It wasn’t so much the issues that divided Jim Himes and Dan Debicella at their Sunday night debate. Instead, the two 4th District Congressional candidates took shots at each others’ voting history, campaigns and even integrity.
“Let’s mark 15 minutes as the first time Jim Himes has lied to you today,” said Debicella, in response to the claim that the League of Conservation Voters had rated his environmental record the worst of any state senator in Connecticut in past ten years.
“Our national energy policy should be the same as our national environmental policy, which is we need to get off of foreign oil,” said Debicella, a state senator and the Republican nominee. Instead, he would encourage government incentives for research into alternative energy, whether natural gas, fuel cells, solar.
“Dan is trying to wear the coat of Chris Shays,” said Democratic incumbent Himes, referring to his moderate Republican predecessor. “Shays was an environmental hero,” he said, and Debicella is the opposite end of the spectrum.
But Himes also supported government investment in solar and alternative energies as a method of job creation.
As the campaign has unfolded, Himes and Debicella have disagreed strongly on issues including health care and the stimulus. Himes defends the health care bill, though with reservations, while Debicella calls for its repeal. Debicella calls the stimulus, which Himes supported, ineffective and “pork-filled.”
But on Sunday night, the candidates actually agreed on a variety of issues.
Both candidates called for transparency in political advertising. Funding sources should be disclosed, they said.
“We are now seeing hundreds of millions being spent by shadowy groups,” said Himes, who said recent Supreme Court rulings on campaign finance were a step back for the country.
Debicella agreed. “We shouldn’t have anonymous ads attacking him or me or anyone else.”
But then it was back to the ring.
“Jim doesn’t need it, he does a great job of attacking me all on his own. He doesn’t need a third party coming in and doing it.” Debicella continued, saying Himes had received donations from both Wall Street and what he called “Big Labor.”
“Dan, if you’re going to climb into the mud pit, and we both agree that it’s a mud pit, don’t try to stand up and say you’re a little bit cleaner,” said Himes in response. “Is it true that you got thousands of dollars from Exxon Mobil?”
“Yes it is,” said Debicella.
“Thank you,” came the swift reply.
Though League of Women Voters moderator Kay Maxwell was strict with the “hold your applause” rule, cheers broke out on this and other occasions – typically after a direct attack.
The candidates generally agreed on abortion, each one supporting a woman’s right to choose.
“The decision should be made by the woman in question and not by white guys in suits on Capitol Hill,” said Himes, to another unsanctioned burst of applause.
“I don’t want government telling women what to do with their bodies, and I don’t want government telling faiths what they should do either,” said Debicella.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the U.S. policy towards gays serving in the military, was up next. It, too, was a non-issue.
“It is utterly inconsistent with what this country is,” said Himes.
“Fully agree. Anybody who wants to serve in our military; gay, straight, black, white man or woman, you are a hero, period,” said Debicella. “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is discriminatory and it should be removed.”
This wholehearted agreement, without caveat, was met with roaring applause and a friendly handshake between the two candidates. Even Maxwell was impressed.
“Equal applause on that one, I’ll let that slide,” she said.
And on the issue of Wikileaks, the candidates were again in complete agreement.
“This kind of leaking is absolutely abhorrent,” said Debicella. “Anything that puts our troops at risk should not be leaked to the general public. Wikileaks, which is now completely unaccountable, is now leaking this info,” he said.
“We live in an open society but that society has limits when you put people in danger,” he finished.
The response from Himes was short: “Ditto.”
The candidates also agreed on the basics of how to fix education and immigration. Both touted the example of charter schools and praised “Race to the Top,” the most recent attempt at public school reform which rewards achievement with funding.
Throughout the night, Himes agreed that government doesn’t always get it right, but pointed out ways in which it has spurred economic growth and helped stem the recession – from the development of the Internet to the recent finance regulation bill.
But Debicella disagreed. “The government can’t pick winners,” he said.
“The government is not good at predicting the future,” he continued, referring to investment in energy, technology and even job creation. This was a common refrain and a point of disagreement throughout the night.
“The difference between us,” said Debicella, “is that you think the government creates jobs, and I think private sector does.”
After otherwise unremarkable closing statements, a personal note:
“I want to break a couple of rules here, ” said Himes. “Tonight is Dan Debicella’s birthday and I’d like to ask for a round of applause for him.”
The audience cheered. Debicella turned 35 on Sunday.
“What a way to spend your birthday,” said Himes, shaking Debicella’s hand.