By Len Lazarick
The only TV debate between the two major party candidates for U.S. Senate Wednesday night was what campaign debates used to be in the good old days before 2015.
In an hour of crisp questioning, Republican Kathy Szeliga, minority whip of the House of Delegates from Baltimore County, and Democrat Chris Van Hollen, a seven-term congressman from Montgomery County, discussed a dozen different issues without rancor, interruptions or personal insults.
There was also a bit of pre-debate drama when Dr. Margaret Flowers, the Green Party candidate for Senate on the ballot, took the stage to protest her exclusion from the debate. She was escorted out of the hall security.
To watch the full debate on the Baltimore Sun website, click here.
Szeliga and Van Hollen had met on the same venue only a few times, but both are experienced legislative debaters. Van Hollen also showed a strong command of Szeliga’s record of six years in the legislature, pointing to specific votes she had taken which the delegate sometimes didn’t have an opportunity to explain or didn’t try to rebut.
Tied to Trump
Van Hollen also repeatedly tied Szeliga to Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump, while he touted his strong support for Hillary Clinton, even though he disagreed with her on some issues, such as her vote for the Iraq war.
Szeliga had wanted more broadcast debates with Van Hollen, but he didn’t agree. Van Hollen has more campaign money and is better known across Maryland than she is.
Szeliga repeatedly characterized Van Hollen as a career politician, with 14 years in the House of Representatives, and service as a state delegate and senator before that.
Here are some responses on specific questions asked by Vic Carter of WJZ, Ann Cotten of the University of Baltimore, where the debate was held, and Andy Green, editorial page editor of the Baltimore Sun
CLINTON, TRUMP: Asked about any misgivings about the presidential nominees, Szeliga said that she had criticized both Trump and Clinton, but Van Hollen “has not called out Hillary.” Van Hollen said Clinton was one of the most prepared and qualified candidates for president, and Trump was one of the least qualified.
“When she makes mistakes, she has apologized,” Van Hollen said. Trump “doesn’t know how to apologize.”
Szeliga said she supported Trump’s First Amendment rights.
AFFORDABLE CARE ACT: Van Hollen: “It would be a mistake to throw out the Affordable Care Act…. We do need to reduce premiums and copays” and provide a “public option,” in which the government provides health insurance directly.
Szeliga: “The Affordable Care Act has turned out to be anything but affordable.” Some features should be kept, but “I agree with Bill Clinton. He said that this is crazy.” She favors a more free-market approach and tort reform.
TRADE: Both candidates oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, but favor free and fair trade.
COLLEGE AFFORDABILITY: Szeliga advocates putting training for trades such as plumbers and electricians back into high schools, rather than at community colleges. Van Hollen said some progress has been made on students loans, but accused Szeliga of voting against the College Affordability Act in the legislature this year. “I think we have an education system that’s broken,” Szeliga said, without explaining her vote. (Gov. Hogan allowed the bill to become law without his signature, but Republican legislators opposed it because it included mandated spending.)
TROOPS IN SYRIA: Both candidates oppose the use of U.S. troops in Syria. Van Hollen again noted that he had voted against the war in Iraq. Szeliga said, “Our country is not safer today that it was seven years ago.”
MARIJUANA: In responding to a question about opioid abuse and heroin deaths, both candidates emphasized drug treatment over incarceration. Van Hollen, however, noted that Szeliga voted against the bill to decriminalize marijuana. She replied that she didn’t want people smoking joints on the boardwalk in Ocean City.
CLIMATE CHANGE: Van Hollen said climate change was a global problem as well as a local problem. Szeliga charged that the congressman favored a climate change tax, like the rain tax, which was unfair to Marylanders, since much of the Chesapeake Bay pollution comes from Pennsylvania. Van Hollen said, “The majority of [House] Republicans wanted to let Pennsylvania off the hook.”
HACKING: “Van Hollen has been there 14 years and he hasn’t done anything” about federal cyber security, such as the hacking of federal employee data, said Szeliga, noting that her campaign website got an A for security. Van Hollen pointed to the presence of the Cyber Command at Fort Meade, and a large federal grant for cyber security training at Maryland community colleges.
ALL MALE DELEGATION: If Szeliga loses this race, it would be the first time in 44 years that Maryland has not had a woman as part of the congressional delegation. “It would be a sad day for Maryland,” Szeliga said. Van Hollen said he would be a fighter like U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, whose seat the candidates hope to fill. He mentioned Mikulski several times and her endorsement of him, as well as his support for Clinton, who would be the first woman president.
NATIONAL DEBT: Szeliga decried the $19 trillion national debt, saying that represents $59,000 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. “I think Washington needs a 12-step program” so that it can “admit it has a problem.”
Van Hollen said, “we must address the national debt,” and “eliminate the junk in the tax code” and other measures. He said Donald Trump’s tax plan would increase the debt. “I don’t support [Trump’s] tax plan,” Szeliga said.
GRIDLOCK: Asked what they would do about congressional gridlock, Van Hollen said he would work across the aisle. “I have done it,” he said, citing legislation such as the Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced No Child Left Behind. Szeliga talked about the need to fix the Veterans Affairs “debacle.” “It is not a Democrat issue, it is not a Republican issue,” she said.
GUN CONTROL: “We all know there is a serious problem in Baltimore” with guns, Szeliga said. “Prosecutors and judges are not enforcing the laws on the books. … My opponent demagogues this issue.”
Van Hollen said Szeliga voted against the Firearms Control Act of 2013 and she is the only one “raising money on this issue.”
After she was escorted out, Margaret Flowers issued a statement:
“My exclusion means the voters will not know what I stand for and how I compare to the other candidates. While I have obvious differences with Republican views, I also have significant differences with Van Hollen. I am one of only 12 congressional candidates in the nation certified as a clean money candidate while Van Hollen has raised millions of dollars from big business lobbyists on K Street including from the fracking industry, weapons makers and big banks.
“I call for an Apollo Project to confront climate change and remake our economy into a clean energy economy that would create millions of new jobs while shrinking pollution of our air and water, while Van Hollen relies on the market to fix the problem that they have created.
“On healthcare, I call for an improved Medicare-for-all that would cover every person in the United States with comprehensive coverage, no premiums or out-of-pocket costs. Van Hollen calls for minimal reforms despite a 25% increase in premiums.
“On militarism and foreign conflict, I call for remaking U.S. foreign policy so it favors diplomacy over war and is consistent with international law and human rights, while Van Hollen supports escalation in Syria and Iraq and continued support for Israeli apartheid.”