The Great Debate Has a New Prez in the Middle: Ruth Hinerfeld of the League of Women Voters

UPDATED 09/15/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/15/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

For the venerable 60-year-old League of Women Voters, this week could be a watershed. The controversy over John Anderson's participation in the League-sponsored presidential debates has led to a flurry of counteroffers. CBS News and the National Press Club are just two of the many organizations proposing to stage one-on-one debates between the major party candidates. Yet the woman in the center of the contention, League president Ruth Hinerfeld, 49, insists on letting the polls determine Anderson's eligibility, even though her organization could lose its control over the Great Debates and thus forfeit its major source of visibility. "We started this process, institutionalized it and we've been doing it well," she says. "We've been subjected to a lot of heat. But we can't imagine any temperature that would make us want to get out of the kitchen."

Hinerfeld promised a League decision on the Anderson question this week. "We're not in it to promote Anderson, Carter or Reagan," she says. "We're in it to promote what people want." To that end she planned to consult with the League's board and a panel of independent pollsters to decide whether Anderson meets the League criterion of support—15 percent in the polls. Hinerfeld knows that if Anderson is included, it could jeopardize the participation of President Carter—who is loath to lend respectability to a third-party campaign that could draw the most votes from him. Hinerfeld responds to that possibility with iron resolve. "There will be debates this year," she says, "sponsored by the League."

Hinerfeld's commitment to the League dates back to 1953 when, as a graduate of Vassar (Phi Beta Kappa) and the now defunct Harvard-Radcliffe Business Program, she married Norman Hinerfeld, then a student at Harvard Business School. When he became an Army lieutenant, they moved to Indianapolis. "I was doing such things as morning coffee with the gal downstairs and afternoon tea with the lady upstairs," she recalls. "One day someone suggested I go to a League meeting. It was wonderful." Following her husband through a succession of transfers, she became active in League affairs, rising to full-time state vice-president in California before moving to New York in 1967 and becoming the League's observer at the United Nations in 1969. Since 1978 she has been the elected president of the 120,000-member organization, commuting from her Mamaroneck, N.Y. home to Washington three days a week. There she oversees the League's fund raising, lobbying activities and voter education projects. "I do it with a lot of help from my friends," says Hinerfeld, who puts in a 60-hour week and when in Washington finds no time even for dinner with son Tom, 21, a student at nearby Georgetown University. "The League's the best place in the world to work long, hard hours for no money." (Daughter Lee, 25, is an animal behavior student in Wyoming and Josh, 19, goes to Vassar.)

If she can sort out the thorny Anderson issue, Hinerfeld will be hit with other problems almost as difficult: selecting times, places and formats for the debates acceptable to all participants. Two tentative dates in October may have to be shifted to avoid a conflict with ABC's Monday night pro football games ("We didn't schedule it because we hate football," maintains the League president). Then the Carter campaign objected because it heard one scheme included no presidential debates in the South; others are likely to question everything from the use of journalists as interviewers to the height of the candidates' podiums (they're adjustable this year). "We're in a cross fire, but we knew we would be," she smiles. "Right now, I'd say I'd do it all over again the same way. But ask me again in November."

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