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.
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.”