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Democratic forum

Wisconsin's Democratic gubernatorial candidates prepare before a public forum at La Follette High School in Madison on Jan. 28.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker questioned Monday how Democrats can say they stand for women while not challenging a private business association that excluded female Democratic gubernatorial candidates from a recent forum.

Democratic party officials say they had nothing to do with who the Construction Business Group invited to its February forum and Walker knows it, while the association said it merely invited top fundraisers from each party. Still, Walker’s tweets underscore how difficult it will be for organizations to pick and choose who among the 16 Democratic hopefuls to invite to forums and debates as the August primary approaches.

The CBG held a forum on Feb. 22 and invited Walker as well as Democratic candidates Tony Evers, Matt Flynn, Andy Gronik, Mahlon Mitchell and Dana Wachs. The group didn’t invite a dozen other Democratic hopefuls, including state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout and former state Rep. Kelda Helen Roys. Former Wisconsin Democracy campaign executive director Mike McCabe and Madison mayor Paul Soglin were also among the leading nine candidates left out.

Walker issued a series of tweets Monday criticizing Democrats for allowing CBG to exclude the two women.

“Democrats say that they stand for women but exclude female candidates from debates and forums?” the governor tweeted.

State Democratic Party spokeswoman Melanie Conklin fired back that the party had nothing to do with who got invited.

“There was not a forum sponsored by Wisconsin Democrats,” she said in an email to the Associated Press. “He is not telling the truth and he knows it and hopes this gets traction.”

CBG Executive Director Robb Kahl said in a telephone interview that he had to winnow the number of speakers down because he had only an hour and limited space.

He said the group decided to invite the top six fundraisers from each party.

“It didn’t matter if you were a man or a woman,” Kahl said. “It’s pretty simple. There’s no nefarious intent.”

Walker ultimately chose not to attend because, according to Kahl, he disagreed with the question-and-answer format. Wachs, a state representative from Eau Claire, also didn’t attend because the Assembly was in session the day of the forum, he said.

Walker campaign spokesman Nathan Craft said the governor didn’t attend because of a scheduling conflict. He said Kahl is trying to hide that CBG didn’t invite any women.

Vinehout campaign spokesman Greg Leaf said private groups can invite anyone they want.

Roys responded to an AP email asking if she was concerned about candidates being shut out of forums and debates with a message accusing Walker of attacking women’s rights and painting herself as a champion for women. She did not address the question about the debates and didn’t reply to a follow-up email.

The problem of whom to invite and whom to exclude from forums and debates could grow more intense as the primary approaches and candidates fight more fiercely to be heard.

The East Side Progressives, a Madison social justice group, invited nine candidates to a forum in January. Nan Brien, a member of the planning team that set up the forum, said the group couldn’t invite all the candidates because there are too many to have any sort of meaningful discussion. The group instead picked candidates with a campaign manager and a social media website.

“We wanted people to leave with a real idea of where the candidates stood,” she said. “It’s absolutely critical as we move forward that we’re really seeing a debate between those contenders most likely to be successful.”

Mike Wittenwyler, an attorney who specializes in campaign finance, election law, ethics and lobbying cases, said he believes organizations should develop objective criteria as CBG did. They can look at fundraising, poll support or who has an actual campaign apparatus, he said.

“There are only just so many people you can put on a stage,” Wittenwyler said. “It depends on where different organizations draw a line. You have to have (criteria) because some members (of the organization) will say ‘why didn’t you invite this person?’ ”

The Wisconsin State Journal contributed to this report.