U.S. Rep. Bill Owens and Watertown businessman Matt Doheny squared off in their last debate before Election Day on Thursday night, a rousing event that featured heated exchanges and some surprisingly lighthearted moments.
The debate was held at Jefferson Community College and was moderated by Liz Benjamin and Bill Carey of YNN-TV, which along with Mountain Lake PBS televised the event across the North Country. Owens will be on the Democratic and Working Families party lines in the Nov. 6 election, while Doheny will be on the Republican, Conservative and Independence party lines.
Don Hassig, who is running on the Green Party line, wasn't invited to the debate.
Enterprise file photos)
In his opening remarks, Doheny argued that the region needs a new direction and that Congress needs leaders with private-sector experience. He said the debt is too high and spending is out of control.
"The North Country has to do better; it's as simple as that," Doheny said.
Owens claimed that he's worked to create jobs since he came to Plattsburgh 35 years ago.
"As we look forward, and I think we need to, we need to change the dynamic in the United States," he said.
Minutes later, Carey referenced remarks Doheny made to a newspaper, calling for drug testing of social assistance recipients, like those on welfare. Carey asked if that same testing should be extended to anyone receiving federal money, like senior citizens and business owners who receive grants.
Doheny said he's heard from voters who are "sick and tired" of people taking advantage of the system, and he's "absolutely in favor of drug testing.
"I deeply believe in the social safety net," he said. "But the people using it also have a responsibility."
He said such drug testing does not a equal class-based double standard.
"It's being responsible," Doheny said.
Carey also asked if Doheny has seen empirical evidence to support the need for drug testing. Doheny said people talk about it, but he's not a social scientist. He said many states are looking at the topic. He said Social Security recipients, for example, shouldn't have to take such tests because they've already paid into the system over their lifetimes.
Owens noted that Congress passed legislation that would let states adopt such programs. He said in Florida, which instituted drug testing for welfare recipients, the results were "infinitesimal" and the costs have outweighed the benefits. Doheny countered that drug testing would remove doubt from the system.
Early in the debate, Carey's question on the effectiveness of tax cuts had the candidates sparring. He asked Doheny if tax breaks will "free job creators" to help grow the economy, noting that under the Bush administration, which cut taxes, fewer jobs were created than under the Clinton administration, which had higher tax rates.
Doheny said during the Clinton years, there was a cut in capital gains taxes that helped investors create companies. He said business owners never tell him higher taxes might lead to more jobs.
"Why on earth would we want to go ahead and raise taxes when the North Country is facing almost 10 percent unemployment?" Doheny said. "It makes no sense."
Owens said increased revenue and spending cuts are needed to get rid of the deficit.
"I do not think the proposals being made by my opponent really get us to the point where we can do the two things we need to do: Reduce the deficit and create jobs," Owens said.
Carey said that in the past few months, the congressional campaign has focused on jobs, taxes and the economy. But he added that both candidates have had flare-ups of bad publicity: Doheny had to deal with pictures and videos out of Washington that appeared to show him kissing a woman who wasn't his wife, and Owens had to defend a lobbyist-sponsored trip to Taiwan that may have broken House ethics rules.
Carey said both men sought to dismiss the concerns raised by those stories. He asked why voters shouldn't take those incidents into consideration when they go to the polls.
Doheny said the photos and videos from Washington, and the subsequent claims, were "100 percent false" and that "Democratic operatives" attacked him.
"We need results in this country, and we need a debate that talks about the issues," Doheny said.
Owens said he believes he did everything right during his trip to Taiwan. He noted that when it was revealed it may have broken ethics rules, he paid the money back.
The debate also featured exchanges on issues like defense, Fort Drum's future, immigration and the federal deficit.
The candidates had an opportunity to question each other. Owens asked Doheny if he would label China a currency-manipulator, as Romney has promised to do if elected. Doheny asked Owens why his voting record on things like health care and government regulations doesn't reflect the claims he makes when he returns to the North Country.
The evening's highlight may have been the lightning round, which featured yes-or-no questions.
Asked if the candidates support an expansion of wind farming on the shores of Lake Ontario, Owens said yes, Doheny no.
Benjamin then asked if someone who makes at least $250,000 a year should be considered rich. Owens said yes, "Based on my position relative to the Bush tax cuts." Doheny also said yes.
Both candidates said they don't agree with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's push for an expansion of casino gaming in New York state.
Benjamin also offered up some lighthearted questions. She asked if the candidates had ever gone cow-tipping. Owens said no, while Doheny admitted that he had.
Asked if they'd hiked Whiteface Mountain, Owens said yes, Doheny no.
Both candidates said if elected, they would support their party's current leader: Nancy Pelosi for the Democrats, and John Boehner for the Republicans.
Owens said he didn't take out a loan to attend college; Doheny did.
Asked which is a better vacation spot - Lake George or Alexandria Bay - Owens said, "Yes and no," prompting Doheny to ask the moderators, "Are you going to let him get away with that?" Doheny, who grew up in Alexandria Bay, said, "Home is home."
Have the candidates tried a Tom and Jerry at the Crystal Restaurant in Watertown? Owen said no; Doheny said yes.
They both said John Roberts is a good chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the final question, Benjamin asked if the candidates had tried the popular workout program p90x, which vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan says he uses.
Owens told Benjamin he had no idea what she was talking about, setting up Doheny for one of the night's best zingers.
"It's a new-fangled workout regime, congressman," he said. "You'll have plenty of time in January to practice it."
Doheny, by the way, doesn't do p90x.
Contact Chris Morris at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or email@example.com.