Campaign finance a point of contention in US Senate debate

by Keith Barber

Elaine Marshall and Cal Cunningham are interviewed by reporters after their first televised debate at WRAL-TV in Raleigh on June 10. (photos by Keith T. Barber)

Elaine Marshall and Cal Cunningham — the Democratic candidates vying to run for the US Senate seat currently held by Richard Burr — mostly agreed on the issues presented during the first of two televised debates on June 10.

Marshall and Cunningham, a former state senator and Iraq war veteran, effectively utilized the opportunity to communicate their platforms to television audiences in the buildup to the June 22 runoff election.

Marshall defeated Cunningham by 9 percentage points in the May 4 Democratic primary but failed to get 40 percent of the vote. Under state election law, if a candidate receive less than 40 percent of the vote, the second place finisher can call for a runoff.

The debate, hosted by WRAL-TV news anchors David Crabtree and Pam Saulsby, offered few fireworks. However, the issue of campaign finance proved a point of contention for the candidates.

Marshall pointed out that Cunningham has accepted nearly $150,000 from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other Washington-based Democratic leadership political action committees. She asked Cunningham how he would stand up to the Democratic establishment in Washington considering how financially indebted he is to the party.

“I will exercise the independence that a senator representing North Carolina should exercise, the same kind of independence that I exercised in the state Senate: voting my conscience, voting what my district wanted,” Cunningham responded.

According to the Federal Elections Commission website, Cunningham has received $80,000 in direct contributions from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, or DSCC, and an additional $66,000 from Democratic leadership PACs and elected officials. For example, the campaign of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) contributed $2,000 to Cunningham’s campaign. As a UNC undergraduate, Cunnigham spent a summer working as an intern in Levin’s Washington offices. By contrast, Marshall has not received any contributions from the DSCC or any Democratic leadership PACs in her bid for US Senate.

When it was his turn, Cunningham asked Marshall about a quote attributed to her in a recent newspaper article that she would consider raising the minimum retirement age for Social Security applicants.

Marshall flatly denied making any such statement. “I will stand firm to protect social security, and raising the age is not one of the things I would consider,” Marshall said.

Crabtree stayed on the subject of campaign finance, asking Marshall if she felt that accepting money from lobbyists was problematic considering that one of her duties of her office is to monitor lobbyists.

“I have not crossed any lines,” Marshall responded. “These folks, a very small amount of money — less than half of 1 percent I’ve received contributions from lobbyists…. I took on the lobbying reform. It has never tainted my judgment. I have never done their bidding.”

Marshall said she would gladly return the contributions from lobbyists if Cunningham would give back the nearly $150,000 in contributions from “Washington insiders.”

“That’s not exactly tit for tat,” said Crabtree. Cunningham then weighed in on the subject. “I haven’t held an office for 14 years, one of the responsibilities of which is to regulate the very people that she’s taken money from… so I think there’s a very real difference,” Cunningham said. “I don’t regulate anyone that I take money from.”

By and large, the candidates’ positions on the issues were strikingly similar. When asked about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, both Marshall and Cunningham said they are opposed to drilling offshore in North Carolina. Marshall said she has been unequivocal in her opposition to offshore drilling, and that tighter safety regulations should be imposed on the oil industry. Marshall and Cunningham agreed that much of the blame for the environmental disaster falls on the shoulders of federal regulators who have been too cozy with the oil companies they are supposed to oversee.

Cunningham said he’s called for an end to the tax breaks for the oil and gas industry and proposes lifting the cap for liability so BP will have to foot the bill for the entire cleanup effort in the Gulf.

Cunningham said the role of the federal government is to “look over the horizon at alternative forms of energy” so that America can break its historic dependence on foreign oil and transition to alternative sources of energy such as biomass, biofuels, wind power and solar power.

The issue of jobs and the economy proved the primary subject of the June 10 debate. Crabtree pointed out that 491,000 North Carolinians are out of work, and asked both candidates what they would do to help jumpstart the state’s economy.

