Republican Joe DioGuardi and incumbent Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand squared off in a wide-ranging debate in the New York Senate special election on Thursday. The two traded barbs and stated their positions on the issues in the second of two debates in the race.
Gillibrand was appointed in 2009 to fill the vacancy created when then-Sen. Hillary Clinton became President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. Under New York’s system of replacement, Gov. David Paterson elevated the former Blue Dog Democrat from the House, where she had served only one term representing the 20th Congressional District. Gillibrand and DioGuardi are battling to fill the final two years of Clinton’s term.
DioGuardi came out swinging, branding Gillibrand as a puppet of the Obama Administration and calling her the “60th vote for the Obama agenda.” Gillibrand did not shy from the label, proudly defending her votes for the President’s health care and economic stimulus bills.
Asked to name a major Senate vote on which she opposed the administration or the state’s senior senator, Charles Schumer, Gillibrand rejected the premise of the question. “I think it’s a false question,” she said. “Sen. Schumer and I share a lot of core values. I’m glad that Sen. Schumer agrees with me so often. Sen. Schumer and I working together has made a difference.” When the moderator pressed her for an answer, Gillibrand cited her vote against the TARP program in 2008, before she was a member of the Senate.
DioGuardi pounced on Gillibrand’s inability to name a significant area of disagreement with the White House, again pointing out that she voted for healthcare and the stimulus. “It’s clear that she’s not independent,” he said.
On healthcare, Gillibrand was asked why so many Democrats are not campaigning on their votes for the bill, or otherwise campaigning against it. Gillibrand started out defending the bill but was again directed by the moderator to answer the question. “I think a lot of folks don’t understand what’s in the bill,” Gillibrand said. “I just took 45 seconds to describe each reform … it’s difficult to explain it in sound bites. I can’t speak for my colleagues. My view is that it’s a good reform, it’s a good bill.”
DioGuardi, a certified public accountant, former congressman, and former partner at Arthur Andersen, was quick with his diagnosis of the bill. “This bill did nothing to reduce the costs of healthcare,” he said. “If the Democrats wanted Republicans at table, they would have stepped on their third rail and addressed tort reform. Why wouldn’t they? There are too many lawyers in Congress. There are 57 lawyers in the Senate; I would be the second CPA. These lawsuits are causing doctors to order unnecessary tests. Why are [Democrats] running away? Just look at how healthcare premiums are going up across New York.”
In the only foreign policy question of the night, the candidates were asked whether Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, or some other country was the biggest concern for the United States in the war on terror. Gillibrand said that she was most concerned with Yemen, citing the failed Times Square bomber who was radicalized by the teachings of an anti-American Yemeni imam. Gillibrand stressed her support for the Obama Administration’s withdrawal from Iraq and boasted that she voted in favor of an end date to the war in Afghanistan.
DioGuardi focused his answer on a threat that neither Sen. Gillibrand nor the moderator had mentioned, leading to one of the livelier exchanges of the evening.
“How could you forget Iran?” he asked Gillibrand incredulously.
“The question wasn’t about Iran,” Gillibrand snapped back.
“Well, I think you must add that one,” DioGuardi said. “[Iran] is really a rogue state: threatening Israel; supporting Hezbollah; supporting Hamas; and now it wants a nuclear weapon. We really have a big problem with Iran.”
DioGuardi also went on the offensive on jobs, attacking Gillibrand’s vote for the stimulus. Gillibrand said that it was impossible for any politician to say with accuracy how many jobs were created under their watch, stating that it was her role to “make the landscape possible” for businesses to grow. DioGuardi saw his opportunity.
“Senator, you’ve been there two years, and New York has lost 160,000 jobs in that time,” he said. “Since you voted for stimulus bill, we’ve lost 125,000 jobs. Obviously, not only did you not create jobs, but we’ve lost jobs. We have a toxic environment in state mainly because of your party.”
This was last debate in a race in which Gillibrand does not have the traditional incumbent’s advantage of name recognition. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that fully one-quarter of voters have not heard enough about the senator to have an opinion on her performance. One-in-four Gillibrand supporters said in the same poll that they could change their mind about voting for her. DioGuardi still trails by double digits, but his performance in last night’s debate could help boost his numbers against an unsteady, unknown, and potentially vulnerable Democrat in this anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat election year.