(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008.)
More than 200 people packed a college lounge Monday to watch U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, and Democratic challenger Dave Kurkowski face off in their lone one-on-one congressional debate.
LoBiondo and Kurkowski, a Cape May city councilman, spent the night at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey attacking and counterattacking each other on issues.
LoBiondo, a 14-year incumbent who grew up in Rosenhayn and now lives in Ventnor, sought to stress his local ties and paint Kurkowski, who moved to the district within the past decade, as an outsider. On one occasion, he recalled a decade-old issue and then quipped to Kurkowski, “I don’t think you were living here then.”
“Many of you know I’ve lived my whole life in South Jersey,” LoBiondo said. “This is where I grew up. This is where my roots are.”
The debate marked the first time LoBiondo has taken a sharp offensive against Kurkowski, who has been critical of LoBiondo’s record.
Kurkowski pressed his critiques of LoBiondo’s 14 years in Congress throughout the debate, which was co-sponsored by the college and The Press of Atlantic City.
He called LoBiondo’s vote against the recent$700 billion financial plan irresponsible.
Kurkowski said he would have supported it, despite calling it an imperfect solution that wrongly included earmarks and too few taxpayer protections. He compared LoBiondo’s support for creating a bipartisan commission to examine the causes of the credit market’s meltdown to studying a fire rather than extinguishing it.
“We were at the precipice of a depression,” Kurkowski said.
For LoBiondo, the apparent lack of taxpayer protections was a deal-breaker.
“Yeah, we did have a financial crisis, but when the truck rolls up, it doesn’t empty its water on the street,” LoBiondo said. “But that’s what we did with this bailout.”
Kurkowski also criticized LoBiondo’s vote against a similar but smaller federal bailout for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two corporations that held most of the nation’s mortgages through the secondary mortgage market. LoBiondo called it a “bailout for loan sharks and fat cats”.
The two also differed on other issues.
Kurkowski supports Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s plan for a 16-month withdrawal of military troops from Iraq. LoBiondo opposes any preordained timetables.
LoBiondo opposes federal funding for abortion. Kurkowski does not.
LoBiondo supports allowing labor unions to form if a majority of employees in a bargaining unit sign authorization cards, without the need for an election. His position went over well with the more than 100 union members, many of them carpenters, who attended the debate. Kurkowski did not take a position on that idea, but said he supports keeping secret ballots for union authorization votes.
Kurkowski supports mandatory minimum rest periods for military personnel between deployments into war zones, citing the rising rate of suicides and mental illness among soldiers. LoBiondo voted against the rest periods, saying he didn’t want to deprive military commanders of flexibility.
LoBiondo voted last month to allow oil drilling as close as 50 miles off shorelines, but only if states consent to drilling. He said he opposes drilling off New Jersey’s coast. Kurkowski said he opposes off-shore drilling anywhere, saying ecological problems don’t respect state lines and that wind, solar and other renewable sources would produce energy more quickly than oil drilling would.
Kurkowski also said he opposes earmarks, the process through which members of Congress secure funding for various projects in their district. LoBiondo prides himself on obtaining such funding and cited his efforts to gain funding for one Salem County town’s firetrucks.
“I’ve got a plan,” Kurkowski said, referring to his proposed federal stimulus for municipal renewable energy projects. “He’s giving you a firetruck.”
Such comments showed the personal tinge the campaign is beginning to take after weeks of Kurkowski’s critiques of LoBiondo. After Kurkowski pointed out a vote LoBiondo missed, LoBiondo’s mouth quivered as he said he missed it due to the death of his father-in-law.
“If that’s not good enough for you, I’m sorry I don’t meet your standards,” LoBiondo said.
Green Party candidate Jason Grover and Constitution Party candidate Peter Boyce both attended but were not allowed to debate.
“I’m not being allowed to debate because I’m a third party candidate,” Grover announced to the crowd before campus police escorted him out of the debate hall. Grover later returned and watched the debate quietly.
Stockton and The Press chose to include only the Democratic and Republican candidates
Press Editor Paul Merkoski said there had been few opportunities for voters to compare LoBiondo and Kurkowski side-by-side. He noted only about 200 voters are registered to parties other than Republican or Democrat, and election voting patterns show Republican and Democratic candidates will get more than 97 percent of votes cast in November’s congressional elections.
“What’s important for voters is more important than what’s important for candidates — particularly candidates who failed to mount serious, aggressive and conspicuous campaigns for federal office,” Merkoski said. “Reasonable people, we think, would agree that the interests of voters are best served by a debate that devotes attention — and limited time — to the major candidates.”
Grover and Boyce will get one last opportunity to join Kurkowski and LoBiondo on stage tonight in Cape May Court House in a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.