By Joseph Quigley 
BELLEVILLE – The absence of Bay of Quinte Conservative candidate Jodie Jenkins at debates has become a focus point on the campaign trail.
Jenkins has declined four debate events in the region, including the final debate for the area held Wednesday night at Loyalist College .
Multiple debate organizers have expressed disappointment about Jenkins being absent at their events and have left empty seats in his place.
But Jenkins said that these organizations were informed well in advance that he would only attend a select number of debates in the region. He added that debate organizers have been unfair by leaving empty seats for him.
“If you were an organization and you received a response from me (nine weeks in advance) saying, ‘you know what, unfortunately we will not be able to make it to your debate,’ would you still put out a chair and a placard for Jodie Jenkins? It’s not about accountability. I gave my regrets,” said Jenkins.
Mary Robertson, chair of the local chapter of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons , which had empty candidate seats at their debates, said that the organization did not mean to offend or make a political point.
“It was really just to show that they were invited,” Robertson said. “We weren’t trying to shed any bad light on anyone. We’re a non-partisan organization. But we do have 22 members in our chapter and they take the time to hear a debate and they expect that the candidates would come.”
Opposition candidates have also made it a point to attack Jenkins at these debates for his absence.
At the Bay of Quinte CARP debate in Wellington  on Oct. 1, Liberal candidate Neil Ellis said that Jenkins was avoiding issues by choosing to not go to debates.
“Last night (when another debate was held in the riding), do you know where he was? He was knocking on doors in Quinte West, and that’s a fact. He decided to go knocking on doors because he wouldn’t face you and he wouldn’t face the issues,” said Ellis.
Jenkins said that his campaign has chosen to concentrate on going door-to-door towards the end of the election, which has been occupying him during debate times.
“We made a decision on the last couple of weeks of the campaign that we wanted to be focusing on the doorsteps and talking to residents about issues that are affecting them,” Jenkins said. “That’s been our commitment. We wanted to make sure (that in) the last couple of weeks, we’re knocking on as many doors as possible.”
But Jenkins added that he has already attended five debates across the region addressing a wide range of issues and that the questions at debates are often repetitive.
Jenkins also responded to the criticism of his opponents about his campaign.
“The quote from (Ellis) made it out like (going door-to-door) was a bad thing,” said Jenkins “I applaud him for that comment. Because it’s exactly what we’re doing and it’s important to what we’re doing. People want to see their candidate at their door talking to them about issues.”
Both Ellis and New Democratic Party candidate Terry Cassidy are also running their own door-to-door campaign efforts.
Cassidy, Ellis and independent candidate Trueman Tuck have not declined any debates in the area. Ellis, Tuck and a contact from the local NDP all stressed the value of attending each debate.
“I think its vitally important you take every opportunity you can possibly get to debate,” said Merrill Stewart, voter contact for the Bay of Quinte NDP.
“It’s about meeting people and it’s about being able to ask questions,” said Ellis. “Coming into the political field, all politicians have to be subject to that. It’s about leadership.”
“It’s like a job interview,” said Tuck. “If I’m serious about representing constituents and being paid by public funds to do a job, it’s my duty to give everyone in the riding the chance to see me, talk to me and ask questions.”
Bay of Quinte Green candidate Rachel Nelems has declined all debates, but she is not campaigning in the riding.
Jenkins said that opposing candidate absences have not received as much media attention, such as Cassidy missing a debate at the Picton Rotary Club  on Tuesday.
“Were there any pictures from any of the media of an empty seat with Terry Cassidy’s name on it?” he asked. ” ‘Jodie Jenkins doesn’t come to a couple of debates’, do you know how many times that’s been the main headline or come up? I would say it’s a deliberate attack by the other parties to try and spin it.”
Stewart said that Cassidy’s absence at the rotary club debate was due to a scheduling error and that Cassidy had planned to attend.
“We felt really bad and it was a mistake,” said Stewart. He added that Cassidy had apologized to the organizers and gave them the answers to the questions asked of the candidates, which had been provided in advance of the event.
Jenkins is not the only Conservative candidate that has declined debates. Adam Moulton, the Conservative for the nearby Northumberland–Peterborough South, has also declined several events.
But Jenkins said that Conservatives have not been advised against debates by the national party.
“It’s unfortunate that there’s a lot of mistruth out there. I know the other parties would love to get the information out there that the Conservatives have been told not to get out to debates. I’ll squash that rumour right now, it’s simply false.”