Fahrenkopf, having navigated gaming dustups, is capable of weathering political discourse By Howard Stutz, Executive Editor, CDC Gaming Reports October 10, 2020 at 5:00 am During a nearly two-decade tenure as CEO of the America Gaming Association, Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., navigated the complicated relationships within an industry where the Washington D.C.-based organization’s membership often had competing interests and weren’t always on speaking terms. For example, the AGA board included CEOs of International Game Technology and Bally Technologies, the two largest slot machine providers. In the late 2000s, the companies had nearly a dozen patent infringement lawsuits against each other in the federal court system. As the head of the AGA, Fahrenkopf brought the casino industry into mainstream America, silencing anti-gaming forces on Capitol Hill and halting any hint of federal taxation. Nothing, however, compares with the past two weeks Fahrenkopf has experienced in his role as co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The skills he developed during his years as a Capitol Hill lobbyist and consummate Washington, D.C., insider are being put to the test. But no one is better suited to traverse the toxic political discourse of 2020. Fahrenkopf was chairman of the Republican National Committee when he and Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk, Jr., jointly supported the creation of an independent presidential debate commission. The idea was hatched from separate studies by the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Harvard University Institute of Politics following the 1984 presidential election. Fahrenkopf is proud of the nonpartisan manner in which the commission operates. A native of Reno, Fahrenkopf long sought to have a Nevada city host a presidential debate, which came to fruition in 2016 when the final debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton took place at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Former AGA CEO Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. The 2016 debates, while contentious, were tame compared to the first Joe Biden-Donald Trump debate on Sept. 29 in Cleveland. It devolved into 90 unruly minutes of bitter exchanges and President Trump talking over the former vice president. Biden’s “will you shut up, man?” characterized the evening. On Thursday, the commission decided to hold next week’s second presidential debate – a town-hall-style event where the candidates would take questions from audience members – virtually. After President Trump contracted coronavirus, the commission determined, on the advice of health advisors from the Cleveland Clinic, that virtual was the safest format. Within a few hours, Trump rejected the idea and said he wouldn’t participate. The debate was canceled Friday. “There is no law requiring any presidential candidate to debate,” Fahrenkopf said in an interview on CNN. “In fact, in 1980, Jimmy Carter refused to participate in the first debate, but he did participate in the second debate. So it is up to every candidate to decide whether they want to debate or not.” Fahrenkopf told the Nashville Tennessean the planned Oct. 22 debate would take place live at Belmont University in Nashville. “We’re assuming that we’ll go forward even if (Trump) decides to skip the next one. We’ll still plan for the final debate in Nashville. His frustration surfaced in an interview with Brian Kilmeade on Fox News Radio, saying the debate commission’s staff was “very, very upset” with Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis after the Sept. 29 debate. “He wasn’t wearing a mask. They’re upset. They’re concerned about their families.” In a subsequent interview on Fox News with Martha MacCallum, Fahrenkopf said the commission picks the dates, locations, format, and moderators without any consultation with the campaigns or candidates. “It was created because there were so many problems back in the early ’80s as to whether or not debates would ever take place. There could never be agreement,” Fahrenkopf said. “So we look at this thing very, very carefully. As I’ve said many, many times in this particular cycle, we’re going to be guided by the medicine. We’re going to be guided by those people who are advising us. We’re not doctors.” Despite his GOP pedigree, Fahrenkopf has never been accused of tipping the scales when it comes to the debate commission. “If anyone is smooth enough to smooth this out, it’s Fahrenkopf,” Jon Ralston, editor of The Nevada Independent, wrote in his Friday newsletter. The AGA’s founding CEO, Fahrenkopf is a 2013 Gaming Hall of Fame inductee. He still has ties to the gaming industry as a Caesars Entertainment board member, one of six Eldorado Resorts representatives who joined the merged company. Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.