With just over a week left until the primary election, the 12th Congressional District’s Democratic candidates Erin McClelland and John Hugya took the stage at The University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown to debate the issues and try to set themselves apart from each other.
And boy, did they.
McClelland, a healthcare professional specializing in orthomolecular addiction treatment, quickly established her bona fides as a policy wonk and portrayed herself as forward-looking problem-solver from the private sector.
Hugya, a retired Marine Colonel and former district director for the late Congressman Jack Murtha, spoke solemnly about veterans issues and proudly promised to put his Murtha-modeled pork prowess to work for voters.
These two different perspectives led to two varying lines of answering the questions put to them by the moderator and the audience.
Job Creation and Economic Development
Hugya explained his jobs platform as following the example set by Congressman John Murtha, who Hugya said was unfairly chastised for his earmarks. “All the jobs we have in Johnstown came from earmarks,” Hugya said. “Look at China, they’re building everything. Ten years ago, you look at a picture of Peking, you saw a rickshaw and a bicycle. They have pulled ahead and we have not done anything in 20 years.”
McClelland said that the number one thing she would want to do in Congress is vote for a jobs bill, explaining that we currently have “policies that support free trade but not fair trade,” and “we need to change that so we can bring jobs back home.” And, McClelland added, when you bring jobs back home, you expand our tax base and begin to solve a lot of our economic issues in that way.”
Both candidates said that infrastructure maintenance and construction were crucial to economic development. McClelland said that currently “we are neglecting [our infrastructure] to the point of complete disrepair, and if it keeps deteriorating, rebuilding will cost more down the road and affect my son’s generation.”
Hugya, however, explained that in his view, “we need money disbursed from commercial banks to get our infrastructure going,” namely by passing a 21st century Glass-Steagall Act to keep traditional banks separate from investment banks and hedge funds.
McClelland began her discussion by saying that “the biggest issue we have [at the federal level] is closing the Halliburton loophole.” The Halliburton loophole allows hydraulic fracturing companies to withhold details about the makeup of their fracking fluid.
“You know what’s in your pastry at Giant Eagle, but doctors don’t know how to treat health issues related to fracking because they don’t know the chemicals,” McClelland explained.
Hugya focused on the need to create more jobs in the district because “they don’t have coal mines anymore in the western part of the state.” Hugya said that people in Beaver County need a commitment from the drillers as much as they need health protections.
Coal and the EPA
McClelland began her answering by saying that “I have a 13 year old boy with asthma, and one of the most terrifying moments of my life was watching my son grasp for air.” And according to McClelland, the incumbent Congressman, Keith Rothfus, is a “climate change denier.”
McClelland proposed incentivizing companies who innovate on pollution reduction, and pointed out that America’s trade partners are “literally dumping garbage into the air.”
“We have to implement CO2 regulations based on a process of continuous improvement… not incentivize our trading partners to keep polluting,” McClelland said.
Hugya responded to the question by attacking the regulations on emissions from new power plants.
“The rules and regulations are done within the EPA,” said Hugya. “That’s not the law. They can work out any kind of deal they need to make jobs happen. They got to be able to work out a deal not to hurt the people and not to hurt the atmosphere.”
Reforming Social Security and Medicare
According to McClelland, “this is our biggest issue.”
“Medicaid and Medicare costs are exploding at twice the rate of our GDP,” McClelland said. “If you want to solve that problem, that solution is error reduction. We have 300 million medical errors every year,” which McClelland said is a massive part of the cost problem.
“Keith Rothfus says the only answer to not killing patients is tort reform,” McClelland said. “He wants to change the way you can sue after a medical error. I taught hospitals how to reduce medical errors and save lives.”
Hugya said that his “proposal to keep the fund perpetuated is to lower the percentage that we’re all paying, but pay the whole year through.” That way, Hugya said, “the system would not run out of money. And we need to eliminate fraud.”
How to Keep People in the District
For Hugya, the best solution to the district’s brain drain is simple: “earmarks.”
“We have to have the jobs here for them to come back to,” he said.
McClelland said that her solution would be the same thing that kept people in the district for decades: “a good reasonable wage, good schools, and a good home life with maybe enough left over for a ball game.”
McClelland added that Pennsylvania has “zero Congressmen and zero Senators who are female in a state that is 52% female,” and she hoped to be an inspiring example for Keystone State women.
