Szeliga, Van Hollen trade barbs in de­bate

Their only TV ex­change high­lights pol­icy dif­fer­ences

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By John Fritze

“What a shame it would be if Mary­land [vot­ers] did not have a woman rep­re­sent­ing them.” Del. Kathy Szeliga

Repub­li­can Kathy Szeliga and Demo­crat Chris Van Hollen clashed over the econ­omy, Oba­macare and the po­lar­iz­ing pres­i­den­tial race Wed­nes­day dur­ing what is likely to be the only tele­vised de­bate in the race to suc­ceed re­tir­ing Sen. Barbara A. Mikul­ski.

In a testy de­bate — Szeliga ac­cused Van Hollen of “mansplain­ing” and Van Hollen re­peat­edly char­ac­ter­ized Szeliga’s po­si­tions as out of step with the state — the ri­vals of­fered broadly con­trast­ing vi­sions for how to move the coun­try for­ward.

Be­fore the de­bate got un­der­way, Green Party can­di­date Mar­garet Flow­ers climbed onto the stage at the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more and de­manded to be in­cluded. Flow­ers, who did not meet the 15 per­cent polling thresh­old set by or­ga­niz­ers to par­tic­i­pate in the de­bate, has pressed to be a part of ear­lier fo­rums and has staged sim­i­lar in­ter­rup­tions.

“[Women] want some­body who has been fight­ing for their val­ues and pri­or­i­ties.” Rep. Chris Van Hollen

Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more po­lice of­fi­cers took her by the arm and es­corted her out.

“How do you serve democ­racy or serve the public if I’m ex­cluded?” she asked.

“This is how you’re treat­ing a can­di­date?”

The di­vi­sive con­test be­tween Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton and Repub­li­can Don­ald Trump has never been far from the state’s Se­nate con­test, and the can­di­dates quickly got into a back-and-forth over the top-bal­lot brawl that will draw most vot­ers to the polls on Nov. 8.

“I think we need to stand up to the out­ra­geous, di­vi­sive rhetoric of Don­ald Trump,” said Van Hollen, a seven-term con­gress­man from Mont­gomery County. “My op­po­nent is sup­port­ing prob­a­bly the most un­qual­i­fied per­son for pres­i­dent.”

Szeliga, the mi­nor­ity whip in the Mary­land House of Del­e­gates, has en­dorsed the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee but has con­demned many of his more con­tro­ver­sial state­ments. The Bal­ti­more County woman said she has pro­vided an “in­de­pen­dent voice” on his can­di­dacy.

She called on Van Hollen to speak out against Clin­ton over her use of a pri­vate email server and ques­tions about her fam­ily’s foun­da­tion.

“There you go again, Con­gress­man Van Hollen,” re­sponded Szeliga. “I have called my party’s nom­i­nee out on many oc­ca­sions, just as I’ve called out Hil­lary Clin­ton on many oc­ca­sions.”

The two can­di­dates dis­agreed on how to ad­dress the Af­ford­able Care Act, the sub­ject of neg­a­tive at­ten­tion this week with the news that large pre­mium in­creases are ex­pected for many peo­ple who buy in­sur­ance through the law’s on­line mar­ket­places.

Van Hollen, echo­ing Clin­ton, said that he sup­ports a so-called public op­tion, funded by the gov­ern­ment, which he said would in­crease com­pe­ti­tion with pri­vate in­sur­ers.

“Fix it? Yes,” Van Hollen said. “Throw it out? No.”

Szeliga said she wants the free mar­ket to have more in­flu­ence on fed­eral health pol­icy, but she did not elab­o­rate. She said she sup­ports med­i­cal tort re­form, an idea Repub­li­cans un­suc­cess­fully sought to in­clude dur­ing the de­bate over the na­tional health care law.

“The Af­ford­able Care Act has turned out to be any­thing but af­ford­able,” Szeliga said.

