Illinois' top League of Women Voters official said "phony patriotism" is driving criticism over a moderator's reaction when she was asked if the Pledge of Allegiance would be recited before an 8th Congressional District debate this week.
Executive Director Jan Czarnik said what happened at Wednesday's debate and subsequent criticism directed at moderator Kathy Tate-Bradish was an attempt by supporters of Republican candidate Joe Walsh of McHenry and tea party members to bully the organization.
Czarnik said someone is not a better American just by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
"It's a phony patriotism issue is what it is," she said. "They must think it helps their campaign."
Brought in from the League of Women Voters Evanston branch because she doesn't live in the 8th Congressional District, Tate-Bradish handled the event at Grayslake Central High School that featured Democratic U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean of Barrington, the Green Party's Bill Scheurer and Walsh.
Tate-Bradish was asked whether the Pledge of Allegiance would be recited after she went over some ground rules and directed the candidates to make opening statements. The query came from a man in the audience.
As Tate-Bradish explained the debate was not scheduled to start with the pledge, almost all in the crowd of more than 300 stood and enthusiastically recited it anyway. Tate-Bradish, who joined in the pledge, issued a scolding when the crowd finished.
Walsh campaign manager Nick Provenzano said he still did not understand why Tate-Bradish did not appear to welcome the Pledge of Allegiance suggestion. He said it was spontaneous and not orchestrated by Walsh's campaign.
"That neutral stance (by Tate-Bradish) toward the Pledge of Allegiance is troublesome," he said.
Tate-Bradish stood by her handling of the request and said she's been surprised by personal attacks directed toward her on the Internet since the forum, particularly posts stating she "hates America." She said she ran the debate in the format established by some Grayslake High students and agreed to by all three candidates, none of whom asked for the pledge in advance.
"It's pretty patriotic to run forums in election seasons where every candidate can be heard and they're not stomped on," she said.
Island Lake resident Joseph Ptak, a Walsh supporter, claimed Friday he asked for the pledge at the debate. Provenzano said he was not certain who made the request.
Ptak, 58, a U.S. Air Force veteran, said the pledge was a proper way to begin the event that was in a high school and had student participation. He said many veterans were in the audience, and he objects to Czarnik questioning the request's sincerity.
"I'm a Joe Walsh supporter, but first and foremost I'm an American," Ptak said.
Bean spokesman Jonathan Lipman declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Czarnik said she's tiring of attacks on how the League of Women Voters has operated debates leading to the Nov. 2 election. She said league volunteers run the candidate forums and voter education programs.
League of Women Voters members throughout the state hold elected offices in both major parties and are generally allowed to make political contributions. Tate-Bradish acknowledged she's contributed money to Democrats, but that it would never affect how she moderates a debate.
"When we host a political forum," she said, "we are scrupulously fair to each party."