Candidate Sues Media for Excluding Him From Mayoral Debates

A Germantown newspaper publisher says the media conspired with the political establishment to keep him off the stage in last year's mayoral race.

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Jim Foster wants to put the media on trial.

The Germantown resident is the publisher of a newspaper of his own, the Independent Voice. In the summer of 2015, he announced he was running for mayor as an Independent against Democratic nominee (and eventual victor) Jim Kenney and Republican nominee Melissa Murray Bailey.

Foster made it onto the ballot, but he never made it onto the debate stage. So now he’s suing virtually everyone who was involved in organizing the debates. That includes the good-government group Committee of Seventy, the local public radio station WHYY, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Temple University, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, and the Democratic and Republican parties. He also named Committee of Seventy president David Thornburgh and WHYY president Bill Marrazzo, among others.

From Foster’s complaint: “The Defendants, pursuant to an illicit plan among and between them, combined and collaborated against the Plaintiff, in violation of his First Amendment rights to run for public office, to speak out and engage in free political speech, and in retaliation for his speaking out, and for his petitioning activities, by cutting off his access to the debate stage in the 2015 run for Mayor of the City of Philadelphia. These were additionally violations of the rights of all the residents of the City of Philadelphia who are entitled to honest government, and the political airing of views relevant to the operations of the City and the conduct of honest government.”

Foster outlines a number of grievances in his complaint. Chief among them, aside from what he says was a violation of his First Amendment rights, is the entire Philadelphia political system. Foster says that local politicians and the media coordinated to keep him out of campaign events because he wrote about corruption in his newspapers. And he says the party machine structure is corrupt and responsible for the city’s problems. Foster has been objecting to his and other third-party candidates’ exclusion from debates since before the election last November.

“The Plaintiff’s central contention is that all of the conditions that have led to the decline of the City of Philadelphia have resulted from political insider manipulation and practices,” the complaint says.

This isn’t Foster’s first rodeo. He ran for City Council as an independent in 2007, and challenged now-disgraced former Congressman Chaka Fattah in 2012. In 2013, local TV newsman Larry Mendte wrote a short piece about Foster for Philadelphia magazine, comparing the publisher to Don Quixote and outlining his distaste for the local political establishment. That distaste hasn’t abated.

Reached on Friday, David Thornburgh said he hadn’t heard about the lawsuit. He said he couldn’t remember discussions about the exact method for choosing which candidates would participate in a Committee of Seventy-sponsored debate at WHYY, but said that it probably involved some combination of polling and fundraising progress.

“I don’t know that Jim Foster presented any evidence that it was a reasonable possibility that he was going to be elected the next mayor,” Thornburgh told Philly Mag.

Thornburgh said it was likely that the next mayor would be either the Democrat or the Republican, and extremely likely that it was going to be the Democrat. Seventy and the other debate sponsors wanted to use the limited time they had to let reporters and the public question the most viable candidates.

“We’re trying to inform and engage the public and put that real estate to best use,” Thornburgh said.

WHYY CEO Bill Marrazzo did not immediately return a phone call.

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