Johnstown — In stark contrast with a presidential debate that took place the same night, the fight for PA-12 was decidedly polite and — with candidates obeying time limits and never talking over each other — well-structured.
By 6:30, just half an hour before the debate was scheduled to begin, the streets along the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown’s campus were lined with “Keith Rothfus for Congress” yard signs, and supporters of Rep. Mark Critz (D-Cambria), whose base is in Johnstown, showed up in full force.
Chanting “Vote for … Critz!” and waving signs bearing his name, the Dem’s supporters stood watch outside the Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center and greeted attendees as well as the GOP candidate as he entered the building.
The debate, which lasted an hour, was sponsored by three groups: The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, WJAC-TV and the Pitt-Johnstown Student Government Association. Editor Eric Knopsnyder, anchor Marty Radovanic and Student Government Association President Cliff Maloney Jr. all moderated.
Medicare and the economy
These two topics dominated the first third of the debate, with Critz stepping up to defend portions of Obamacare and Rothfus mentioning presidential candidate Mitt Romney by name, a move that many who follow the PA-12 race have been waiting for.
Critz said that while Obamacare is far from perfect, it at least extends Medicare for eight years so Congress can work on a way to fix it.
“I don’t have all the answers,” Critz said, but said that Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget would bankrupt the critical program within four years.
Rothfus took a different stance, suggesting the real threat to Medicare is provisions of Obamacare. He pointed to a key talking point for the Republican Party: that Critz had several opportunities to vote on repealing the law but voted to keep it.
Critz fired back that he had voted to repeal certain parts of the law, like the medical device excise tax, but that other chances at repeal, like getting rid of the Independent Payment Advisory Board, were thwarted when congressional Republicans inserted measures like tort reform — a project Critz said should be left to the states.
Critz later mentioned that he was also unsure why Rothfus was getting away with his claims that Medicare is gutted by Obamacare by $716 billion.
“The Ryan budget did the same,” he said. “It’s lying about your positions.”
Critz did not hesitate to say that Obama care is not perfect, a common refrain of his campaign. But he said that he faulted the GOP for putting unrelated bills against each other.
“That’s called a poison pill,” he said.
When it came to the economy, both Rothfus and Critz emphasized jobs. Rothfus, in a list of three things he said are holding back economic growth: Obamacare, a tax code that hurts small businesses and regulations. The regulations, Rothfus said, are responsible for the loss of coal jobs in the district.
Critz said he has been working to save coal jobs while working to keep energy costs low for the public as well as private businesses. He also promoted Marcellus Shale drilling, saying it could, and should, be the future of Pennsylvania’s economy.
The 12th district
Both candidates wasted no time in jumping on the question of how the concerns of PA-12 are different from the rest of the country.
Critz showed his knowledge of the area by comparing the needs of the old 12th with those of the new 12th post-redistricting, saying that adding areas like the North Hills of Pittsburgh brings in a lot of a big city suburb, where voters tax their infrastructure like highways and water, while areas like Beaver County are more similar to Johnstown. Combining the rural with the suburban, Critz said, means having to “cobble together programs…and agencies” so that the needs of everyone in the 12th can be met.
Rothfus said that the 12th boomerang shape, from the Ohio Valley through the Laurel Highlands, means that PA-12 is “the belt of the belt” and creates a confluence of energy sources that the state can use to its advantage to create manufacturing jobs so long as the private sector isn’t “micromanaged from D.C.”
Debt and nation-building
While most of the time spent in the debate was dedicated to issues at home, some of the discussion went international, particularly with a push from Maloney, a former staff assistant for Rep. Ron Paul.
These questions centered on the debt, nation building and whether Iran has a right under international law to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Rothfus was particularly strong on the debt, mentioning not once but three times that 42 cents of every dollar in spending is borrowed and that efforts by the government have failed. He mentioned Solyndra and others by name.
Critz, on the other hand, said that working on measures such as the Budget Control Act would have helped reduce debt — a plan which Rothfus said was an “abdication of responsibility” on the part of the government to balance the budget.
Critz also said the Democrats proposed a plan that would have required the richest to pay more, something closer to the rate they paid under President Bill Clinton.
In the end, however, both used similar terminology to discuss the debt as a “spending and revenue issue” that would need to be worked out through compromise.
And again, in short, both the candidates said that the resources do not exist to maintain a military presence around the world, and that Iran has forfeited the right to produce a nuclear weapon as they are proponents of terrorism.
Rothfus and Critz also agreed to the 2014 withdrawal date for troops, even as Maloney pushed them and asked whether they would maintain that position should the stability of the region change.
Critz said it would be difficult no matter the situation to keep troops in Afghanistan or elsewhere, should conflicts arise, “building roads…when we can’t afford to built them here.”
Rothfus and Critz also agreed that the resources do not exist to continue funding the war. But this is where the debate took a bit of a turn. Rothfus, Critz said, was too forward in his approach of “peace through strength” and that matters of foreign policy need to be handled delicately. Rothfus maintained that Obama’s plans of “leading from behind” would cause trouble, and that should Iran go nuclear, “all the other states over there are going to want to go nuclear as well.” He said Obama could have used the White House as a bully pulpit, but failed his leadership role in that respect.
The two wrapped up their debate with a question that may have struck a chord with the college students in the audience: intellectual property rights, SOPA and education.
While neither pretended to be well-versed in technology, Critz said that the “not-so-new animal” that is the Internet gives freedom of access, but that protections need to be put in place that keep outside entities from obtaining valuable information. Rothfus said that while he was not prepared to remark on specific legislation, that as “a general principle” the authors of any work deserve protection.
When it came to education, the answers were brief and to the point. Rothfus said that college tuition is too high, and that the government should incentivize them to keep costs low. Critz took another chance to jab Rothfus for his association with the national GOP ticket by mentioning that the Ryan budget would knock hundreds of thousands of students off Pell Grants.
This is where the debate got heated — at the point when neither candidate had a real chance to respond.
Critz went first, saying that as time goes on, he can’t help but notice how much Rothfus is starting to sound like him and promote compromise.
“But all he’s run on for two years is, ‘Repeal Obamacare and it will solve all our problems.’”
Critz also referenced a debate both attended last week hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, where Rothfus was asked which committees he would like to serve on. Critz said Rothfus was unable to give a clear answer.
He said it showed Rothfus for what he really is: “You’re a rich guy who wants to be a Congressman.”
Rothfus answered the insult by alluding to his role as a parent, saying that he is a father first, and decided to run for Congress because he was concerned for the future of his daughter Alice, 5, who was named after Rothfus’ mother Alice, 75. He said that both of their futures are in jeopardy because of the policies of bureaucrats and Obamacare, and that he would fight to change that and fix the economy.
As another nice reference, he said that he has six children — and, as it so happens, PA-12 is comprised of six counties. He said that he will fulfill his role as Congressman much in the way he acts as a father: no favoritism, and equal treatment for all voters.
Overall, the edge went to Critz who was debating on his home turf.
While both candidates performed well, Critz’s knowledge and confidence from having done the debate circuit showed (this is his fourth multi-million dollar campaign in two years). Rothfus seemed hurried at times, and often declined to point to specific policies and plans citing his status as a political outsider. Although Critz frequently ran out of time and had to stop himself, his counters to Rothfus were sharp and well-prepared.