Grassley/Conlin Radio Debate

The two major party candidates for the U.S. Senate met this evening in WHO Radio’s studio in Des Moines for an hour-long debate.  What follows is a live blog of the event:

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley’s opening statement started with a declaration that he doesn’t “take voters for granted” and then he bypassed his biography and he talked about a few issues, emphasizing that he hears this most often from voters: “I’m scared.”

Democratic challenger Roxanne Conlin’s opening statement started with her “personal story” including her childhood and her work as an attorney.  She talked about jobs, the deficit, veterans issues.  “The biggest issue for everyone is how do we get people back to work…Senator Grassley’s plans are simply more of the same that plunged our economy into this crisis, that punished the middle class and exploded the debt.”

When both were asked why they are running, Conlin said she “decided to run because I felt that Senator Grassley had lost touch with the people of Iowa.”  She cited first his vote to bail-out Wall Street and his comment about “pulling the plug on grandma.”  She called that comment “pure fear mongering and I felt like somebody should stand up for regular Iowans.” 

Grassley was given a chance to respond, and he began by saying Conlin “has done good thru the practice of law…to improve our society” and Grassley said he’s worked thru government as an elected official “to improve our society.”  Grassley mentioned several pieces of legislation and in two instances cited his work with the late Senator Ted Kennedy to illustrate he works “in a bipartisan way” in the senate.

“Congress is a place where you don’t solve every problem, but you can set an environment” for problem solving, according to Grassley.

At this point, Grassley made this declaration, which he soon abandoned: “I won’t answer the charges…because I’d like to keep this a very positive campaign.”

Grassley touted his seniority, experience and his “willingness to fight government waste.”  Grassley then said:  “She said I’m a tool of the pharmaceutical companies.”  Grassley said he wasn’t a “tool” and the two wound up discussing this issue through much of the rest of the debate.

Debate moderator Gary Barrett of WHO Radio brought up a Rasmussen survey last week which showed 43 percent of likely voters believe neither Democrats nor Republicans are the party of the American people and he asked both to address that.

Grassley said in 2006, voters told Republicans “we had lost our fiscal conservatism.”  Then, a few minutes later Grassley made a tactical campaign declaration Mitch McConnell probably doesn’t want said out loud:  “I don’t think we’ll control the senate, but we’ll get more Republican senators.”

Conlin said the reason people don’t trust people in Washington is because they see the connection between big money and big business and congress. “And they say to themselves, ‘Where am I in this process?”  Conlin promised to be “a fiercely independent citizen-legislator” not beholden to either a party or a president.

Conlin then questioned Grassley’s record as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the two tax cuts and the promise of prescription drug coverage for America’s senior citizens, saying those actions had driven the federal deficit higher and higher.  “Senator Grassley says, ‘I’m not going to respond,’ to my attacks, but I’m not attacking him personally, I’m asking him to defend his record,” Conlin said.

Grassley quickly piped up: “I’ll take her up on that. She’s entitled to her own opinion but she’s not entitled to her own facts.”

Grassley criticized Conlin for contributing $416 per month to the political action committee that represents the nation’s trial lawyers.  “And why if the TARP legislation is bad, why would you contribute to…either eight or 11 members of the House of Representatives who voted for the TARP legislation? So I think there’s a total inconsistency there.”

Grassley defended Medicare Part D (the prescription drug benefit for seniors), saying it “passed within the budget” and is the “only program I know…that has come in under budget.”

Conlin responded that the two tax cuts were “budget-busting and didn’t create any net jobs.”  She also attacked Grassley for going along with the plan to “fighting two wars off the books and on the credit cards.”

In the Veterans Administration system, the VA negotiates with drug companies to lower the prices of Rx meds.  That is prohibited, under Medicare Part D.  Conlin brought this up again, and criticized Grassley, citing a specific medication that costs a little less than $200 in the VA system and costs almost $1500 in Medicare.

Grassley disputed her figures: “She’s obviously so wrong…I get tired of my opponent saying I’m a tool of the pharmaceutical companies.”  

Conlin said she never used that exact turn of phrase.

There was next a term limit discussion. Conlin said she “can’t imagine” serving more than two terms in the U.S. Senate and she questioned Grassley’s commitment to term limits.  Grassley has supported the concept, but Grassley told the radio audience that he wouldn’t impose term limits on himself until all senators were subject to term limits.  Grassley said Iowa shouldn’t lose out on the seniority he (and Iowa’s other US Senator, Tom Harkin) have accumulated unless all states are equal.

The candidates talked at length about the Bush-era tax cuts and other fiscal issues.  At about 15 minutes left in the discussion, the two landed onto the issue of extending the duration of unemployment benefits.  Grassley said he and other Republicans offered a plan pay for the extention.  Conlin criticized Grassley for voting no against the Democrats’ plan that extended unemployment benefits to 99 weeks for the long-term unemployed — “lots of people over 40, over 50, over 60 who’ve lost long-term jobs.”

Grassley shot back about Conlin’s charge that he’d voted against raising the minimum wage.  “If she wants to go back to the 1970s, she may be right, but the last two times I voted” for raising the minimum wage, Grassley said. 

Conlin quickly replied: “He just accused me of being a liar.”  Conlin said Grassley had recently voted against raising the minimum wage to $7.20 an hour.

The next question was about community college tuition. They both want to help students go to college, although they cite different means of providing that help.

Time flies by.  It’s now 7:56 p.m. and time for final statements.  Grassley went first:  “I don’t think there’s a whole lot to say…This is a very good discussion and one that I enjoyed very much…My closing statement will be similar to my opening statement…I hold a public trust.  This office doesn’t belong to me.  This office has to be renewed.  That’s what this election is all about.”  He pledges to visit every one of Iowa’s 99 counties, to respond to every phone call & email message and closes with a fiscal message, promises to be focused on deficit reduction if elected to another term.

Conlin:  “I wish we had more time and I do want to say to people in Iowa that in a week…voters have a choice.” Conlin said she offered “a fresh new vision for the future.”  Conlin said “35 years in Washington has changed Grassley.”  She said he used to be a “deficit hawk” but had “turned into kind of a professional politician.”  She said if elected, she’d take the special interests’ power away from them.  Her closing line: “In every day and in every way, I will work for the people of Iowa.”

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.