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State Sen. Dean Tran
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Incumbent Republican state Sen. Dean Tran has declined an invitation by the Nashoba Valley Voice’s sister newspaper to participate in a 90-minute debate with his Democratic challenger, Susan Chalifoux Zephir.

“We welcome a chance for the senator to respond to written questions,” said Tran’s spokesman and campaign manager Austin Cyganiewicz, adding that the senator’s busy campaign-event season was also a factor in the decision.

The one-on-one debate was set up by the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, part of the Digital First Media group that includes the Voice. It was to be held on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at FATV studio in Fitchburg. The moderator was to be Cliff Clark, city editor for the Sentinel.

The newspaper extended the offer to both Tran and Chalifoux Zephir on Tuesday, Sept. 11. Chalifoux Zephir accepted; Tran said he needed to talk to his campaign staff before replying. A week later, the newspaper emailed Tran for a response. On Tuesday, Sept. 18, Cyganiewicz replied for the senator by telephone, saying Tran will not participate in a formal debate.

Tran represents the Worcester and Middlesex Senate district, which is centered in Fitchburg and Leominster and extends east to Townsend. He won the seat in a special election in December 2017 to replace state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan.

During the special election, there was no public debate among Tran, Chalifoux Zephir, current Leominster At-large City Councilor Claire Freda, who ran as an unenrolled candidate, and Green Party candidate Charlene DiCalogero.

The Sentinel & Enterprise, prior to the special election, supplied each candidate with a list of questions, which each candidate answered. Their replies were published and posted online.

Cyganiewicz said Tran preferred to use that format again. He also said Tran agreed to participate in two “debates.”

* The first is scheduled Oct. 3 at Leominster High School where the two candidates will answer questions supplied in advance.

Chalifoux Zephir on Wednesday said the Leominster High School event would be better described as an educational forum for the students.

“It’s not really a debate,” she said.

* On Oct. 11, the two candidates will appear for 30 minutes on FLAP TV, a political show on FATV hosted by former Leominster City Councilor Kevin Cormier.

Cormier said he will supply the candidates with “general topics they can be expected to be asked about (economic development, women’s issues, etc.).”

That, Cormier said, “would give them the opportunity to prepare for the topic, but not rehearse for specific questions.”

Chalifoux Zephir’s campaign sent out a press release on Wednesday calling on Tran to accept all debates “without conditions.”

She said when she accepted the invitation to the high school educational forum, she “thought it was a real debate.” Then she learned of the format.

“So far, Dean has only accepted the debate at the high school, where we’ll have the questions in advance. We both have years of experience as elected officials and have participated in numerous debates and forums in the past, so I’m unsure why there would be any reservations to accept these invitations,” she said in the release.

Cyganiewicz said of the two events: “We’ll appear at those two debate/forums and we’ll be happy to provide written responses” to questions from the newspaper as was done before the special election.

Jim Campanini, group editor for the Voice, Sentinel & Enterprise and The Sun of Lowell, said the Oct. 24 debate will be held at the FATV studios with or without Tran.

“It is disappointing that an incumbent state senator, one of only 40 in Massachusetts, is unwilling to discuss his viewpoints on the issues with another candidate in a democratic debate held for the public’s benefit,” said Campanini.

“We hope Sen. Tran reconsiders, but for now the newspaper plans to go ahead with a live telecast offering candidate Chalifoux Zephir the opportunity to answer direct questions on local and state issues without any pre-arranged foundation.”