rang when I was on the House floor.”

Miller said he only gives his cell number to family members and those who work in his office; he lists his home number for use by members of the general public.

“[Longworth] directly or implicitly said that if I agreed to come on his show, he would lay off me,” Miller said.

Longworth recalled the conversation differently.

“I never made any threats to that regard,” Longworth wrote. “In fact, had Canipe not defamed me with ABC 45 management, I would not have even written the first column. The paranoid Miller campaign brought this firestorm upon itself.”

Krantz and Longworth assert that Miller’s low profile will hurt the incumbent in the upcoming election; the snubbed hosts said constituents might not look kindly on a candidate who appears to be ducking his competition.

Miller said that Robinson’s personal attacks and extreme rhetoric earn him kid-glove treatment, unlike past races where he faced his opponents in several forums. One or more forums will eventually win the right to broadcast a live debate between the candidates, but the possibility that it will be Longworth’s diminishes with each phone call.

“I think there’s probably enough animosity on both sides,” Inman said. “And there’s a certain amount of personal dislike that’s come out of all of this.”

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