LOWELL -- A proposed debate between Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and challenger Michael Sullivan will not happen -- at least not yet -- and both campaigns have offered different explanations as to why.
Sullivan's camp says they've been told from Ryan's campaign that the incumbent will not debate Sullivan in a meeting proposed by the New England Police Benevolent Association. Ryan's spokesman said they're still considering multiple scheduling requests, and, in fact, have not heard back from the police group.
"We have not said no to anything," Ryan campaign spokesman Conor Yunits said. "It's a request we're considering along with many others."
The campaign for Sullivan said they were told Ryan would not debate him either April 29 or 30, dates proposed by the New England Police Benevolent Association, a nonprofit law-enforcement labor group.
"We were stunned to discover that she first said no, then said they were rethinking it, and they said they were not sure again," before ultimately hearing no, said Michael Goldman, a political consultant for Sullivan, the Middlesex County Clerk of Courts.
"It's just strange," he added.
Jerry Flynn, executive director of the police association, and Paul Larkham, the group's state legislative director, said Ryan's campaign declined to participate in a debate.
"Apparently, she's not willing to do that," Flynn said. Only a forum in which the candidates would answer questions in an open forum style, but not interact with the other candidate, was still on the table, he said.
Yunits said Ryan's campaign manager suggested the possibility of a forum since the NEPBA has hosted forums before, but he said the campaign has not ruled out participating in a debate.
Larkham said he still hopes a debate can take place.
"The best way to measure who is the best person for the job is to allow them to debate the same series of questions," he said.
The police association proposed a debate in early March to the two candidates. Sullivan's campaign said it committed immediately. Ryan's campaign has said for a few weeks that it continues to weigh its scheduling demands.
Ryan, a prosecutor for more than three decades in the Middlesex District Attorney's Office, was appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick to lead the office last April after her predecessor, Gerard Leone, took a private-sector job.
Sullivan previously ran for district attorney in 1998. He's been the clerk of courts since 2007 and was re-elected in 2012. He was previously a Cambridge city councilor and mayor, following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, who both also served in those two capacities.
Incumbents are sometimes reluctant to debate challengers, which could give publicity to a candidate voters might not know much about. But that isn't so much the case with this race, in which neither candidate is particularly well-known, said Frank Talty, a political-science professor at UMass Lowell.
It will be Ryan's first time as a candidate for election, despite already holding the office.
"For her, she needs some profile, too," Talty said. "I'm not sure she benefits by not debating in this case."
"In fairness, it is early," he added, of the proposed debate.
Ryan has gained some recognition in her year as district attorney, and Sullivan's name is known in and around Cambridge. But in a big and diverse county, the race could be very close, Talty said.
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