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Alex Trebek gets booed while moderating gubernatorial debate, admits he was 'too naïve'

Taryn Ryder
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Alex Trebek swapped Jeopardy! for politics and it didn’t go so well, according to pundits and viewers at home.

The game show host moderated the Pennsylvania gubernatorial debate between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican challenger Scott Wagner on Monday night, and he was criticized for inserting himself too much into the conversation. At one point, Trebek was even booed by the audience after discussing a proposed severance tax.

“I would like to offer a suggestion to the people of Pennsylvania for this election. Forget that you’re Republicans or Democrats. We just had a few heated words about the severance tax,” he said. “If you believe the severance tax would be beneficial, would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars that would help with education and other problems in the state, then call up the people who are running in our districts, ask them a question, and say, ‘Are you in favor of the severance tax or against it?’ If they’re in favor say, ‘All right, I’m going to vote for you.’ If they happen to be from your party, good. If from the other party, vote for them. If you’re against the severance tax, same deal.”

“Alex, we are the only state that has an impact fee,” Wagner chimed in before he and Trebek began debating the proposed tax on natural gas drilling and the gerrymandering of congressional districts. “Listen, we’re taxing the gas companies. Do the people believe that we should tax? Yes, but we already are.”

“You’re not taxing them that much because most of them are based in Texas or Oklahoma,” Trebek said, before ending the conversation. “All right, we’re out of time.”

The audience immediately started booing.

“What did I tell you guys at the beginning?” Trebek told the crowd. “No booing or hissing! And now you’re directing it at me!”

According to local newspaper Reading Eagle, which polled political strategists and other observers on Trebek’s appearance, the longtime TV host came across unfavorably.

“I thought Alex Trebek spoke way too much and didn’t allow the candidates enough time to speak. Trebek actually hit both candidates harder than they hit each other. Horrible gubernatorial debate moderators for $1,000. Who is Alex Trebek?” Republican strategist Mike Barley told the paper.

Added Jill Greene, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania: ” Mr. Trebek is to be commended for his obviously rigorous preparation for this event, but he is not running for Pennsylvania’s governor. Mr. Trebek’s opinions and the opinions of the audience should have played no role in this debate, and Pennsylvanians have not gained anything through this exercise.”

The CEO of Quantum Communications, Charlie Gerow, noted: “The two candidates are different in issues and in style, and those differences were not highlighted because Alex Trebek got in the way. He went out of his way in the beginning, saying he was not going to get in the way, then he got in the way. I believe a significant number of people in the audience and watching at home thought he was biased on the severance tax and other issues. He managed to get booed by the audience. They clearly were not happy. He was argumentative on a couple of occasions and interrupted discussion.”

Although Trebek got a few laughs during the nearly hourlong conversation, he was mainly criticized for bringing the conversation back to himself too often — like telling a story about when he was a teenager attending a Catholic boarding school.

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Trebek heard his detractors loud and clear. “It was a learning experience for me,” he said during an interview with local Harrisburg, Pa., news station WHP. “And I think I was too naive going into this.”

“I thought a conversation would work a lot better. It didn’t,” he said. “There’s no little red light that indicates when the candidate must stop speaking.”

Trebek added, “I didn’t feel powerful enough to interrupt them more than I did. And even then I took some flak for that.”

However, he didn’t agree with the critique that he wanted to show off his Pennsylvania knowledge. “I look at it this way: Would they have preferred that I was totally clueless going in and not being able to challenge the candidates when they said something that was not true?

“The bottom line for all of this is that if you were a Wagner supporter before the debate, you still are. If you were a Wolf supporter before the debate, you still are. If you were a Trebek supporter before the debate, that one may be questionable,” he concluded.

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