Debate heats up Senate race between Van Hollen, Szeliga
— Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s nominee for president, at times seemed to be the focus of an Oct. 7 debate on WAMU radio between Democratic U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Republican Delegate Kathy Szeliga.
Van Hollen and Szeliga, the minority whip in Maryland’s House of Delegates, are running to fill Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s senate seat when she retires at the end of her current term. Mikulski is supporting Van Hollen.
In his opening statement, Van Hollen said, “We can’t allow the divisive attacks of Donald Trump to tear us apart.”
During the debate, Szeliga was repeatedly questioned on whether she would support or endorse Trump. Szeliga wouldn’t say his name when pressured to by Van Hollen and Tom Sherwood, an NBC reporter who moderated the event.
“I know you’re trying to hide from the fact that you’re supporting Donald Trump,” Van Hollen said. “You don’t like to say his name.”
Instead, Szeliga repeatedly said that she would support “the party’s nominee.”
Szeliga accused Van Hollen of accepting political donations from Trump, although there is no record of this in data from the Maryland State Board of Elections or Follow the Money, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks federal political donations.
Trump did donate to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee while Van Hollen headed the group from 2007 to 2011. Trump has in the past donated to members of both parties, including his current opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Asked whether Trump should release his tax returns, Szeliga said, “Sure.”
Polling results from the Goucher Poll and OpinionWorks indicate that Szeliga is down in the polls, receiving around 25 percent, with Van Hollen receiving around 55 percent. Nearly 20 percent of poll respondents were unsure of their pick.
Szeliga dismissed the poll and argued that any Republican on a Maryland ballot — “Jane Republican,” she said — is projected to receive at least 38 percent.
“Are you calling me a loser?” Szeliga said after being asked about the polls. “The baseline vote for a Republican in Maryland is 38 percent.”
In Maryland, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a 2-1 ratio.
Following their introductions and opening statements, each candidate was asked for their top priority in office.
“My top priority is our veterans,” Szeliga said, recounting her father’s service in the U.S. Army. She said he served two tours in Korea and one in Vietnam.
Van Hollen, whose father served in the U.S. Navy, agreed, and said, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
A recent Congressional vote by Van Hollen was one point of contention. He voted against House Bill 5620, the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016, which would allow the Department of Veteran Affairs to remove or demote workers based on their performance.
“We have got to fix the VA,” Szeliga said.
Van Hollen countered, defending his record on veteran issues by saying he has been endorsed by the Veterans and Military Families for Progress.
“Congressman Van Hollen has demonstrated an extraordinarily strong commitment and deep understanding of the issues that affect America’s veterans,” the group said in a prepared statement.
On raising the minimum wage
Szeliga, who runs a small construction contracting business with her husband, Mark, said the focus should be on providing careers for those on the minimum wage.
“I am the only one of us who actually lived on a minimum wage,” she said recounting how she dropped out of college at 18 and worked as a waitress and dishwasher. “I was looking for a career.”
Van Hollen said his goal is to make the minimum wage a livable wage.
“It is a scandal in this country that you can work 40 hours a week” and be below the poverty line for a family of three, he said, explaining that he would support Clinton’s plan to increase the national minimum wage to $12 an hour with the goal of progressing to $15 an hour.
He noted that Szeliga voted against raising Maryland’s minimum wage.
The congressman added he supports plans to ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work.
“I’m a woman,” Szeliga said. “Of course I support equal pay.”
However, she questioned whether further legislation was needed, noting that a federal law was passed in 1963 to ensure equal pay. She did vote for the state of Maryland’s expansion of the equal pay for equal work act in 2016.
Van Hollen said that “the reality is women are still paid less” than men, which is why he supports Mikulski’s Paycheck Fairness Act, which would increase accountability.
On the tax code
“Nonstop taxes have killed the middle class,” Szeliga said. “We don’t solve problems when we raise taxes.”
“I’ve put forward a plan that would provide tax breaks for the middle class,” Van Hollen said.
He explained that “we need a tax system that supports hardworking families and not corporations that move their jobs and capital overseas.” Van Hollen has introduced legislation to close loopholes that allow corporations to receive tax breaks, including corporations that outsource jobs.
“We need to reward companies that invest in Maryland, invest in Baltimore, [and] invest in this area,” he said.
On criminal justice
When asked about the federal government’s role in criminal justice, the Freddie Gray case and policing in Baltimore, Szeliga said, “I would rather talk about Iran.” She has been vocal about her opposition to the Iran nuclear deal in the past.
Before time ran out in the debate, Van Hollen called the situation “a tragedy” and advocated for providing federal incentives to local police agencies to increase transparency.
Van Hollen: “When I think of Sen. Mikulski, I think of somebody who is focused on getting results for our state and working across the aisle, and that’s what I’ve done. We’ve got a lot of work to do.” He said he wants to ensure that children get a good education, to build an economy “that works for everybody,” to end mass incarceration, and address gun violence.
“I’ve put forward specific proposals,” he said.
Szeliga used her closing statement to pressure Van Hollen to agree to a televised debate on WJLA-TV.
“You can hear from today’s debate that there’s a clear choice. Congressman Van Hollen, today will you commit to doing the debate with WJLA and FOX 45?” she asked.
The two argued over plans for a debate.
“You’re in the middle of a debate,” Van Hollen said.
Joe Defeo, WJLA-TV’s content director, said that details are not finalized but they do have plans to host a debate. Fox Baltimore could not immediately confirm whether debates were scheduled.
While a handful of forums have been scheduled, the candidates have currently agreed to only two more broadcast debates: an Oct. 26 televised debate on WJZChannel 13 and another radio debate, scheduled for Oct. 31 on Baltimore’s WOLB-AM.
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) continues to hold his strong lead in the polls over Maryland Delegate Kathy Szeliga (R).