Not surprisingly, Rep. Patrick McHenry and challenger Daniel Johnson agreed on almost nothing during a political forum featuring the two 10th Congressional District candidates and candidates in two statewide races recently.
The opponents spent most of their time criticizing each other over policy platforms, donations to their campaigns and McHenry's record in Congress, though they stayed civil.
McHenry, a two-term Republican from Cherryville in a district dominated by the GOP, faces Johnson, a Hickory Democrat running in his first political campaign.
The men, both 32, made statements about their platforms before taking audience questions at a forum hosted by the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business.
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McHenry emphasized his work to boost the district's economy, saying he opposed free-trade agreements that have cost thousands of jobs, supported worker retraining initiatives and voted against tax increases. He also took credit for the recent opening of a veterans' medical clinic in Hickory.
“I want to continue that type of leadership,” McHenry said.
Johnson portrayed himself as a patriotic public servant who wants to work with both parties to tackle national crises. He highlighted his time in the Navy, as a legislative correspondent for former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia and as a former state prosecutor. He also discussed the loss of his lower legs in an accident while he was serving in the Navy in 1999. The accident happened when he tried to help rescue a fellow sailor.
“I loved serving my country,” Johnson said.
Both candidates acknowledged the difficult economic conditions in the district. Johnson blamed McHenry for failing to address the problems, while the incumbent outlined his attempts to do so.
The candidates took turns responding to questions from forum sponsors and the audience about the economy, education, energy and more. Johnson repeatedly blamed McHenry for lack of leadership on important issues, while McHenry defended his record.
On a question about the recent government bailout of failing financial firms, Johnson said an “inept Congress” contributed to the crisis by allowing irresponsible lenders to make bad loans.
“My opponent sat on the Financial Services Committee when Warren Buffet (and others) warned about a subprime lending crisis. My opponent defended subprime lending,” Johnson said, adding that some of McHenry's biggest donors have been lenders who contributed to the financial crisis and benefited from the bailouts.
McHenry said the financial crisis started with mortgage industry giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which he said he supported reforming before the government seized them. “The liberals in Congress opposed it,” he said, later following up Johnson's criticism of his political gifts by pointing out that his opponent, a lawyer, takes donations from trial lawyers.
The congressman said he voted against the $700 billion bailout of financial firms because he considered it wrong “to make our taxpayers bail out irresponsible institutions that made bad deals.”
Asked if the opponents support more money for preschool education, McHenry said Congress shouldn't “throw more money” at education but should use money more efficiently, getting it to local communities instead of education administrators in Washington. He said voters should look at his education record as a whole, rather than picking out one issue.
Johnson said a lot of federal programs don't work, but that Head Start, a national preschool program for low-income children, is one that does. He said the 10th District needs early-childhood education to ensure that more people graduate from high school so they can get jobs.
“My opponent has voted against Head Start and the Pell Grants system,” Johnson said. “We need a representative in Washington who will advocate for high-quality education for everybody in the district.” Pell Grants are the federal government's primary college aid for lower-income students.
The candidates also differed on energy, a hot issue because of high, volatile fuel prices. McHenry said he voted against a renewable energy bill this year because the bill included increased taxes on American oil production.
Johnson called alternative energy “an economic necessity” and “the biggest growth industry of the next 50 years.”
“We can fill the closed furniture factories,” Johnson said.
In closing remarks, McHenry called Johnson “a good man,” but said, “We just disagree on the issues.” Without naming Johnson he said, “I think the worst thing we could do right now is raise taxes.”
Johnson said the district needs “people in Washington who will work together” to find solutions to challenges instead of “clinging to some ideology.”