WYE MILLS — A forum for 1st District congressional candidates at Chesapeake College, put on by several League of Women Voters organizations on the Mid-Shore, had a distinctively Democratic tone on Sunday, April 27, as neither Republican candidate attended.
According to the League of Women Voters, incumbent Andy Harris said last week he had a conflict and couldn’t make it to the forum, and the other Republican candidate, Jonathan Goff, also withdrew.
That left Democratic candidates Bill Tilghman and John LaFerla as the only participants. They took turns answering questions from the League of Women Voters and from the audience, ranging from their qualifications for the job to their views on immigration, health care, the economy and the environment.
Both candidates emphasized the need to end partisan gridlock in Congress.
“The overriding goal has to be right now ... we need to end the gridlock, we need to get somebody in Congress instead of the current incumbent, who is able to solve problems, who is able to work across the aisle,” LaFerla said.
Tilghman said his top priority if elected would be “to create that center, a disciplined center ... I think that the fighting that goes on is all about the fact that there’s nobody in the center.” He said people he has talked to are angry about the current Congress. “The level of anger against Congress is palpable; it’s because it doesn’t get anything done.”
Tilghman said the problem is gerrymandering, or manipulating borders of districts for political advantage. “This is probably the most serious thing that we face right now. The winner-take-all system that we have in America is the reason for this,” he said, contrasting it with a parliamentary system that gives parties representatives based on the percentage of votes they get.
LaFerla said the gridlock problem comes from a lack of transparency, and from people who don’t compromise and put ideology before the public good. With regard to transparency, he said bills written years ago were readable, maybe three to 10 pages long. “Try to read a bill today, it may be anywhere from 100 to 2,000 pages long, and they are written by lobbyists,” he said.
Both candidates offered limited support for the Affordable Care Act, saying problems with the health care law need to be addressed.
Tilghman said the health care law had a terrible rollout and wasn’t well thought-through. An incremental, gradual approach would have been better than making such a large change all at once, he said, but if elected he would work within the framework of the ACA. “The process of government is very slow, and if we get ahead of ourselves, we get in trouble,” he said. “I think we could have avoided this rollout problem if we had taken an incremental approach.”
LaFerla said one way to bring down health care costs was to make the ACA work well, and that the law was designed more to fix coverage issues than to fix the health care system. “As a physician, for years, I would see every day in my office people who were falling between the cracks” with health coverage, hoping to avoid some serious illness that would bankrupt them, he said. He said everyone knows that the rollout for the law was terrible, but it was from technical problems, not health care problems. He said as a physician, he has practical ideas for improving health care, including allowing Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to lower drug costs.
On immigration, LaFerla said America is a nation of immigrants, and people need to approach the issue with humility, celebrating the contributions of immigrants that have helped the U.S. move forward.
“If [immigration reform] were easy, it would have been done already, so it’s going to be a difficult problem,” LaFerla said.
The process of legal immigration, LaFerla said, needs to be improved, noting that his son-in-law, an Austrian citizen, is “having a dickens of a time trying to get permission to live in this country.” Opening the door for people we want to allow in would take some of the pressure off, he said.
The elephant in the room, LaFerla said, is what to do with the rules so immigrants who have been in the country for years “being good citizens” have a path to citizenship. He also said that those brought to the country as infants or children, who don’t remember another culture, are Americans and need to be treated as such.
Tilghman also called for change. “I do believe that we need complete reform of our immigration policy and laws in America,” he said.
His ideas for reform include making sure the borders are well-managed and that longterm non-documented people get state licenses and work permits. He also called for improving the e-verify system, and giving out visas for seasonal and migrant work. After those steps, he said, granting citizenship would be a proper solution.
On unemployment, Tilghman said geography is a factor in a higher percentage of people being unemployed in the 1st District compared to the rest of the state. “I think we need to better brand ourselves,” he said. Tilghman suggested making organic agriculture part of the Eastern Shore’s business brand.
LaFerla emphasized access to infrastructure, saying roads in the area need repair. He also called for high speed Internet access, comparing it to providing electricity for rural areas. He suggested thinking of the Internet as a public utility, instead of a service that companies might provide if they can make enough money on it.
On cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, “We all want a cleaner environment,” LaFerla said. “We want to be able to swim in the Bay and see the bottom like we used to be able to.” He thanked conservation groups for their work, and also thanked farmers who have participated in planting cover crops, which he said is working in keeping runoff out of the Bay.
Tilghman said it was important to get farmers on board with Bay cleanup. “We’ve got to make sure that the agricultural community understands that they are not the scapegoat for this and that they are not going to be made to pay more than their fair share,” he said.
LaFerla said he was disappointed that Harris did not attend the event. He said he had someone call Harris’ office to ask about the forum, and the office said it did not know of any forum, although Harris had been notified by the organizers.
Mary Campbell, a board member for the Queen Anne’s League of Women Voters, confirmed that Harris had been notified through multiple channels, but said he did not specify what the conflict was that kept him from coming.
In a statement, Harris said he was unable to attend because of a family obligation. “I hope the event was a success, and I look forward to opportunities to debate the winner of the Democratic primary as we get closer to the November election,” he said.
Campbell said Goff originally said he was coming, and then withdrew.
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