Just nine days before an election expected to be riddled with incumbent casualties, popular Democratic U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and his Republican opponent Jay Townsend took their differences to the debate room.
The often contentious debate was held Sunday night at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY. The questions addressed the recently passed health care bill, the proposed mosque near ground zero, trade and immigration, among other things.
Townsend, who had been pushing for a debate with Schumer since his primary win in September, wasted no time digging into his opponent.
“Senator Schumer has been wrong for too long,” said Townsend, 56, a Republican political consultant from Orange County, NY. “If you are tired of having your pocket picked and your dreams denied and your children forced to leave New York, I should be your choice for United States Senate.”
Schumer, however, took a bit longer to engage.
The Brooklyn incumbent focused his time on his record in the Senate, noting bipartisan efforts to draft bills. One such bill, drafted with U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, eliminates payroll taxes for businesses that hire long-term unemployed people.
“I always try to work in a bipartisan way,” said Schumer, citing an immigration bill drafted with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican. The bill outlines different ways to help legalize illegal immigrants.
That bill, however, did not make it through Congress this year, leaving Schumer open to an attack from Townsend.
“Why didn’t you get the immigration bill through Congress when you had your 60 votes?” prodded Townsend. “Don’t stand there and blame the Republicans for refusing to cooperate. You had the votes to get it done.”
This was the first time Schumer turned to look at his opponent, at the near-40-minute mark of the hour long debate.
“We’re like in Alice in Wonderland here,” said Schumer, and compared Townsend to the president who presided over the 1929 stock market crash that set off the Great Depression. The idea of saying, ‘I will be against everything,’ is not going to get us anywhere. The last time we had a leader who did that was Herbert Hoover.”
Townsend had a 15-second rebuttal. “You try and work in a bipartisan way,” asked Townsend, “Is that why you called Sen. Scott Brown from Massachusetts a right-wing tea bagger?”
This was not the only time Townsend took shots at Schumer’s language.
Townsend excused controversial New York Republican Gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino for using foul language because “at least he apologized for it,” citing an incident when Schumer called a flight attendant a “bitch” for asking him to turn off his cell phone. Schumer, however, did apologize.
Bantering aside, the two candidates took different stands on controversial issues such as gay marriage.
Schumer said he was for gay marriage, and unopposed to the mosque plan. Townsend said he is for civil unions, and opposed the construction of the facility near ground zero — though made clear he was not denying the right to build it.
“I just don’t think they should do it,” said Townsend. “I believe it is offensive and insensitive to the families.”
Townsend also advocated the repeal of the health care bill.
“We were promised health insurance premiums would come down, and they are skyrocketing,” he said. Townsend also said the bill was “rammed through in the middle of the night.”
“It will work,” refuted Schumer. “It hasn’t really gone into effect yet.”
Based on Quinnipiac University’s most recent poll conducted on Oct. 27, Schumer has a comfortable lead over his opponent. Schumer has a 64 percent advantage over Townsend’s 32 percent with a margin of error of 3.8 percent.
Schumer and Townsend were both notably focused on forcing China to stop undervaluing its currency in order to bring more jobs to New York, though the two differed on how to do so.
Schumer’s strategy is offensive: slap a 35 percent tariff on all of our goods. “They need our market for their export economy,” he said. “They’d back off in a minute.”
Townsend called the idea “counterproductive,” saying the Chinese would then impose their own tariffs. “We have to do what is right by us.”
After the debate, state Republican Committee Chairman Ed Cox expanded on Townsend’s position.
“Its ridiculous to think that China will not retaliate if you put tariffs on their goods,” he said, citing a recent move by the Chinese government to stop shipping rare earth elements — an important ingredient in many high-tech products — to Japan.
“They will use trade as a weapon,” he said. “No doubt about that.”
The issue also resonated with Bloomingburg resident Randy Thomas, who is the co-organizer of Orange/Sullivan 912 Tea Party, a grassroots group for Tea Partiers.
“It’s unfortunate that the U.S. can not be competitive in the international marketplace,” said Thomas, who works for a Japanese company that does not manufacture in China. “We have a hard time being competitive with the Chinese-made products because of the disparity in the wages and the costs of the products coming from there. It’s important to have a senator who understands that.”
He and his wife, Sheryl — the other co-organizer of the group — will be voting for Townsend in November, notably because they say they are sick of “career politicians.”
“We have not been responsible in holding our representatives accountable,” said Sheryl. “And that cuts across party lines. I don’t care if you’re Republican, Democrat, conservative, independent, rent is too damn high or whatever you are.”