By David Hennessey
Speaking with the experience of a former Goldman Sachs executive, 4th Congressional District Democratic candidate Jim Himes chastised 21-year incumbent and Republican opponent Christopher Shays on his stances regarding the current economic crunch facing voters and the country at large. In a conference with the Brooks Community Newspapers editorial board on Friday, Himes accused Shays of not "fully understanding the economy," as well as showing improper leadership in regard to the war in Iraq and supporting tax increases that would slam middle-class families in 4th District towns.
At a later meeting, also with the editorial board, Shays, a self-described "purple" politician that has prided himself on reaching across party lines to accomplish the task at hand, fended off recent criticism from Himes and instead focused on his 21-year history of bipartisan legislation in Congress. Only three and a half weeks to an historic vote in a nation that has become increasingly disenchanted with the current Republican administration, Shays cited the faults of President George W. Bush and spoke out pointedly about his vision for the country if re-elected. Shays echoed in his meeting with the editorial board a recent mailer to 4th District voters, saying that he exemplifies both the hope of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and the "straight talk" of U.S. Sen. John McCain.
Quickly becoming one of the most closely contested and hottest congressional races in the country, Himes hopes to unseat Shays - the last remaining Republican in the House of Representatives from New England - come Nov. 4.
Here's a quick look into how both candidates stack up on the issues:
Q: Would you agree the economy is the number one issue facing Americans and where do you think we're headed from here?
Jim Himes: "The question of the day. I do agree. Frankly, a big reason that I decided to run for Congress was that I sensed our economic policy was driving us in the wrong direction We got past the bailout plan, but it doesn't seem to have calmed the market, and I'm a little unclear if it will achieve what it was designed to do. We are where we are today because of a massive failure of oversight and regulation in an immensely risky industry. I think the bill should have had a commitment the very next day to reconstruct oversight structure. There's very little question we're headed into a recession. I also think we're going to have to do another stimulus plan, but something that's stimulative around infrastructure."
Q: Going into Congress, how would you ease the burden on middle-class citizens?
Himes: "We need to cut taxes on the middle-class to put more money into the hands of the middle class. A couple of months ago I proposed a specific set of middle class tax cuts targeted at households making less than $250,000 a year Those tax cuts would put money into people's pockets, which would be good for families and for the economy I think the middle class has been left behind by a lot of the tax policies put into place over the past eight years I'm not in principle opposed to raising taxes for those households making over $250,000, but going into a recession I don't think at that moment you talk about raising taxes for anyone."
Q: How would you go about universal health care and what, specifically, would your program entail?
Himes: "We've got 47 million people without health insurance. The government needs to create a public insurance pool that competes with private insurance companies on a level playing field We also need to look seriously at ways to take costs out of the system. I think Chris Shays' health care proposal leaves out the critical aspect of a public pool that competes with the private pool." Q: What do you see as a responsible and timely exit strategy for Iraq?
Himes: "I believe we should start withdrawing our troops right now. I believe that for two reasons. We can't afford what we are doing there now in terms of lives - 4,200 young Americans have lost their lives. We also can't afford it in terms of money at 10 billion dollars a month, and we can't afford it in terms of what we need to do in Afghanistan."
Q: If elected Nov. 4 , what specifically would you do to change No Child Left Behind and how can it be better funded?
Himes: "I completely agree with the underlying idea of No Child Left Behind. If the system [education] is that important, you hold it accountable. Of course, it was only partly funded, which has put a huge burden on our towns. The first thing we need to do, if the federal government is going to put in place mandates on our towns and on our state, is that they provide the resources to do it The issue is not just funding, it's also that the law needs to be reformed to be a smarter system The whole thing needs to be recrafted to be more thoughtful about how it evaluates schools."
Q: Is the economy the No. 1 issue for Americans and where is this country headed economically?
Shays: "I think these are very difficult times and we're headed into a deep recession. It's more than just a housing bubble, it's a finance bubble Our job is to do the best we can to make sure Wall Street doesn't bring down Main Street We don't want to see people suffer because of what happened on Wall Street The good news is that there's no hope of getting out of this recession unless the fundamentals of our economy are strong, and they are. We have a strong industrial base, a strong agricultural base; we have the best educated and trained work force in the world. We have the best technology and we have the most innovative society. These are fundamentals that are going to get us out of this mess."
Q: What kind of tax changes would you support for the middle class?
Shays: "My opponent opposes the Bush tax cuts, which I voted for They're going to expire in 2011 The Bush tax cuts were bringing the capital gains rate down 15 percent, the dividends down 15 percent we reduced every marginal rate..That's what the tax cuts did. [Himes] wants to raise every one of those taxes. That's what he wants to do The estate tax, I wouldn't totally eliminate it. The first five million would be tax exempt. From five to 25 million would be the capital gain. From 25 up you'd pay a 30 percent rate."
Q: Can you speak to the issue of health care?
Shays: "Barack Obama says Americans need to have the same health care that members of Congress have I really love the [the American Health Benefits Program Act], (which Shays edited and supported alongside Democratic Congressman James Langevin of Rhode Island, as a model to provide all Americans with health insurance) We think about 200 million would be in the pool. It would be universal. It would not reduce benefits for people who have them It would also have a strong preventative portion because a lot of costs are higher because people wait It would share responsibility with the individual the employer would pay a tax, the government would pay for those who don't have as much income, and the hospitals would contribute a little because right now they have people who don't pay their bills, so they would benefit because their bills would be paid."
Q: How do you see the situation in Iraq going forward from this point?
Shays: "I set a timeline for our troops I always have made clear that it was a timeline that told the Iraqis that we wouldn't leave prematurely and we wouldn't stay too long. Isn't it interesting that the timeline I support gets us out of Iraq before [Barack Obama's timeline]. Barack Obama says 16 months after he's president. I want most of our troops out by the end of 2009 I think we can leave only about 50,000 troops and get that down by the end of next year. [Obama] thinks by the middle of 2010, and McCain says no limit. I disagree with him. I also disagree with both of them on Afghanistan; I don't think we should send more troops."
Q: What is your position on No Child Left Behind legislation?
Shays: "I believe we need to repair No Child Left Behind If you test well you test only every other year If you have students who are challenged, you have a test that truly challenges them, but that's if they already didn't have some challenges to deal with; I wouldn't test someone in language the second year they came to the country I do believe in a competitive model, so the NEA does not support me."