By Nick Hildebrand
Herald News Editor/Weekends
3RD CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT —
The three candidates vying for the Third District seat in Congress met Wednesday in Erie for the only debate of the campaign.
The hour-long session provided a forum for Democrat Missa Eaton and independent Steve Porter to share the same stage with incumbent Republican Mike Kelly, who is seeking a second term in Washington.
Moderator Kim Thomas of WJET TV 24 kicked it off by asking the candidates to identify the most pressing issue facing the district, which includes all of Mercer County and stretches from Erie to Butler County. All three agreed it was jobs and the economy, a theme that continued through several other questions.
Eaton, 49, of Sharon, said finding and keeping a job is the greatest challenge most residents face and the reason many people leave the area. To stem that tide, she said she’d be an advocate for regional entrepreneurs and small businesses and work to ensure that the region has a “ready workforce.”
Eaton talked about the need to keep the few remaining large employers, like GE, strong, and cited alternative energy production and looking to new technologies that can put the district on the leading edge of manufacturing.
“We bring manufacturing back to this region and we bring people back to this region,” Eaton said.
Kelly, 64, Butler, said there is “nothing ZIP code specific” about the problem, which he traced to uncertainty resulting from the “Obama economy” and a vacuum of leadership from the president. He said the key to a “robust economy” is reducing taxes and the regulatory burden on business.
Kelly said the focus on jobs of the future obscures the reality of the jobs that are here now, including those that tap into the “abundant resources” of the district: natural gas, tillable soil and potable water.
“Take advantage of everything our Creator has provided,” he said.
Porter, 69, of Waterford, said he saw the same problem, but had “different solutions.” They include getting employers out of the medical insurance business through a single-payer, government health care program, the creation of thousands of jobs in clean energy production, such as Great Lakes wind farms, that could be financed by the money corporations and industries use to “buy” lawmakers through campaign donations.
That led Porter to the central point of his longshot campaign. The issues aren’t the problems, he said, the problem is that the Democrats and Republicans are “owned” and the political system in Washington is an “orgy of greed and corruption.”
Kelly, a part of that system for two years now, didn’t respond to Porter’s assertion, which he made several times over the course of the debate, but Eaton did. “No one owns me,” she said.
The candidates fielded questions about health care, energy, poverty, and education, but the question that sparked some of their most passionate responses was about abortion and contraception.
Kelly made headlines this summer when he compared the day the Obamacare mandate that requires employer-provided insurance to cover contraceptives went into effect to Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11. He maintains that the provision is a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion because it forces some employers who are religiously opposed to contraception to pay for it.
Kelly reiterated that position and his opposition to abortion on Wednesday, citing his Roman Catholic faith and pulling a copy of the Constitution out of his jacket pocket.
Eaton, who previously said she’s opposed to abortion but thinks it should be legal and accessible, said she doesn’t understand how limiting access to contraception will make abortion any rarer. She took on Kelly’s stance that employers shouldn’t have to pay for something they’re morally opposed to, saying that health insurance is part of an employee’s compensation.
“My employer can’t tell me what to do with my compensation,” she said.
Porter staked out the pro-choice ground, saying abortion and contraception are protected by the same constitution that Kelly brandished. He cited the Ninth Amendment which says that enumeration of certain rights in the Constitution shouldn’t be construed to “deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
“How do you know reproductive rights are not one of those rights?” Porter said to Kelly.
Talk of energy, be it natural gas or alternatives to fossil fuels, ran throughout the debate. Kelly, who made a fortune in the natural gas industry, is a big advocate of exploiting fossil fuels and a big critic of “green” energy. He said western Pennsylvania’s place on top of the Marcellus and Utica shales means “we can control our own future.” He questioned why the government spends so much time looking at renewable energy when we should “look to what the Lord provides us” – enough fuel for “200 to 300 years.”
Porter said he was all for using fossil fuels if they’re clean and safe but said the same amount of money that’s invested in that work should go into alternative sources, like research on nuclear fusion.
“That is really God’s way of heating the universe, Mr. Kelly,” Porter said.
Eaton said she supports natural gas drilling if it’s done in the “right way.” She said she’s concerned about exemptions the industry has sought and secured from clean air and clean water regulations. If fracking is safe, then the drillers “shouldn’t be worried” about regulations, she said.
The candidates’ positions on Obamacare varied. Kelly, who has voted more than 30 times to repeal the law, says it puts government in between patients and doctors and will ultimately limit care. Eaton pointed to several flaws in the law, but says that if elected she would “go over and over it and make it better.”
Porter said Obamacare was designed to benefit insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry. He backs a single payer plan that was designed by doctors that would provide universal insurance at a cost of 5.5 percent of income.
Asked about education funding, Eaton and Porter both advocated more of it. Eaton said the big problem is “when we see education as an expense that we can cut and cut and cut … It’s an investment, not an expense.”
Porter said it was time to trash the property tax-based model of funding and the idea that there’s not enough money to pay for schools is “nonsense.”
The debate was videotaped for broadcast on public television at 8 p.m. today on WQLN,Erie, and 10 p.m. on WNEO, Alliance, Ohio. It will also air on WJET TV 24 over the weekend. Both of the PBS stations are available on local cable systems.