by Mark Pazniokas
U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District, repeatedly attacked Democratic challenger Jim Himes, in the first debate of their nationally watched race today for what he described as "outrageous" and "scurrilous" depictions of his 21-year career in Congress.
Near the conclusion of their 90-minute confrontation, Shays complained of a Himes brochure that accuses him of inadequately supporting veterans.
"He has a picture of a soldier with a wound, and he says, you know, I'm not there for him," Shays said. "I went to bed last night at about 1 o'clock. I woke up at 4 thinking about it. I couldn't get it off my mind,"
Himes, a former Goldman Sachs vice president who now works for a non-profit housing organization, stood by his campaign advertisements and countered that it was Shays who was delivering the morning's only personal attacks.
"I have been critical of the stances Chris Shays has taken. And, yes, my advertisements are as well," Himes said. "You did not hear me this morning criticize his motives or his character. You didn't hear me use words anything like the words he's used with me this morning -- scurrilous, dishonest and outrageous."
Himes said all his campaign ads and brochures are based on specific votes and statements by Shays.
"I think it's very important as we go into this series of debates to keep this fact-focused," Himes said.
Shays and Himes, who are fighting for the only U.S. House seat held by a Republican in New England, have seven scheduled debates in their Fairfield County district, including a second forum today in Norwalk.
The focus of the first debate was health-care policy, but the candidates were free to confront each other. They met at Housatonic Community College in downtown Bridgeport at a forum sponsored by The Connecticut Post and business and medical groups.
With the crisis on Wall Street, which lead to a $700 billion rescue bill that both candidates support, and widespread economic fears, the political environment for Republican incumbents has worsened in recent weeks, according to polls.
"My perception is in the last four weeks since this whole economic slide began, there is just a universal sense of anxiety and anger out there," Himes said after the debate. "People are worried about their jobs. They don't understand how we got to this place economically." Shays said that controversy and unrest always are bad for an incumbent.
"I'm prepared on election night to say the same thing" win or lose, he said. "Thank you for 21 great years of being able to represent you. If I was fired, I'd say I think you lost a good member of Congress. I think you lost a valuable and unique kind of member, who isn't partisan."
The candidates disagreed on basic aspects on health policy, with Shays standing by his refusal to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, a policy that Himes said is driving up health costs. Himes said health care consumed 5 percent of gross domestic economic activity 45 years year ago during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, but it has reached 25 percent and threatens to climb.
"That's unsustainable," he said.
A Republican-controlled Congress, in expanding drug coverage for the elderly under Medicare, forbid the federal government to negotiate prices, an ability that the Veterans Administration has used to cut costs for veterans.
Shays said the federal government and Medicare are so big that negotiated prices are tantamount to government-controlled prices, a curb that will discourage research by drug companies.
"I don't believe in price controls. I'm willing to lose the election over that," Shays said.
Himes said that the federal government must be freed to negotiate better deals, which he said was an essential part of a free market. "This has nothing to do with price controls," Himes said.
They also disagree over the medical malpractice reform, with Shays strongly favoring using arbitration or special health courts to evaluate malpractice claims, driving down the costs of the awards.
Himes said he would consider the special courts, but he expressed skepticism about removing the threat of legal action from bad doctors. He said 5 percent of doctors are responsible for 56 percent of malpractice claims.
Malpractice litigation is an issue of patient protection, not just cost, Himes said.
Off topic, Shays complained that Himes too closely links him to President Bush and congressional Republicans. He pointed to voting ratings that place him toward the middle of the political spectrum and often independent of the unpopular Bush.
"Yet my opponent wants you to think I was his clone," Shays said.
He referred the audience to specific pages of an 88-page booklet distributed by his staff at the door, "A Record of Independent, Bipartisan and Effective Leadership."
But Himes said Shays, who should be saluted for a long career in public service, was too frequently wrong on major issues, most notably his strong support for the invasion of Iraq.
Shays has said the decision was wrong, since it was based on a false belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
The candidates disagreed on President Bush's tax cuts, which will expire if not extended by Congress. Shays supports the extension, calling Hime's opposition to some elements a call for a tax increase.
Himes said he would oppose any tax increase in a recession, but that the Bush cuts supported by Shays were "tax deferrals," not true cuts.
"That is double-speak," Shays said.
Himes replied that Bush and Shays cannot take credit for a tax cut, since spending increased, pushing off the eventual tax bill to the next generation.
"They didn't cut taxes. They put spending on a credit card," Himes said.
He was interrupted by applause from the rear of the room.
It came from college students.