In a testy exchange in front of a live TV audience last night, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur and her opponent, Larry Kaczala, questioned each other's policy approach and personal judgment in their only scheduled debate before election day.
In what is expected to be the 22-year incumbent's toughest re-election battle in more than a decade, the pair drew sharp policy differences, often along party lines, as each hopes to claim the newly redrawn 9th Congressional District, which includes Toledo and parts of Lucas, Ottawa, Erie, and Lorain counties.
Sponsored by The Blade and WTVG-TV Channel 13, the hour-long debate also led to some angry words between the Democrat incumbent and her Republican challenger on everything from Miss Kaptur's controversial statements on Iraq to Mr. Kaczala's current track record as Lucas County auditor.
In addressing northwest Ohio's struggling economy, both agreed on the need to invest in high-tech industries while shoring up the manufacturing base, but they differed on the details.
Miss Kaptur blamed the area's job losses on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which she fought a decade ago when President Bill Clinton pushed it through.
She said the deal cost America hundreds of thousands of jobs, particularly in places like northwest Ohio.
She also blamed Republicans for blocking a bill that she said she pushed to help small businesses with health insurance costs.
"That was on your watch," she told Mr. Kaczala, referring to his party's control of Congress and the White House, "and nothing was done."
Mr. Kaczala argued that Miss Kaptur still hasn't done enough to help small businesses. He said the key is encouraging a "business friendly" environment and capping jury awards. He criticized Miss Kaptur for obsessing over NAFTA.
"She wakes up in the morning thinking about NAFTA. She has lunch thinking about NAFTA. And she goes to sleep thinking about NAFTA. You have to get over it," he said. "NAFTA is not going away because it is a benefit as a whole to our country. Free trade is a benefit as a whole to our country."
On the minimum wage, he argued that boosting it would lead to layoffs, while she argued that low-wage workers deserved the boost in pay.
On Iraq, Mr. Kaczala said the war was justified, and that's the message he's received from soldiers while touring the district.
"Every soldier who has returned home from Iraq has told me that what we're doing in Iraq is good work," he said.
But Miss Kaptur said that she's still convinced the war was wrong, and points to the escalation in violence as proof that the war has spun out of control.
"The President said the mission was accomplished, I don't think he had a clear sense of what mission he was moving the country in to."
Miss Kaptur's outspoken stance against the war has made her fodder for conservatives across the country, who often point to her March, 2003, statement in The Blade in which she argued that Americans shouldn't misjudge the powerful mix of politics and religion.
She said many of America's revolutionary fighters were religious people who fled repression in other countries.
"One could say that Osama bin Laden and these non-nation-state fighters with religious purpose are very similar to those kind of atypical revolutionaries that helped to cast off the British crown," Miss Kaptur said.
She stood by the statement last night, insisting Republicans twisted her words and that she's simply arguing that the fighting in Iraq has dangerous, religious overtones.
She pointed to the number of Christian churches bombed by insurgents, which she refers to as "revolutionaries."
"We simply must understand the political nature of this war and what is happening across that region. I think the rather hasty entry into that country without the support of our Arab allies is costing the lives of our people every day," she said.
Mr. Kaczala's response: "All I can say is: Wow - no apology for that statement."
He also said Miss Kaptur at one time claimed Iraq was better off with Saddam Hussein and that Miss Kaptur told the European Council not to help America fight Iraq.
Miss Kaptur didn't address those accusations during the debate, but afterward said she never made either statement.
She said she has complained that Iraq is still troubled after Saddam because of terrorism and insurgency, and she disputed that she ever lobbied allies to avoid helping America in the war effort.
Taking her turn to accuse her opponent of improper judgment, Miss Kaptur complained that Mr. Kaczala accepted a $400 campaign contribution from LG Phillips, which shut down its Ottawa, Ohio plant in 2002 and moved its operations to Mexico. The plant, which had already laid off about 600 workers two years earlier, cut the remaining 1,200 jobs.
Turning to Mr. Kaczala, she said: "How could you do that?"
Mr. Kaczala countered that he had no control over the closing.
She also complained her opponent has bungled the job of auditor, a post he's held for more than a decade. As auditor, his office appraises the value of properties every six years, which in turn is used to calculate how much tax should be paid on them.
Miss Kaptur said that his office had a record number of protests after the last appraisal.
After the debate, Mr. Kaczala said the 4,500 protests that he had were a small percentage of the 200,000 parcels in the county.
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