Over a 28-year congressional career, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith has waded into hot topics seemingly without reservation, lately touching off an uproar for seeking internal emails from climate scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But last month, the San Antonio Republican drew criticism for failing to appear at political candidate debates in the 21st Congressional District, which runs from San Antonio north into Austin.
On Feb. 11, 2016, Matt McCall, a Boerne, Texas challenger to Smith in the March 2016 Republican primary, issued a press release headlined: "McCall Says Smith Dodging Debates."
McCall’s release said: "During three and a half years of campaigning, Smith has never once appeared at a moderated debate to defend his positions on the issues."
McCall also unsuccessfully challenged Smith in the GOP primary in 2014.
Smith went on in 2016 to whomp McCall (along with two other hopefuls, John Murphy and Todd Phelps) by a wide margin in the March 2016 Republican primary. Smith picked up 60 percent of the vote, McCall got 28.9 percent and other challengers received less than 6 percent. Regardless, we wondered if McCall was right about Smith not debating campaign opponents for three-plus years, which would take in the 2014 elections, as well.
To our inquiry, Smith campaign consultant Jordan Berry said by phone that McCall and Smith had appeared together.
But it looks like that was no debate.
Berry directed us by email to a photo on McCall’s website showing McCall evidently speaking in 2013 with Smith among people looking on.
We asked McCall campaign spokesman Andrew Lewis for more information on the photo. By email, Lewis replied that the photo wasn’t taken at anything like a debate.
Instead, Lewis said, the photo was taken at a lunch meeting of the Central Texas Republican Assembly where Smith was the guest speaker. Lewis said McCall was allowed to speak at the event because the group allows its members seeking elected office to speak at meetings; McCall is a member, Lewis said.
To our inquiry, T.J. Scott, CTRA president, confirmed that explanation, saying by phone that his group had invited Smith to appear at a number of their regular meetings, which occur the third Thursday of every month, but scheduling conflicts prevented Smith from attending.
"His office said, ‘We’d love to sit down for lunch with you,’ so I said, ‘Well, how about you have lunch with not just me, but the group?’ and we called a special lunch meeting with our members," Scott said. He also agreed McCall was able to speak because the group gives a speaking opportunity of "two to 10 minutes" to members seeking office.
Meanwhile, McCall campaign spokesman Andrew Lewis told us by email that in a "not all-inclusive list from this election cycle, Smith did not attend debates and candidate forums in Real County, Boerne, Comal County and Fredericksburg, as well as forums at the Alamo Pachyderm Club and at Bexar County GOP Headquarters; he sent surrogates to the Real, Comal and Boerne events.
Republican Party chairs in Real, Kendall, Comal and Gillespie counties, the president of the Fredericksburg Tea Party, and the coordinator of the Bexar County GOP candidates forum each separately said Smith did not attend the events Lewis listed. Smith also did not appear at a January 2016 forum in Bandera, according to a recap in the Bandera County Courier.
We could not find any record of a candidate forum or debate attended by Smith in his district for the 2014 election cycle, either. McCall has been tweeting pleas for a debate with Smith since November 2013.
A possible reason for some of the absences: The House was in session on the days of the Boerne, Comal and Fredericksburg events, according to the House majority leader’s calendar.
The amount of notice given to candidates in advance of the debates and forums varied widely from event to event, ranging from two weeks to three months, according to emails from event organizers.
Berry, Smith’s consultant, otherwise didn’t engage with us about candidate debates Smith has joined or any reasons for not going to them.
It’s likely that more debates will be coming up.
On the November ballot, Smith faces Democrat Tom Wakely of San Antonio and Green Party nominee. There are also two third party candidates in the congressional race: Green Party hopeful Antonio Diaz, and Mark Loewe, a Libertarian.
So, best we can tell, Smith did miss formal candidate forums over the past few years.
Smith did speak at forums open to audience questions, including a bipartisan student forum at the University of Texas, San Antonio on April 22, 2014. He spoke at a public forum in Bandera on July 18, 2015, and one in Kerrville on Oct. 3, 2014. He hosted one in San Antonio on October 19, 2015. And as McCall’s camp admits, a surrogate for Lamar Smith was present at at least three debates or candidate forums in 2016.
McCall said that in the years he’s been challenging Smith, the incumbent "has never once appeared at a moderated debate to defend his positions on the issues."
Our search for signs of Smith joining a candidate debate came up empty. Also, given opportunities, Smith didn’t alert us to any such moment; a photo noted by Smith’s consultant wasn’t from a debate.
So, we rate McCall’s claim True.
TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
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