In the first debate of their congressional race, Democrat Jennifer Roberts and Republican Robert Pittenger disagreed about rail funding, health care and the deficit-reduction plan co-authored by Charlotte’s Erskine Bowles.
But it was a dig from Roberts that punctuated the 30-minute debate at the Charlotte Chamber.
“I do not plan to use Congress as my private investment club,” she said, referring to Pittenger’s real estate investment business.
“Isn’t it funny where people go when they’re losing,” Pittenger told a reporter. “They’ve got to try to take a shot.”
Both are running for the 9th Congressional District seat represented for 18 years by Republican Sue Myrick, who’s retiring. The district includes parts of Iredell, Mecklenburg and Union counties. In GOP hands since 1952, it leans even more Republican since last year’s redistricting.
Pittenger, a former state senator, won a contested 10-candidate primary. No House candidate in the country spent more of their own money than the $1.9 million he invested in the race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He raised a total of $2.3 million.
That figure will grow. Pittenger came to the debate after a fundraising luncheon at the Charlotte City Club headlined by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Roberts, a Mecklenburg County commissioner, has raised $250,000.
Pittenger came under fire in the primary for some business deals. Among the 1,700 investors in his real estate partnerships are two state lawmakers, a congressman and a former governor.
Before two dozen people at the Chamber, Roberts and Pittenger offered stark differences.
Asked whether he supports continued federal funding for light rail or commuter rail, Pittenger made his position clear: “I’m committed to roads,” he said.
Pittenger said even an expanded rail system would take a relatively small number of commuters off highways. He would use money instead to widen roads such as Interstates 77 and 85 and U.S. 74.
Charlotte officials hope to expand the city’s light-rail system, funded in part with a half-cent sales tax. One audience member asked Pittenger why in 2007 he fought unsuccessfully to repeal that tax, which was backed by then-Mayor Pat McCrory.
Because he’d heard from commuters tired of being stuck in traffic, he said.
Roberts offered a different view.
“We need to expand … rail,” she said.
She argued that building and maintaining roads also is expensive. And she said rail critics overlook the millions in private investment that the Blue Line rail has brought.
“We have one of the greatest success stories in the country with our light rail,” she said.
On health care, Pittenger said President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act will raise costs. “What we believe is in a patient-physician relationship,” he said. “The government has to get out of the way.”
Roberts suggested improvements in so-called Obamacare, which she said would do little to cut health care costs. She praised provisions like the ones that would bar insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and allow children to stay on their parents’ plan until 26.
Pittenger also favored turning Medicaid, a program for the poor and disabled shared by state and federal governments, over to the states in the form of block grants.
Roberts said that would pose problems, particularly in some states.
Both candidates were asked about the deficit-reduction plan drafted by a commission co-chaired by Bowles, a Democrat, and former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming.
The 2010 plan would have reduced the federal debt by nearly $4 trillion through a three-to-one mix of spending cuts and tax revenue increases.
Roberts said she would use it as a starting point. “I’d tweak it,” she said, offering no details.
Pittenger said he wouldn’t support it. Later, speaking to a reporter, he said he likes parts of the plan but overall called it “a $2 trillion tax.”
“There are a lot better ways to do it,” he said.