By THE BLUE & GRAY PRESS EDITORIAL BOARD
Around 100 students and Fredericksburg community members attended the 1st Congressional District debate sponsored by the UMW Young Democrats, the UMW College Republicans and The Blue & Gray Press on Monday night. The debate gave incumbent Republican Representative Rob Wittman, Democratic challenger Norm Mosher and Independent Green Party candidate Gail Parker a platform to discuss many issues, ranging from student debt to transportation.
Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and director for the Center for Leadership and Media Studies, moderated the debate. Panelists included B101.5 News Director Ted Schubel and The Free Lance-Star Assistant Editorial Page Editor Chelyen Davis. The Free Lance-Star, the Fredericksburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the Center of Leadership and Media Studies co-sponsored the event, along with the UMW student groups.
Throughout the debate, Mosher continually challenged Wittman’s record of representing the 1st District, asking the audience on numerous occasions whether they are happy with the incumbent, “or is it time for change?”
Wittman argued that Washington’s current largest issue is “a disconnection between our lawmakers and the people they represent,” and emphasized a “record of reaching across the aisle.”
The third party candidate, Parker, spent most of her time during the debate explaining the positions of the Independent Green Party. Parker’s platform is centered upon conserving the environment by increasing mass rail transit and usage of renewable energy. She stated that by expanding rails, the country could decrease its reliance on foreign oil and use energy more efficiently, thus growing the economy and decreasing the need to go to war.
“We need to grow the economy and provide greater opportunities, and we can do that by building rail. And when we grow the economy, we grow revenue,” Parker said. “That is the positive solution, the multiplier solution that affects a lot of other issues.”
The most notable division between candidates was on the issue of healthcare, with Mosher arguing he would not change anything about the ACA, while Wittman focused on a need to repeal and replace the law.
Wittman argued for a need to repeal and replace the ACA, despite stating that he supported aspects of the policy that allow people with preexisting conditions to purchase insurance and young people to stay on their parents’ plans until turning 26, arguing for private insurance.
“Why is it that insurance for automobiles and homes can be marketed across the nation, and we see lots of competition and lower prices there, yet for health insurance you can’t do that?” Wittman asked.
Mosher pushed back stating, “Five years we’ve had the Affordable Care Act on the books, and each year the Republicans have said, ‘repeal it and replace it.’ But with what?”
“All I hear is tort reform and selling across state lines,” Mosher said. “There was time when you could have had tort reform if you’d been willing to work with the president at all.”
One audience-submitted question came from a UMW student, asking the candidates “How can higher education be made more affordable for today’s college students?”
Wittman emphasized a need for workforce development and technology training, noting that specialized credentials could be a larger influence than college degrees for future job requirements.
Wittman also stated education is more practical if we “make sure there are jobs there for [students] and that the education they receive relates directly to a job that’s out there. We need to make sure students have a job to go to, and they have a proper education to get there.”
Alternatively, Mosher focused on the issue of rising student debt and argued that the government has no reason to reduce student loan costs, and therefore a new system should be put in place.
“The government is making $51 billion a year on the interest of student loans. I don’t think the government should be in that business,” Mosher said.
In an interview after the debate Mosher explained that universities continue raising rates because students will continue paying them in order to get an education.
“Universities and colleges across the country are raising their rates for no reason other than they can because students will bring in whatever money they need,” Mosher said. “It’s become a big business.”
Parker believes the issue of student debt needs to move out of the government’s hands.
“I agree that we do need to make education more affordable,” Parker said. “I’m not sure, though, that we need to put it in the hands of the federal government.”
In a question about whether or not the minimum wage should be raised, Wittman proposed a solution to strengthening the economy. He believe that providing better jobs and training, rather than raise the minimum wage is the best solution. He re-emphasized a need for technical training, noting minimum wage as “a side issue” to job creation.
In his closing statement, Wittman expressed the importance of voter turnout in the upcoming election, while Mosher took the time to once again push against Wittman’s political record and platform, stating that the public wants change.
“I thought [the debate] went excellently. I think Norm answered the questions beautifully, and he did a wonderful job,” said Ben Hermerding, president of the UMW Young Democrats. “Norm presented a great argument this evening. It’s the difference between a partisan gridlock and an everyday person who just wants to get stuff done.”
Nicole Tardif, chairman of the UMW College Republicans also found the debate successful, though with a different outcome.
“I think the debate went very well. I think it was very clear that Congressman Wittman won the debate with his knowledge of current events and the issues,” Tardif said.
The student groups that sponsored the event said they were pleased with the turnout, and noted the importance of open debate.
“I always say that more students should always turn out because I wholeheartedly believe that every student should turn out to events like this,” Hermerding said.
Tardif echoed these sentiments, pressing the need to involve students in elections.
“I think it’s very helpful for students to see who they will be voting for, and I hope that we have the ability to sponsor similar debates in the future,” said Tardif.
To vote in the Virginia election, voters must be registered by Oct. 14. Election Day is on Tuesday, Nov. 4, and absentee ballots for are due by mail to the local registrar’s offices by 5:00 p.m. on Oct. 28.