House candidates pull no punches in raucous second debate

(Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

(Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

Onstage before a partisan-packed standing-room-only crowd, Republican Congressman Chris Gibson and challenger Sean Eldridge traded some of the fiercest barbs yet in a race that has already seen allegations of shameless carpet-bagging and selling out to corporations. The debate, the second of four forums scheduled this month, was held Monday evening at Miller Middle School in Lake Katrine and sponsored by the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Both candidates took the opportunity to hammer their opponent’s perceived weaknesses. For Eldridge, a 28-year-old venture capitalist and newcomer to region, that meant highlighting votes to defund Planned Parenthood and sue President Barack Obama that he said belied Gibson’s image as a moderate consensus builder. Gibson meanwhile relentlessly attacked Eldridge as a hypocrite for criticizing Gibson’s acceptance of support from big oil and gas companies while holding stock in some of the same corporations.

The sparring on stage was matched, and at times overshadowed, by the action in the audience. Both sides worked to turn out energetic supporters for the event. Gibson’s Republican adherents gathered on the right side of the school auditorium while Eldridge partisans occupied the left. Both sides at times weighed in with cheers, boos and derisive laughter despite moderator and Chamber President Ward Todd’s pleas for calm. One Gibson critic repeatedly and loudly heckled the Congressman leading to a brief shouting match with fellow audience members and the appearance of a town of Ulster police officer discretely taking up a position in the back of the room.

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Who can get things done

Gibson, as he has done throughout the campaign, sought to show off his bipartisan credentials. He repeatedly invoked his membership in “No Labels,” a group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers dedicated to overcoming gridlock and his status as “the second most independent Republican in Congress.” He pointed to a farm bill, jobs training legislation and the first federal budget in five years as evidence of his bipartisan bonafides and took Eldridge to task for what he characterized as pledging lockstep support for progressive interest groups. Eldridge, he said, failed to grasp that in an era of divided government, compromise was the only alternative to gridlock.

“This is really the overarching question of this debate,” said Gibson. “Who has the temperament to bring people together and get things done?”

Eldridge countered by portraying Gibson as just another vote in the house Republican Caucus and linking him to unpopular votes to shut down the government in an effort to defund Obamacare.

“Look at the record of Republican compromise,” said Eldridge. “I think shutting down the government and nearly defaulting on our debt because they didn’t agree with the president on one issue — healthcare — I think that’s wrong, that’s not compromise I can believe in.”

 

Fracking and the Kochs

Some of the night’s most spirited exchanges revolved around environmental issues, campaign financing and the intersection of the two. Eldridge is married to Facebook founder Chris Hughes and the couple has a personal fortune estimated to be over $600 million. He has made campaign finance reform a key plank in his race and eschewed corporate contributions. For funding he has relied on a mix of his own wealth and contributions from individual donors.

In Monday’s debate, he repeatedly denounced the influence of corporate money in politics and specifically in Gibson’s campaign. He assailed Gibson for signing onto the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity climate change pledge. The pledge binds signers to vote against any climate-change legislation that will have the net effect of raising taxes.

In Eldridge’s parlance, the pledge means Gibson has promised to “do nothing” on climate change. In Gibson’s, it simply means that he opposes energy taxes because they would hurt working families and small businesses. But Eldridge, who sat on the Board of Directors of Scenic Hudson before launching his campaign, drew a link between Gibson’s acceptance of donations from oil and gas companies and his stance on a range of environmental issues including hydrofracking and subsidies for big oil and gas companies.

“Why are they supporting him?” said Eldridge. “They’re supporting him because he stands up for them in Congress.”

Gibson countered with repeated attacks, beginning in his opening statement and running the course of the debate, on Eldridge’s personal financial holdings as inconsistent with his stated beliefs. Gibson said that Eldridge had profited from investments in big energy companies. “If you feel that strongly about it, you should divest,” said Gibson. “Its not impressive when you take this stand and then don’t lead by example.”

Eldridge responded that his investments were managed by a third party and, if elected, he would put his holdings in a blind trust to guard against conflicts of interest.

Gibson also accused Eldridge of distorting his stance on hydrofracking. Gibson said his support for the gas drilling technique is contingent on gas companies complying with the federal clean water act, a strong regulatory framework based on rigorous science and the ability of individual communities to ban the process.

Eldridge said that he would oppose fracking in New York State. He said the risks were too great and the rewards short term. He also invoked U.S Rep. Maurice Hinchey who represented Ulster County for 20 years before retiring in 2012, contrasting his record on environmental issues with Gibson’s. Hinchey, he said, had always been a strong advocate for the environment while Gibson tried to burnish his environmental record with a 33 percent rating from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“That means that for every three votes on environmental issues, he voted for the environment once,” Eldridge said. “That’s not a record to be proud of.”

 

Minimum wage

The pair also sparred over the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour. Eldridge said that he supports raising it to $10.10. Gibson said that large an increase was not feasible with the current climate in Washington. Instead, he proposed an increase to $9 as “politically do-able.”

 

Islamic State

On confronting the threat from ISIS, Eldridge said that it was clear that Americans did not want another “boots on the ground war” in the region. But he said he would support limited military action in both Iraq and Syria in the context of an international effort with full participation from regional allies. Gibson, a retired Army Colonel who served four combat tours in Iraq, said he opposed any military participation in the conflict. Gibson said that our potential allies in the fight lacked the military competence and political reliability for meaningful coordinated action. Instead, Gibson said, the U.S. should shore up Iraqi and Kurdish forces while pushing Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government to make political concessions that will deprive ISIS of recruits and support.

 

Future debates

Monday’s meeting was the second of four planned debates in the Congressional race and the only one to feature a large live audience. The pair are set to meet again on Oct. 16 at WMHT studios in Schenectady. The final debate will take place at Time Warner Cable studios in Albany on Oct. 22.