Candidate forum marked by civility, agreement
WYE MILLS — Candidates for Maryland’s First Congressional District, in stark contrast to the country’s presidential candidates, conducted a civil debate at Chesapeake College on Sunday, Oct. 30.
Incumbent Republican congressman Andy Harris, 59, Democrat Joe Werner, 56, and Libertarian Matt Beers, 25, shared their policy positions without rancor at a First Congressional District Candidate Forum sponsored by the Leagues of Women Voters of Kent County, Queen Anne’s County and the Mid-Shore (Caroline, Dorchester and Talbot Counties).
The candidates shared a small stage and a cramped table in Cadbury Theater on the Wye Mills campus. About 25 audience members attended which included League volunteers and coordinators.
The program featured two-minute opening statements, questions from the League with two-minute answers and one-minute rebuttals allowed. Prescreened questions written on index cards by the audience were then allowed. The candidates were allowed two-minute closing statements.
All three candidates oppose district gerrymandering and the ballooning deficit. They all want to see a stronger economy for the Eastern Shore, secure borders and a more accountable government. How to achieve these goals produced a consistently civil discussion, and even some agreement.
The League designed three questions for the candidates. The first was on immigration: “What proposals would you support to address the issue of the millions of undocumented residents living in the United States today?”
Calling immigration a “complex issue,” Werner, an attorney who lives in Harford County but works in Washington, D.C., said that deporting “illegal aliens is not about being anti-immigration.”
“Undocumented immigrants who commit illegal acts? Yes, I’d send them out,” Werner said. But he would also like to see a policy that allows children to petition for their undocumented parents to stay in the country.
“I’m sure there are a lot of farmers (on the Eastern Shore) hiring people who are undocumented,” he said. “When we had a good economy in the 1920s, we wanted undocumented workers.”
Beers said, “We need to look first at the fault in our own system. I think we should be able to let people cross borders the way we cross state borders,” the Navy veteran from Elkton said. “We should work with the community ... work with an employee-based visa program to bring 11 million undocumented immigrants into the open.”
“The U.S. is a country governed by the rule of law,” Harris said. “The problem is when (an immigrant’s) first act is to break the law.” He supports economic sanctions against a country which will not accept a criminal alien because they can’t be detained in the U.S. indefinitely, he said.
Harris supports creating a new class of immigrants who would not be eligible for most social services, but whose children could qualify for citizenship. He cited how “incredibly important” H2B (temporary visa) workers are to the Eastern Shore economy.
The second question the League asked was how the candidates would propose to pay for the country’s neglected infrastructure.
Beers’ response was short and to the point. Spending should be reprioritized and allocated to the U.S. to pay for roads and bridges. “We shouldn’t send money overseas ... The federal government needs to stop subsidizing big industry.”
Harris also favors reprioritizing spending and handling infrastructure issues at the state level, “and we don’t do it by increasing the gas tax.” Corporations should repatriate their money and more money should go to rebuilding roads and bridges rather than to bolstering mass transit.
Harris complained that mandatory federal programs, especially food stamps and the Affordable Care Act “crowd out everything else, including roads and bridges.”
Werner agreed that federal spending should be reprioritized but differed from Harris and Beers about how to do that. “Infrastructure creates jobs and improves the economy,” he said, citing how President Eisenhower’s highway program “really helped.”
Werner believes raising the gas tax would increase funds for improving mass transit. Citing his own daily commute from Belair to Washington, D.C., Werner said that mass transit “gets people off the roads and (lessens the) pollution caused by sitting in traffic.”
In the most forceful rebuttal of the forum, Harris shot back, “The idea is nonsense that increasing government spending” will solve the problem. Raising taxes, which he said Democrats always want to do, won’t solve traffic problems, he said.
The League’s third question asked candidates to consider what steps they would support “to reduce the amount of money and its resultant influence in our political system?”
Harris answered by citing the Supreme Court’s conclusion that “contributing (to campaigns) is (a form of) free speech.” He favors treating unions like corporations “if we’re going to talk about limiting spending.”
Werner believes “giant corporations should not be able to give to political campaigns,” because they’re not a person,” he said. “We should take corporate and PAC money out of politics ... because you end up with an oligarchy.”
Beers agreed. “The FEC overly burdens grassroots efforts. The current regulations are hurting political involvement,” he said.
Two of the questions from the audience had to do with getting the economy moving and solving the national debt situation.
