Politics & Government

AARP to sponsor festival at vice presidential debate at Centre College

DANVILLE — AARP, the powerful lobbying organization for seniors, will be the prime sponsor of a free festival at the Oct. 11 vice presidential debate at Centre College, officials said Thursday.

The festival will feature concerts before and after the debate between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan. The debate and pre-debate remarks will be televised on the festival lawn on Centre's campus.

Centre officials said the partnership with AARP seemed fitting given that CNN and Money magazine have ranked Danville as one of the country's top retirement spots in the country.

AARP bills itself as a non-profit, non-partisan organization that advocates on behalf of a membership of more than 37 million people older than 50. The organization says it does not endorse candidates or make contributions to campaigns or candidates.

However, critics have questioned that neutrality at times. During a 2009 town hall meeting, Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate for president in 2008, encouraged AARP members to cut up their membership cards.

But James Kimbrough, president of AARP Kentucky, reiterated that the organization is non-partisan.

"We've been accused of being in the pockets of the Republican Party during the (George W.) Bush administration when we strongly supported Medicare Part D (a federal program that subsidizes the cost of prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries), and we were attacked heavily by Democrats for that," Kimbrough said.

"Now that we supported the ACA (Affordable Care Act, President Obama's health reform legislation), we've been attacked for being in the pockets of the Democrats. What we're in the pockets of is the membership. We always support what's best for the people who are 50 and older in the country, regardless of whose idea it is."

Richard Trollinger, Centre's vice president for college relations, said the institution "considered the pros and cons of having a debate sponsor."

But, he said, "We satisfied ourselves that AARP was, in fact, non-partisan, and that the issues around retirement security — Medicare, Social Security, financial security — are issues for all Americans over the age of 50. ...We're not concerned about the accusations that AARP may be identified with one political party more so than the other."

AARP brought its "You've Earned A Say" TourMobile to the campus Thursday, and it will be at the Oct. 11 festival. Inside the vehicle, people may share their thoughts about retirement security by answering an interactive survey on tablet computers.

Officials declined to specify the dollar value of the festival sponsorship. But Pete Jeffries, national engagements director for AARP, said the organization would spend $4 million this election cycle on educating voters about the issues and the stances taken by congressional and presidential candidates.

The Marshall Tucker Band, a Southern rock-blues band whose peak was in the 1970s, will be the headlining act at the festival. The band will perform after the debate ends at 10:30 p.m.

Lexington native Ben Sollee, a cellist who is promoting a new album, will perform, too, and there will be other local acts featured during the festival, which starts at noon on debate day.