With the re­tire­ment of Mikul­ski and the de­par­ture of Rep. Donna F. Ed­wards, who lost to Van Hollen in the Demo­cratic pri­mary for Mikul­ski’s seat, Mary­land could be rep­re­sented in Wash­ing­ton by an all-male con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion next year for the first time in decades.

In a pointed ex­change on that pos­si­bil­ity, Szeliga ac­cused Van Hollen of “mansplain­ing” to vot­ers about “what wom­en­want and need.”

Prior to that charge, Van Hollen was not­ing his en­dorse­ments from na­tional women’s groups and point­ing to his sup­port for Hil­lary Clin­ton.

“What a shame it would be if Mary­land [vot­ers] did not have a woman rep­re­sent­ing them in Wash­ing­ton,” Szeliga said. It was a line Ed­wards of Prince Ge­orge’s County used fre­quently against Van Hollen in the pri­mary this year.

Van Hollen of­fered a re­sponse that he of­ten re­lied on against Ed­wards this year: that he has been a cham­pion for causes sup­ported by many women. Van Hollen won a ma­jor­ity of women vot­ers dur­ing the pri­mary, ac­cord­ing to exit polls.

“I hear them say­ing they want some­body who has been fight­ing for their val­ues and pri­or­i­ties,” Van Hollen said. “That’s what I’ve been do­ing my en­tire time in of­fice.”

Szeliga crit­i­cized Van Hollen for seek­ing a pro­mo­tion to the Se­nate af­ter what she char­ac­ter­ized as in­ac­tion on tax re­form and back­logs at Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs.

She also tried to link Van Hollen to Mary­land’s “rain tax,” the un­pop­u­lar stormwa­ter fee ap­proved in 2012 in an ef­fort to re­duce the flow of pol­lu­tion into the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay.

The ef­fort to tie Van Hollen to for­mer Demo­cratic Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley, who sup­ported the tax, is not some­thing Szeliga has at­tempted fre­quently.

O’Mal­ley was pop­u­lar dur­ing his two terms in Annapolis, but voter frus­tra­tion over taxes ap­proved by his ad­min­is­tra­tion is thought to be one of the rea­sons GOP Gov. Larry Ho­gan scored his up­set vic­tory over O’Mal­ley’s lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, An­thony Brown, in 2014.

Van Hollen at­tacked Szeliga over a vot­ing record in the Gen­eral Assem­bly that has in­cluded op­po­si­tion to gun con­trol and to de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion.

Goucher Col­lege po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Mileah Kromer, di­rec­tor of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Cen­ter, de­scribed Szeliga as a “skilled de­bater” who came across as “gen­uine, warm, and con­fi­dent.”

Van Hollen, she said, “is clearly a pol­icy wonk cut from the Clin­ton cloth” and knows the is­sues cold. Kromer watched the event live. “Hon­estly, I think that vot­ers would have re­ally ben­e­fited from more of th­ese tele­vised de­bates,” she said.

With less than two weeks to go un­til the elec­tion, there is lit­tle sign of move­ment in the race. Three polls have in­di­cated that Van Hollen was lead­ing Szeliga by about 30 points, and the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee has more than four times the cam­paign cash on hand.

Szeliga has faced the tra­di­tional chal­lenges that con­front Repub­li­can can­di­dates in Mary­land, in­clud­ing a 2-1 dis­ad­van­tage in voter en­roll­ment. This year, Szeliga must also con­tend with Trump, who polls have shown is deeply un­pop­u­lar in the state.

The de­bate, spon­sored by The Bal­ti­more Sun, WJZ-TV, the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more and the Mary­land League of Women Vot­ers, is the only tele­vised ex­change sched­uled for the race. The fo­rum was recorded be­fore a live au­di­ence Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon and broad­cast Wed­nes­day evening on WJZ-TV. It can also be seen at bal­ti­more­sun.com.

AMY DAVIS/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Green Party can­di­date Mar­garet Flow­ers is taken off the stage af­ter crash­ing the de­bate be­tween U.S. Se­nate can­di­dates Kathy Szeliga, left, and Chris Van Hollen, right.

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