“Stop gerrymandering (congressional) districts and get big money out of politics,” Werner said. “As long as you keep electing extreme right, or extreme left candidates, for that matter,” nothing will get done, Werner said. He complimented former Republican congressman Wayne Gilchrest because “he reached across the aisle. “You have to vote for people who know how to work well together.”
The debt can be handled, Werner said, by figuring out “how to curtail entitlement programs ... and the refugee situation. We’re acting like drunken sailors. We should be looking at better trade deals with China.”
“Werner has it right. Gerrymandering is a big problem,” Harris said, “Unfortunately, his party has it wrong.” Harris believes an independent commission should determine district boundaries. “my district shouldn’t stretch from Ocean City to ... Taneytown.”
Harris is in favor of cutting taxes. “When you increase taxes, you lower economic output,” he said. Harris wants to cut entitlement programs, but his caveat is, “If you’re approaching retirement, you should be taken off the table.” Social Security and Medicare reforms should take place among a younger population.
“Reform the tax code, bring overseas capital home and get the federal government out of the way,” without reneging on prior commitments to seniors, Beers said was the way to get the economy moving.
How to deal with the “devastating war in the Middle East” was another audience question.
“We need to stop bombing seven different countries,” Beers said. “Stop arming rebels, stop trying to topple regimes.” He would stop U.S. military involvement overseas, including closing all militar y bases.
Tracing unrest in the Mideast to the arbitrary carving up of the Ottoman Empire, Werner said, “We’re acting unrealistically.” He said that bad leaders were replaced with worse, resulting in rebellion against those governments. “We should help refugees over there. We should help Jordan more,” he said, because it’s a good ally. “Some countries should be divided up; the Kurds need a country of their own.”
“Our foreign policy has been an unmitigated disaster,” Harris said. But he said, rather than pull out completely, “we actually have a NATO alliance. Unopposed aggression leads to no good.” Harris would rather see the U.S. train its allies and help provide needed equipment, especially to halt Russian aggression in Iraq’s power vacuum.
“We should never have been in Iraq to begin with,” Werner said. “Bush put in a puppet. I’m Polish; you’ve got to stand up to a bully.”
Beers added, “We’re not the policeman of the world.”
On the question of what to do about climate change, Werner said that global warming is real, and that the federal government “should stop subsidizing big oil ... and use it to support renewable energy.”
“The free market,” Beers said, “is the best way for a country to manage its resources. The government shouldn’t be involved in choosing energy for us.”
“Mr. Beers hit the nail on the head,” Harris responded. “We have neglected the strategic use of energy to stabilize the world.”
The candidates were asked if they would repeal or revise Obamacare. Harris said that the Act was “poorly conceived.” However, there are some aspects of the law he would preserve, namely, coverage for preexisting conditions, children 26 and under being able to stay on their parents’ policy, and removing the lifetime cap for treatment.
“The rest of the scheme doesn’t work,” Harris said. “It’s great if you’re on Medicaid. If you’re not, the system doesn’t work. It has to be redesigned.”
“It’s not perfect, and it needs to be changed,” Werner said. He thinks that the costs could be reined in by reining in pharmaceutical costs.
Citing his own experience as a veteran receiving care, Beers added briefly that government healthcare is not that great. He said that insurance and pharmaceutical companies benefit most from Obamacare. “We need to go back to church hospitals, get government out of the way and improve competition.”
A third Bay Bridge was one of the last questions the candidates faced. Werner said he’d like to see a tunnel “right here.” Beers wants the “community to solve” the issue and keep the feds out of the decision.
Harris wants to see third Chesapeake Bay crossing issue solved at the state level. He said that a Baltimore crossing “would do to Kent County what happened to Queen Anne’s County.” He thinks the solution is to increase the capacity at the current Bay Bridge crossing.
In their closing remarks, Beers said he wants to get people involved in the system again. “We need to look at candidates based on their capabilities” rather than big money support.
Werner agreed with Beers. “We need to get big money out of politics, stop gerrymandering and employ free market ideas,” he said. “There should be three (political) parties. Like the Bernie Sanders movement. That’s what it’s all about.”
Harris concluded the forum by saying he favors term limits, but that it’s an honor to serve the First District. “I’m going to defend the agriculture and tourism industries on the Shore” and for the economy to be “strong and growing.” He added that everyone wants to save the Bay, but they want to have a say in how it’s done.”