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Congress candidates clash in lively TV debate (with video)

From left, Rep. Elise Stefanik, Lynn Kahn and Tedra Cobb take part in a debate Tuesday afternoon at the Mountain Lake PBS studio in Plattsburgh. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

PLATTSBURGH — The three candidates running for New York’s 21st District Congressional seat met for the first television debate under the bright lights of Mountain Lake PBS’s studio Tuesday afternoon to tackle issues and verbally gain the upper hand in a hotly contested race.

(Editor’s note: In the raw, unedited video below, the debate begins at the 25:30 minute mark.)

While Democratic challenger Tedra Cobb went after Republican incumbent Elise Stefanik’s big industry donors, Stefanik took a less aggressive approach than her TV ads and focused on her voting record, playing defense while still throwing a few jabs at Cobb.

Green Party candidate Lynn Kahn, standing between Stefanik and Cobb as they sparred, said, “This is why I have chosen to run as a third-party candidate.”

From her opening statements, Cobb focused on her message that Stefanik has voted in ways that harm the North Country, emphasizing Stefanik’s corporate donors, from Wall Street to oil companies.

Stefanik several times said Cobb was misinformed, while reciting the history of bills, names of people involved and outcomes of legislation.

“While my two opponents are arguing with each other, we have the same two parties and the same bad results,” Kahn said.

Cobb said the two were not arguing, rather, discussing important policy differences.

Social Security and deficit

From a panel of three journalists, North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann asked about the federal deficit, which is rising after the passage of the GOP tax bill despite the U.S. not being in recession or war. U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell has placed the blame for the deficit rise on Social Security and Medicare, and Mann wondered if the candidates agree.

Stefanik said that the federal deficit is lower today than its $1 trillion-plus level when former President Barack Obama and former House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi were in charge.

“I believe we should make no changes to Social Security and Medicare for those above the age of 50,” Stefanik said. “But for my generation, Brian, we know those programs are not on a path to solvency.”

Kahn said she does not believe Social Security and Medicare are “entitlement” programs because people have paid into them their whole working lives. She called them “investments.” She proposed a “war on waste” to remove the federal government’s many duplicated programs, which Stefanik later agreed with.

Cobb argued that Social Security is solvent and sustainable, adding that Stefanik, as policy director for the Republican Platform Committee, helped write a Republican plan to privatize Social Security and make Medicare a voucher program in 2012.

Stefanik said Cobb has a failed record in regard to handling deficits, pointing to St. Lawrence County having a $23 million balance when Cobb entered the legislature and a $3 million deficit when she left. Cobb said Stefanik does not understand local government and that in 2008, when the economy tanked, every local government was working to make sure services like roads and the office for the aging were paid for.

Abortion

Pat Bradley from WAMC public radio asked a question that has not been talked about at length between the candidates, about what they would do if the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh affects abortion and LGBTQ rights.

Stefanik noted that Kavanaugh has stated he believes the Roe v. Wade court decision legalizing abortion is settled law.

Kahn said she wants to look at root causes of abortion, claiming that the U.S. can decrease the number of requested abortions by half by providing free and easy access to birth control and implementing science-based sex education in schools.

Cobb, who worked as a sex and AIDS/HIV educator for years, criticized Stefanik for repeatedly voting to move funding from Planned Parenthood to community health centers.

“Every woman must have access to health care, and the decisions that she makes must be between her and her doctor and her family, should she choose,” Cobb said.

Stefanik said there are more community health centers than Planned Parenthood offices in the district, adding that she got $7 million in funding for the health centers. She said she is pro-life with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, but she said women should have birth control and contraception covered by health insurance.

In Cobb’s rebuttal, she said community health centers can’t function if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, referring to a 2015 vote where Stefanik voted to repeal the ACA without directly setting up a replacement.

Congress and the Constitution

From the panel, Enterprise Managing Editor Peter Crowley said the Constitution gives Congress power over war, naturalization and commerce, and that in recent years Congress has watched as presidents change immigration policy, start wars and enter trade deals. He asked if Congress should wrest that authority back from the executive branch and, if so, how.

Cobb said Congress has failed to hold the president accountable in terms of military action, the 2018 Farm Bill and immigration.

Stefanik said Congress allowed recent wars through the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which lets the president use “necessary and appropriate force” against people planning violence in the U.S., but she believes the authorization must be updated. Nevertheless, Stefanik said Trump’s military action has been a strong suit, a strength Obama did not have.

Kahn said she wants a strong military but added that the military has overreached its presence in the world, with active-duty soldiers in too many countries.

“These wars for the most part are for oil, they are for empire, and they are for ego,” Kahn said.

McCain and military

Responding to a question from Mann on U.S. military spending, Stefanik said the military’s budget is appropriate given the threats facing the U.S.

Cobb said the military’s current budget is too high but that she wants increased funding for veterans and Fort Drum.

Kahn wants to eliminate massive waste in the military budget and said she supports increased pay for soldiers and funding for veteran services.

Cobb said Stefanik did not honor Sen. John McCain when Trump came to Fort Drum to authorize the National Defense Authorization Act, which was named after McCain. Before McCain’s death, he and the president had been feuding, and Trump refused to say the name of the budget while announcing it. Stefanik did not say it, either, in the short time she was on stage, but issued a statement thanking McCain afterward.

“I am the only one on this stage that has had the privilege and honor of working with John McCain, Stefanik said. “I am the only one on this stage who has earned the support of my campaign by John McCain. I consider John McCain a friend, and he is a loss for this entire country. And, Mrs. Cobb, I am the only one on this stage who was a part of Congress that named the NDAA after John McCain.”

Kahn responded, “John McCain might have been your friend, but you did not have the courage when you were standing up on that stage to announce that authorization to say his name, and you don’t have the courage to talk about the national security implications of climate change in public, on the floor of the House.”

When Stefanik started to respond, Kahn said, “Don’t interrupt me.”

When Stefanik’s rebuttal came around, she said that not supporting the NDAA does a disservice to McCain and that Cobb did not support it and it didn’t sound like Kahn did, either. Kahn did not get another rebuttal and was not able to respond if she did or did not.

Choices

Both major party candidates said the election presents a stark choice. Stefanik pitched the vote as a decision between continuing economic improvement or going back to Pelosi and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “tax and spend” politics.

Cobb pitched it as a choice of sticking with an incumbent who has accepted corporate money and voted against the interests of the North Country, or voting for her, who has been engaged in the North Country community for 30 years.

Kahn said there is a third choice, voting for the Green Party, which has been talking about climate change, unnecessary wars and universal health care for decades.

At the end, all candidates shook hands, thanking each other for participating in a lively televised debate.

The debate also included topics such as the environment and health care, which the candidates have discussed extensively in other interviews and forums.

Two more debates will be held before the Nov. 6 election: on Oct. 29 at Spectrum News’ studio in Albany and Oct. 30 at the WWNY-TV studio in Watertown.

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