Five Republican presidential candidates are boycotting a proposed Univision debate due to allegations that the Spanish-language media giant tried to strongarm Sen. Marco Rubio, a vice-presidential shortlister, with a controversial story about a relative.
Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann all issued statements saying that Univision needed to make amends before they would appear at the debate, tentatively scheduled for two days before Florida's Jan. 31 primary.
The five made their separate announcements throughout the day at the behest of three Florida Hispanic Republican lawmakers who noted that the senator’s office and Univision insiders said Univision publicized an embarrassing story about Rubio’s brother in law because he wouldn’t sit down for an interview on the show Al Punto, which has espoused a liberal line on the hot-topic of immigration.
Univision has called the allegations of a quid-pro-quo “absurd,” and said that the July story of the 24-year-old drug bust was reported fairly and accurately.
But the five candidates apparently believed the reports from Rubio’s office and the Univision insiders, which were first revealed in a Sunday Miami Herald story. The five other candidates, including Florida straw poll winner Herman Cain, couldn't be reached.
“Governor Perry will not consider participating in the January 29, 2012, Univision debate until your network addresses this ethical breach and takes action to correct it,” Perry’s communications director, Ray Sullivan, wrote Univision on Tuesday.
“With NBC and Telemundo also hosting a debate the same weekend in January 2012, we will have ample opportunity to engage with Spanish-speaking Americans,” Perry wrote.
Late Tuesday, Cain's campaign issued a statement through Longwood state Rep. Scott Plakon who said: "They're out. Until Univision resolves this, he won't participate in the debate like the other candidates."
Huntsman’s campaign manager, Matt David, was more measured in his letter to Univision. But he said the candidate stands firm.
“Unless Univision resolves this issue in a timely and satisfactory manner, Governor Huntsman will not give consideration to your network’s debate currently proposed for January, 2012,” he wrote. “We ask the other Republican candidates to join us in this decision and will work with them to identify another forum to debate issues that are important to Americans of Hispanic descent in Florida and across our nation.”
Romney didn't write a letter to Univision, but issued a statement from spokesman Ryan Williams that said: "We have not received any invitation from Univision for a debate, but we are troubled by these allegations and would not participate in any such debate unless and until Univision satisfactorily addresses this situation."
Bachmann's spokeswoman, Alice Stewart, also issued a statement to the news media.
"This issue was brought to Michele's attention and she has a great deal of respect for Senator Rubio," Stewart wrote. "We reserve our right to participate in the Univision debate pending a positive resolution of this matter by Univision."
Ana Navarro, a top Florida field director with Huntsman’s campaign and friend of Rubio, had contacted Univision in July in an effort to have the station stop the story of the drug arrest of Orlando Cicilia in 1987, when Rubio was 16.
Navarro said the old drug arrest and Cicilia’s subsequent incarceration didn’t merit two days of Univision coverage because it was an old report, had no current news value and involved such a distant relative of Rubio.
Three of Rubio’s friends and political allies – U.S. Rep. David Rivera, state House leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, and Miami-Dade Republican Chairman Erik Fresen – called Monday for the Univision boycott in a letter to the Republican National Committee and the campaigns.
“This attempt at extorting a respected Republican elected official like Senator Rubio, who is also a proud American of Hispanic descent, is offensive and unacceptable,” they wrote.
They called for Univision to apologize and to fire its news president, Isaac Lee, who was accused of offering the quid-pro-quo deal to Rubio. Lee has repeatedly denied the charge.
"We respectfully decline your request to issue a public apology or to request the resignation of our President of News, Mr. Isaac Lee. Lost in the inflammatory language being used by you is the that our story was truthfully and accurately reported," Univision said in a written statement issued before midnight Monday.
“More importantly, Univision takes exception to the false assertion that it attempted to ‘extort’ Senator Rubio in any way, shape or form,” the statement said. “At no point in time did anyone from Univision offer to kill or soften the story regarding Senator Rubio’s brother-in-law in exchange for appearing on any Univision news program."
Still, the controversy has proved problematic for Univision. The subject came up in a Tuesday meeting between Univision president Cesar Conde, the Republican National Committee’s chairman, Reince Priebus, and Co-Chair Sharon Day. Day, who's trying to increase Republican outreach to Hispancis, said the meeting was already scheduled. She confirmed that the subject of Rubio and the debate came up, but she declined to elaborate.
Lopez-Cantera, a Perry backer, said he was pleased that the Republican candidates decided to send a message to Univision.
"This type of behavior is unacceptable," he said, "and will not be tolerated by our leaders."