Addressing healthcare, two wars, and taxes and spending Congressman Christopher Shays and his Democratic opponent Jim Himes served up some crackling exchanges Tuesday morning in their first debate in a seven-day stretch of forums.
Following opening remarks in which both candidates highlighted their background, Shays, the former Peace Corps worker and Himes, the Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar with an investment banking background, went after each other both cordially and forcefully in the newly opened Beacon Hall on the campus of Housatonic Community College attended by more than 100 members of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, sponsor of the debate.
Shays, characterizing his “rebellious spirit,” and criticizing Himes for distorting his record, was the aggressor from the start, questioning why Himes would want to defeat the only New England Republican in the House of Representatives that’s reached across party lines.
“I go where the truth takes me no matter the consequences,” said Shays who early on held up a copy of the Congessional Quarterly to evidence his independent-voting streak.
“I’m not a politician,” Himes told the audience, saying America is a vastly different place than the country of his childhood. He hit Shays for suggesting several weeks ago that the fundamentals of the economy are strong, and often attached Shays to the failed policies of the Bush administration.
The best exchange occurred on the subject of taxes and spending. Shays chided Himes for supporting the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, with a swipe at his credentialed schooling.
“When you let the tax cuts expire I don’t need to be a Rhodes Scholar to know that taxes go up,” Shays explained, citing a litany of taxes that will increase as a result.
“They’re tax deferrals,” Himes responded, suggesting tax increases will hit the wealthy, and not middle and lower income levels.
“You’d fit in, in Washington,” Shays responded, “because that’s double speak.”
Himes appeared off-guard at Shays’ remark, but regained himself. “Let’s keep the discussion honest,” Himes retorted. “Never have we cut taxes going into a war. Shays voted with Bush and Cheney” to cut taxes when spending went up “radically.”
The topic of the debate was healthcare, and both candidates agreed that government must take an active role to bring down costs and provide coverage.
“I agree with Barack,” said Shays. “Americans should have the same health care as federal employees.” Both candidates said that means tapping into a government-sponsored program to create larger insurance pools to provide medical choices and affordability. Shays empasized his efforts to increase community-based health clinics.
Himes also said streamlining lengthy medical forms would reduce healthcare costs. Shays said Connecticut is losing doctors because the legislature is taxing them out of the state. And both candidates, prompted by a question from panel member Michael Daly, manging editor of the Connecticut Post, said a key to improved healthtcare is economic development and job creation in Bridgeport. Shays told the audience that he pays $24,000 a year in property taxes on his home in Black Rock.
On the subject of the Iraq war, Himes noted that $10 billion is spent every month in Iraq while ignoring Afghanistan where the fighting should have been the focus from the start. Shays said his timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq is five months sooner than Barack Obama’s proposal.
Both candidates seemed to do what they needed to: Shays highlighting his experience and independent streak that registers results for the 17-town Fourth Congressional District while Himes framed himself as the fresh face with pragmatic solutions during traumatic financial times. Shays came across defensive in the early stages before gaining his footing. Himes appeared nervous at the outset but developed traction as issue discussion developed.
My take: no harm, no foul, but the two candidates have many more debates this week so a verbal gaffe is always possible.
The best line of the morning goes to debate moderator Chuck Firlotte, chief executive of Aquarion. When Shays paused mid-sentence to ask for water Firlotte replied: “I know a nice company that provides it.”
If you want to harass me on the radio this afternoon I’ll be a guest on David Smith’s show on WICC at 2 p.m.
Tonight at 7:30 Mayor Bill Finch and the Board of Police Commissioners are scheduled to meet in City Council chambers to discuss appointment of an acting police chief following Bryan Norwood’s resignation last week. Selection of a chief with a five-year term, from a national search, will take many months.