Cunningham outlined his economic platform, calling for the federal government to provide tax credits to small business owners, to lift capital gains taxes on small business investment and to hold Wall Street account- able. Marshall said she supports short-term job creation measures through infrastructure improvements and called on the federal gov- ernment to step in and help save teaching jobs.

Marshall also said she would make it a priority to ensure unemployment benefits are extended for all North Carolinians who are struggling to find a job. During one segment of the debate, the candidates had an opportunity to answer viewer questions. One viewer asked if the candidates would pledge to vote according to the expressed wishes of the people of North Carolina or if they would vote in “lockstep” with Obama administration.

“I’m going to put the needs and the inter- ests of North Carolina first every day,” Cunningham said. Cunningham said as a state senator, he often sought bipartisanship in the legislation he sponsored and even crossed party lines when he disagreed with the Democratic leadership in the General Assembly. “It’s clear that I’m not the status quo, Washington insider candidate in this race,” Marshall said in response to the viewer’s ques- tion. “Therefore, I’m not going to be beholden to them. I’ve made my career taking on tough challenges, exceeding expectations and getting results.” On the issue of immigration, both candi- dates said they opposed mass deportation and amnesty for illegal immigrants. On the issue of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, both candidates said they believe the law should be repealed. During the “lightning round” segment of the debate, the candidates were asked if they would support a second economic stimulus package, Marshall hesitated before stating that she couldn’t give a yes or no answer to the question. Cunningham said he would not support such a measure. Marshall also equivocated on whether or not she would support a tax increase.

Cunningham said he has proposed targeted middle class tax cuts and would not support a tax increase. During post-debate interviews with report- ers, Cunningham commented on the June 8 survey released by Public Policy Polling that reveals Republican incumbent Richard Burr has increased his lead over him and his Democratic opponent since the May 4 primary. “This is part of why I’ve been encourag- ing more public debates in this runoff,” Cunningham said. “With more public debates I think we would be closer to Richard Burr; I think we’ll see that gap close very soon.” The Public Policy Polling survey revealed that more North Carolinians disapprove than approve of the job Burr is doing in the US Senate, but Burr still leads Marshall by 7 points and Cunningham by 11 points. A second debate, sponsored by WNCN-TV and the League of Women Voters, was slated for Tuesday.

Differences more in style than substance

During the televised portion of the debate cunningham threw his shoulders back, rested his hands on his knees when not using them to accentuate his words and leaned forward in a poised and ready position. He spoke in a clear, calm, definitive manner as if presenting his case to the viewers and vot- ers rather than a jury. conversely, marshall leaned back in her chair, shoulders hunched and hands in her lap. she also stammered and appeared to be caught off guard at cer tain points. Though cunningham is clearly the more rehearsed public speaker, while taking ques- tions from the various assembled media members at times he did not appear natu ral. When a reporter asked him if he was the “Washington insider candidate” — as marshall had charged — he insisted that despite backing and contributions from the Democratic senatorial campaign committee, he isn’t. But once his script ran out — or he forgot it, whichever — his voice trailed off and after stammering for a moment he wrapped up his answer saying “We’re proud of what we’ve been able to build,” then quickly looked away from the reporter who asked the question and gazed expectantly at another reporter and smiled.

When asked afterwards how he differed from marshall as a candidate, cunningham highlighted his “unique series of life expe- riences,” most notably being a Judicial Advocate General lawyer in Iraq, and insisted that he is “not a career politician.” cunningham appears to be trying to spin his political inexperience, limited to a two- year term in the Nc senate 10 years ago, into the status of the “outsider” candidate. When cunningham was elected to the senate in 2000, marshall had already moved on from that body into the secretary of state’s office, which she has occupied since 1996 when she beat Richard Petty and became the first woman elected to statewide office in North carolina. But cunningham appears to be banking that his service in Iraq, and the fact that he would be the first Iraq war veteran elected to the Us senate, outweighs marshall’s nearly two decades of service in North carolina. — Joe Murphy