In a substantive and spirited hour, incumbent Republican Congressman Lee Terry met with Democratic challenger John Ewing in Omaha Monday night. It was the first of two debates for Nebraska’s Second Congressional District.
The candidates sparred on taxes, spending, jobs and foreign policy and drew distinct differences between them. After the debate kicked off with opening statements, moderator Mike Reilly, the executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald, challenged the candidates to defend their records in public office, and then he gave each opponent a chance to rebut.
Photo by Robyn Wisch
Rep. Lee Terry talks with reporters following the Second Congressional District debate in Omaha Monday night.
Congressman Terry who is running for his eighth term in the U.S. House of Representatives touted his record of voting to reduce spending, his work to achieve energy independence and his work to bring a new veterans’ cemetery and hospital to Omaha. Ewing then rebutted: “I think the thing that voters have to understand is Lee Terry will talk about things here in Omaha, Nebraska and then do something different in Washington, D.C.”
“It’s the tale of two Lees,” Ewing continued. “What he talks about is his 157 votes over three years to cut debt. What he doesn’t talk about is his over 60 votes to add $10 trillion to our national debt with two unfunded wars, two unfunded tax cuts and the big bank bailout. Lee Terry has not been a fiscal conservative.”
For his part, Ewing recalled his career as deputy chief for the Omaha Police Department, a lieutenant in the Special Victims Unit and his current role as Douglas County Treasurer. He said he’s worked to pass legislation to protect citizens of Nebraska and has reduced spending in his office as treasurer. To that, Terry rebutted: “Every year but one the office spent more,” Terry said. “You can’t say when you’re the captain of that ship, John, that you saved money when you actually spent more money every year.”
“But I do want to say one thing,” Terry added, “if the standard for accepting credit for something is speaking at a public hearing, then I’ve passed maybe a thousand bills.”
The most heated moments of the debate came early on. The two sparred over campaign ads that Terry retracted this week due to what he said were “technical” inaccuracies. One ad that charged Ewing with increasing spending in his office of treasurer turned out to be using faulty numbers. Another that touted Terry’s record on energy legislation used misdirected praise from the Union for Concerned Scientists which then called the ad “fiction.” Terry said he didn’t “fact-check the fact-checkers” and regretted the mistake, but he stood by the message of both ads.
On a central issue of this year’s election, the candidates were asked what they thought Congress should be doing to create more jobs. Ewing highlighted a central message of his campaign: Congress has failed to pass a jobs bill and create an environment of certainty. “Certainly not voting for a solution to the debt ceiling and having sequestration, and having all of the confusion associated with that, having the fiscal cliff staring us in the face,” Ewing said. “I, like many Americans, do not believe this Congress has the courage, I don’t believe Mr. Terry has the courage, to address all of those issues to create that certainty that we need for business to be able to be successful. We’ve got to work together.”
Terry responded saying the policies Ewing supports to create jobs would not be effective. “Mr. Ewing supports the failed stimulus program and even wants another one on top of that,” Terry said. "Well, if it’s already failed once, why would it work a second time?”
“He wants to raise taxes that could cost 700,000 jobs and decrease the size of our economy by 1.3 percent,” he added, referring to Ewing’s support of the so-called “Buffett Rule.” That’s the rule named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett that would raise the tax rate on the wealthiest Americans. Terry said he does not support what he understands the rule to be. “The Buffett Rule seems to treat capital gains and dividends as earned income,” Terry said. “I think all earned income should be treated the same and taxed at whatever rates we set for earned income.”
“The trouble when you tax capital gains and dividends is you’re taxing it twice, it’s a double tax, and secondly, we want investment in capital because that creates jobs,” Terry continued. “And in a time in our economy when we need to focus on jobs, raising taxes on capital and dividends would be devastating.”
Photo by Robyn Wisch
John Ewing with his wife following the Second Congressional District debate in Omaha Monday night.
Ewing said he does support the rule and said the system must be fixed to be fairer on working people. “I believe we’ve got to look at the top rate,” Ewing said. “If you look at the top rate that we’re arguing over today is talking about going from 35 percent to 39.6 percent.”
We have held our country hostage, we’ve held the middle class and lower income taxpayers hostage, over 4.6 percent,” Ewing added. “I don’t think that’s what the American people want.”
On spending, both candidates identified defense as a potential target for cuts through “modernization.” The two also agreed on a foreign policy issue. Both said they would support “boots on the ground” in Iran to stop that country from attaining a nuclear weapon. On Afghanistan, Terry said he would support keeping American soldiers in the country if security gains there were not able to be held. Ewing said he supports the 2014 timeline for withdrawal, arguing America can no longer afford to be the “policemen of the world.”
In the final minutes of the debate, the candidates were asked a few more personal questions. Each was asked which historical figure they would choose to “pick their brain.” Terry said Abraham Lincoln, who he called “fascinating” and Ewing said Martin Luther King Jr., who he said was a person who could bring people together.
The two were also asked to name a regret from their time in public office. Terry said he regretted not providing more oversight of his staff. “We’ve made mistakes in our offices, not just on the votes, but on things that we’ve put out that have been technically wrong, and I needed to be more vigilant in my oversight.” Terry added he also regrets how the TARP bill was handled, and said he would do that differently if he could.
Ewing said he regretted leaving his position as lieutenant in the Special Victims Unit to accept a promotion to deputy chief. Ewing served for 17 months in the position, and said leaving was his biggest regret in public service. “Because I had looked in the eyes of so many women and children and elders, it was very difficult to leave,” he said. “And I still think about that because at the end of the day, that’s who I am, a guy who cares about people, a guy who wants to make sure that members of our community are safe.”
The two candidates will meet for a second debate Thursday at noon at the Omaha Press Club.