Minimum Wage Bill
Hugya said that he finds the $10.10 minimum wage bill to be “questionable,” adding that “I remember being paid $1.37 when I got out of the military.”
“If you give them the $10 dollars, and they’re living in public housing, the public housing goes up,” Hugya said. “It’s a good thing to say it, but it’s not going to increase the economic welfare of people.”
McClelland said that raising the minimum wage “is an issue of being a human being.”
“I own a business and the lowest paid employee makes $13.25 an hour,” McClelland said. “When people go to work and put in a hard day’s work, they should have enough money to live off of.”
Affordable Care Act
When asked if she was in favor of keeping, reforming, or repealing Obamacare, McClelland said she “absolutely support[s] maintaining the Affordable Care Act.”
“There are now 8 million more people in this country that can live their life knowing they can rely on the security of health insurance,” McClelland said, adding that health security is “a fundamental human right.”
Hugya spent most of his answer comparing Obamacare to TriCare, the health care program for military personnel and dependents. As to Obamacare generally, Hugya said that at this point “we have to have it, but we have to get into certain sections of it, test it out like we did Tricare, [and] if it’s no good fix it.”
The veterans portion of the debate got heated quickly.
Hugya began by saying that “Mr. Rothfus doesn’t understand the difference between a corporal and a colonel.”
He then demanded to know how many members of McClelland’s family were in the military. McClelland said that her two grandfathers had served.
Hugya awkwardly responded with, simply, “okay,” and the moderator, Ray Wrabley, broke in after a few awkward seconds of silence, saying “moving on…”
Hugya began by saying that “from my past experience, I can tell you that in the 12th Congressional District we had before, it’s where the best schools were,” but he wasn’t sure if it was due to “smarter kids or teachers.”
“I know teachers don’t like to get evaluated, but I know that I had to get evaluated in a fitness report all my life,” Hugya said. “They worry about making jocks out of them and not making them technically qualified. You get a job because you’re damn qualified.”
McClelland took on the way we currently analyze schools, and what she sees as the perverse incentives of federal funding.
“We test our students to try and ascertain how they are working, and then bureaucrats in D.C. use that data to punish schools and teachers and take money away, and who suffers? It’s our children,” she said.
“We need to use the data to make improvements,” McClelland added. “When we use testing, we should ask whether student has shown continuous improvement.”
McClelland said that we are currently “in a pattern of reactionary foreign policy, which is a dangerous place to be because it allows our enemies to dictate our decisions.” McClelland also criticized the manner in which Congress handles defense spending.
According to McClelland, Congress fails to do defense spending “in a modular fashion, which is what businesses use.” Instead, McClelland said we are spending in a way that asks for “a bunch of this and a bunch of that, but not what our people need.”
Hugya began his response by talking about his former boss, saying “Mr. Murtha was right about Iraq,” and that after Murtha criticized President Bush’s decision, “you have no idea the hell that happened on him. They came after him, me, and our whole staff.”
Hugya was referencing the various ethics investigations that we brought against Murtha. He also added that “I carried a top secret clearance in the Marine Corps and on the Hill, and I can tell you that you have no idea what went on, but Mr. Murtha was not happy.”
Finally, Hugya went on a tirade against the incumbent 12th District Congressman, Keith Rothfus, saying he “isn’t smart, his staff is,” and that Rothfus “pretends he’s a military guy, but he is not.”
“Keith has never had his hands dirty,” Hugya said. “I worked in a coal furnace. I know what it’s like to work hard.”
Best Concluding Remarks
Each candidate gave a conclusion summarizing their experience, and each candidate had a memorable one-liner.
Hugya ended by saying that “I’ve fought with some of you before, and I’ve drank with some of you before. What you see is what you get.”
McCelland said that “we need to mobilize the greatest weapon in our economic arsenal, and that is the American middle class.”
Post-Debate Conspiracy Theory
After the debate, I was walking toward McClelland’s campaign manager, Adam Stokes, when Colonel Hugya approached him and accused McClelland of wearing an “ear bud” during the debate. Hugya said to him that her answers were too quick and cited too many statistics.
While I did not hear the entirety of the conversation, McClelland’s campaign manager confirmed to me that Hugya was not at all kidding around, but was making a serious accusation.
McClelland’s campaign manager said the accusation was “ridiculous.” A quick scan of McClelland’s ear revealed no ear bud.