Kurkowski challenges LoBiondo’s long record

(Published by The Press of Atlantic City on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2008.)


Democratic congressional challenger David Kurkowski painted U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo on Friday as a failed congressman on the wrong side of the issues.

In his first news conference of the campaign, Kurkowski repeatedly criticized his incumbent opponent as an ineffective veteran congressman who lacks influence in the House of Representatives and voted to enable President Bush’s agendas.

“I made the decision to run for Congress,” Kurkowski said, “because I felt so strongly that our country is on the wrong track, and that our representative — my opponent — was a discredit to our people, an enabler of the disastrous policies that have sunk this great nation into the pits of devastating recession and war without end. We deserve better than this. My opponent is an ineffective, weak surrogate for the status quo.”

Kurkowski, a Cape May City councilman, said that, if elected, he would pursue legislation increasing grants to municipalities that invest in renewable energy and tax incentives for companies moving in that direction. He criticized LoBiondo, R-2nd, for “flip-flopping” this week by voting in favor of offshore oil drilling. LoBiondo voted for a Democrat-backed bill that allows drilling 50 miles from coastlines but effectively grants states veto power over it drilling in their waters.

Kurkowski criticized LoBiondo on a number of specific House votes on veterans’ health care, saying he voted against funding veterans’ health care and ensuring adequate rest and recuperation time between deployments for soldiers.

LoBiondo refuted Kurkowski.

“His false claims that I have not supported South Jersey veterans does not match my record,” LoBiondo said. “From securing $25 million to rebuild the Veterans’ Memorial Home in Vineland to expanding community-based health care services at the veteran clinics in Cape May, Vineland and Ventnor, I have worked tirelessly on behalf of our local veterans.”

Kurkowski cited LoBiondo’s 2007 vote against a $1.7 billion bill, HR 1591, for veterans’ health care and maintenance at veterans’ hospitals such as Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, which has been cited for its poor conditions.

LoBiondo voted against that Democrat-supported bill because it also called for an immediate military withdrawal from Iraq, according to Jason Galanes, a LoBiondo spokesman .

Kurkowski also cited LoBiondo’s 2007 vote against HR 3159, which mandated minimum rest times for soldiers between deployments.

LoBiondo voted against it because he felt it took flexibility away from military commanders in Iraq, Galanes said.

The Democrat also criticized LoBiondo for voting against a 2005 amendment to a bill providing for $53 million in veterans’ health care funding. The vote failed by one.

But the amendment would have cut $169 million in military spending, which could have jeopardized funding for F-16 jets due for the 177th Fighter Wing in Egg Harbor Township, so LoBiondo voted against it, Galanes said. Kurkowski said he would have voted for it, and Jonathan Riehl, a campaign spokesman, criticized the use of earmarks to bolster local projects with bloated spending.

The Cape May Democrat’s wide-ranging speech was the first public campaign news conference either man has held. Kurkowski dubbed his campaign as the “first viable challenge in recent years” LoBiondo has faced. Since he first won election in 1994, LoBiondo has won more than 60 percent of the vote every time.

So far, LoBiondo’s campaign efforts have been low-key, contained to local events such as races, community dinners and meet-and-greets where the spotlight was not solely on him.

Kurkowski has sought to change the dynamic by attacking LoBiondo on his record. He has focused primarily on military, energy and economic issues, but he has also hammered the seven-term incumbent on more obscure issues such as the Coast Guard’s Deepwater project.

Deepwater is the 20-year, $24 billion modernization of the Coast Guard’s fleet, which is widely viewed as outdated. Coast Guard patrol boats were revamped, and helicopters such as those used at the Coast Guard’s Air Station Atlantic City underwent major engine improvements.

While chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing the Coast Guard, LoBiondo routinely championed the project and sought more funding at a quicker pace. The Coast Guard had farmed the project out to two defense contractors, Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin, a LoBiondo campaign contributor.

The Coast Guard ran into significant problems when upgrades to Coast Guard cutters resulted in damaging the vessels’ seaworthiness. Some ships suffered cracks in hulls their first times out in choppy waters, while new radios failed when making contact with water. The Coast Guard scrapped part of the program in March 2007 and reclaimed direct management of Deepwater in April 2007.

Kurkowski called Deepwater “a defense contracting debacle.”

His Riehl criticized LoBiondo for not co-sponsoring a Deepwater reform bill.

LoBiondo chose not to because the bill called for the Coast Guard to take over management of Deepwater but did not include funding to hire new employees to handle the additional work, Galanes said. LoBiondo wrote and inserted into the bill legislative language that included funding and eventually voted for the bill.