LoBiondo challenger a Dem in name only

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2008.)

David Kurkowski doesn’t take all his ideas from the Democratic Party’s playbook.

After all, the Democratic Cape May city councilman may not owe the national party much, considering he’s financing his challenge to U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, with little national help. Since joining the race this spring, Kurkowski spent most of his campaign’s first three months fundraising. So he feels little allegiance to Democratic talking points.

“Frankly, I’m running this campaign as an independent candidate,” Kurkowski said.

The result is a relatively unknown major party candidate attempting to make headway with an amalgam of ideas that alternately parallel and diverge from common Democratic positions.

Like other Democrats, he also thinks the election’s major issues are the economy and energy independence and the “green-collar” jobs he thinks are necessary to jumpstart both. But when he talks about renewable fuels, he proposes a government-centered way of jumpstarting a transition away from petroleum-based fuels.

“I think we need a Marshall Plan for local governments,” Kurkowski said, referring to the massive post-World War II reconstruction efforts in Europe and Asia.

As an example, Cape May pays about $250,000 annually for energy costs at its desalination plant, according to Kurkowski. A wind turbine would cost about $750,000 up front. Kurkowski says it would pay for itself in five years.

Kurkowski says the federal government should offer grants covering those up-front investments to help local governments not only finance projects but begin a dramatic transition toward a renewable fuel-based economy. The result could be lower local taxes long-term, due to lower energy costs, he says.

He opposes the concept of charter schools, having been a former public school teacher who doesn’t like to see public school funding siphoned off to independent schools with what he says are mixed track records.

He advocates public financing of all federal political campaigns, having learned firsthand what he says are drawbacks in the current system of fundraising. He thinks the public deserves better than candidates forced to work the phones to find enough money to run.

By contrast, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., declined optional public financing for his campaign so he could avoid spending limits.

Kurkowski also opposes earmarks, the practice by members of Congress of securing funding for projects in their districts by inserting language into larger, unrelated bills. He finds them fiscally irresponsible, a position that puts him more in line with U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., than Obama.

“Earmarks are great when they’re coming to your district,” Kurkowski said. “(But) I’m not in favor of earmarks.”

Kurkowski in some ways isn’t all that different from LoBiondo. In nearly 14 years in the House of Representatives, LoBiondo often has been a reliable vote for Republicans on tax and military issues, but he too has diverted from his party plenty of times.

It’s when Kurkowski criticizes LoBiondo that the Democrat sounds more like other Democrats, who say LoBiondo has been an ineffective member of Congress who followed President Bush on key economic and military votes that have hurt the country.

“On all the spending bills, he’s voted 100 percent with President Bush,” Kurkowski said.

Kurkowski calls the Iraq War a mistake and the USA Patriot Act, which gave federal authorities broad new investigative powers, “an erosion of the Bill of Rights.”

LoBiondo disagrees. He says the U.S. should heed the guidance of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. Commander in Iraq, before committing to an arbitrary withdrawal, citing recent military successes in Iraq. He also said the Patriot Act is a valuable tool for preventing terrorism.

“If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about,” LoBiondo said. “This is not about spying on (innocent) Americans, as some would like to have you believe.”

LoBiondo also defends his votes on President Bush’s tax cuts, most notably his votes in favor of tax credits for children, adoption, college tuition and elimination of the estate tax. He also has pushed for a revision of the alternative minimum tax, a 1960s-era tax designed to ensure high-income taxpayers don’t escape tax liability due to large deductions. The tax hits New Jersey residents at a higher rate than any state in the country, affecting people with incomes as low as $37,750. LoBiondo calls it outdated because it wasn’t indexed to inflation.

Kurkowski criticized LoBiondo’s opposition to cutting tax credits for oil companies in a 2006 bill, but LoBiondo noted that was part of a much larger bill that included various other issues. LoBiondo said he voted for four bills in the past year and a half calling for ending those tax credits and voted in 2003 and 2005 against Republican-backed energy bills that provided $13 billion to oil companies.

The two have yet to debate the issues in person. The Press of Atlantic City and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey have proposed sponsoring a debate between the two candidates.