Seated on an empty stage in a school auditorium located outside the boundaries of their own district, candidates Mary Headrick and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann exchanged views in their first and likely only appearance together.
The event, held Monday at Cleveland Middle School, took place within the lines of the newly redrawn 4th District.
Despite the location, the opponents discussed their opinions on what would be best for the 700,000 constituents of Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District to a room of approximately 100 voters.
Their positions on issues ranging from taxation to education, entitlement reforms and the impending fiscal cliff, varied dramatically. The candidates were given two minutes each to answer 10 questions-with no opportunity for rebuttal.
Headrick, an acute care physician who made the trip to Bradley County from her home in Union County, quickly led off her comments by associating Fleischmann with a political system overrun with sway from deep-pocketed special interest groups, suggesting he was not representing the concerns of the majority of his middle-class constituents.
“We need to take a hard look at the issues and the values reflected in our laws and pull back from the course that we are headed on,” the Democratic candidate said. “I feel that because of all the money in politics, we’ve had excessive influence by wealthy individuals and wealthy corporations that are guiding our laws and treaties to the cost that they are hurting our families-the middle class of the United States.”
Fleischmann, who had declined other invitations to meet Headrick in recent weeks, paid no regard to Headrick’s comments during his opening statements, instead choosing to thank the forum’s hosts and quickly emphasize his current status as congressman. But Fleischmann would soon attempt to distinguish himself from his opponent, continually referencing his vision for controlled government spending, no tax increases and balanced federal budgets.
On a question asking for positions on a long-term solution to curbing the growing national debt, the congressman said he could “not disagree more” with Headrick, who used her answer to suggest he was misguided in his recent proposal to cut taxes on capital gains to 0 percent for two years.
“It’s common sense economics,” Fleischmann said. “If you lower tax rates for everybody, and you don’t divide on whether a person goes out and makes $1 or a $1 million-I want everyone to have a good opportunity to go out and make a million dollars in this country. That’s the American dream. And big government and a tax code that is ultimately unfair is not the solution, it’s the problem.”
On a question regarding proposals for a possible compromise for the impending “fiscal cliff”-a mix of tax increases and spending cuts set to go into effect next year if Congress does not intervene-the candidates offered differing views. Fleischmann, who voted against last year’s Budget Control Act, which put the sequester in place, suggested the nation “get serious about spending,” a talking point he has reiterated since being elected in 2010.
“What I think we need to do is-as a nation, we have to get serious about spending,” Fleischmann said. “I prefer a federal balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution-I’ve voted for that. It did not pass, [but] I would like to see that pass-we have that in our great state of Tennessee, and we’re debt-free.”
The congressman also mentioned his efforts to drop discretionary government spending to levels seen pre-Obama administration and freeze it for 10 years-a proposal Headrick refuted by saying it would hurt the poor.
“The single largest variable for poor performance in kids was poverty,” she said. “Discretionary spending, which my opponent has just said he would cut, are the programs for those in poverty. Those are our SNAP Programs for food stamps and reduced or free meals for kids at lunch.”
Asked about the fiscal cliff a second time, Fleischmann offered no additional solutions. Insisting that cuts to both the Department of Defense and Medicare were off the table, the congressman said the fix to finding a mandatory budget reductions would be to look at other areas of government spending, which he did not take time to specify.
“My solution to this is [to] look for cuts elsewhere,” Fleischmann said, after reiterating his vote against the Budget Control Act. “There is so much waste, fraud and abuse in the federal budget. I have seen dollars squandered away by federal agencies that make me sick every day. These are borrowed dollars. These are not even tax dollars.”
The candidates offered up opposing views on health care, with Fleischmann reiterating his call for the repeal of Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act-an action the congressman has voted in favor of more than 30 times. Headrick called the health care law “a very good act,” focusing on its reforms to the insurance industry.
For their last question, the candidates exchanged proposals for maintaining and replacing the deteriorating, 75-year-old Chickamauga Lock. Headrick, who has said she favors an increase in the marine diesel fuel tax to help fund the $693 million repair, accused Fleischmann of being unwilling to favor a tax increase supported by members of the barge industry out of loyalty to a no new taxes pledge.
Fleischmann said he was “begging” the president to include funding for maintaining the lock in his annual budget, which was not granted for this year. The congressman added his opinion that problems with the lock were derived from a funding discrepancy rather than taxation, a view he has offered in recent weeks.
“You could have all the money in the world going into [the Inland Waterways Trust Fund],” he said. “It’s set up wrong. It’s all going to the Olmsted Lock in Kentucky. Chickamauga Lock is fourth in the line of funding. This issue is too important to play politics on, ladies and gentlemen.”
With less than one month remaining before Nov. 6, the meeting is likely the only time the candidates will share a stage before Election Day.
Following the event, a spokesman for Fleischmann said no other events with Headrick had been scheduled.