Candidates disagree on Trump influence

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Crossing swords in two debates in the midterm elections’ final two weeks, the candidates vying to represent Monroe County in the 25th Congressional District, Democrat Joe Morelle and Republican Jim Maxwell, had very different approaches to President Donald Trump’s policies.

Morelle sought to put Trump in the forefront, while Maxwell said he would have been happy to leave his party’s leader entirely out of the debate.

In his first words in the earlier Oct. 25 Voice of the Voter debate, Morelle came out swinging—not at Maxwell but at Trump.

Joe Morelle

Entirely ignoring his opponent, Morelle framed the contest thusly: “We can go down a path that’s been led by a president whose incendiary comments are seeking to divide the country, whose decision to talk to the media as though they are the enemy of the people, to talk about political adversaries as evil. This type of incivility, this type of division, I don’t think is the America we want.”

Laying out his anti-Trump argument later in the same debate, Morelle amplified the theme: “Donald Trump is pretty much by every account a terrible business leader. He’s gone bankrupt many times. He doesn’t seem to have even the most basic knowledge of how our economy works or the global economy, which is why he has willy-nilly slapped tariffs based on some whim.

“His national economic adviser, Gary Cohn from Goldman Sachs, resigned rather than work with the president, who, he said, essentially had a fifth-grade knowledge base around the economy. It’s just a shame what he has done, his lack of candor, his lack of integrity, not to mention his complete lack of understanding of the national or global economy.”

Jim Maxwell

If Morelle, a well-established Democrat in the state party’s upper echelon who currently serves as Assembly Majority Leader, meant to bait his opponent into defending Trump, Maxwell did his best not to bite.

Studiously avoiding any mention of Trump during the entire first debate, Maxwell, a neurosurgeon and first-time candidate, cast himself as an uncorrupted political neophyte whose outsider status holds out a hope of purifying a polluted and stalled political system.

“I have become very frustrated with what I’m seeing in Washington, D.C.,” Maxwell said. “As I’ve gone through the county over the last year running my campaign, I’ve talked to innumerable people. Universally, they say Congress is broken.”

Morelle’s focus on Trump, he insisted, should be out of bounds.

“I keep hearing this injection of Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Donald Trump into this race by Assemblyman Morelle. I am not Donald Trump,” Maxwell complained, agreeing to mention the president only after a moderator’s question late in the second debate turned the discussion toward Trump.

In any event, Morelle’s hammering on Trump might not have mattered. The president had already muscled himself onto the ballot, inveighing all GOP candidates to “make the midterms a referendum on me.” Trump also contended at numerous GOP candidates rallies that a vote for the Republican he was stumping for would be a vote for him.

Maxwell stipulated that he has never met or spoken to Trump and had taken no national GOP cash, financing his campaign with local donations. Campaign finance records show that Maxwell pulled in individual donations of more than $400,000, including $1,000 of his own money.

But perhaps more to the point is Trump’s virtually complete takeover of the Republican Party, a coup in which he has forced a GOP old guard that initially held him in contempt to either bow to him, leave office or quit the party.

For many of the party’s traditional leaders this has meant abandoning norms and policies they once claimed to cherish. Those who remain, by Trump’s own testimony, are inextricably bound to Trump.

Trump opponents include most Democrats and are for the most part a group made up of Democrats and progressives. But a few former high-level GOP stalwarts are also looking to derail the Trump train. Now outcasts by their own design, they have disavowed the party rather than endorse the president.

To conservative columnist George Will and Steve Schmitt, a top strategist in Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, reining in Trump is crucial to the nation’s future. Seeing Democratic control of at least one house of Congress as a critically important prerequisite of attaining that goal, both have urged Republicans to vote for Democrats in the midterms.

Not that Will or Schmitt have turned liberal. Progressive Democratic policies would ruin the country but would leave still it in better shape than an unconstrained Trump, Will has argued.

While reluctant to link his candidacy to Trump, Maxwell is a GOP partisan, saying, “I am a proud Republican. I’ve always been a Republican. I’m going to die a Republican.”

Accordingly, the take Maxwell offered on Trump as the second debate drew to a close was in line with current GOP orthodoxy.

“I think Donald Trump has done some very good things. First of all, he listened to a bunch of people who were not being listened to. They saw their jobs go overseas. They saw their wage stagnate. They saw their towns fill up with opioids,” said a visibly moved Maxwell. “He listened to them and he gave them a voice and he gave them a platform and he hasn’t deviated from that platform one iota.”

Still, Maxwell had one misgiving: “The way (Trump) tweets and the way he talks about groups of people, especially about women, is not right,” he allowed, promising that he would “go to Washington and I will stand up to him if he’s doing things that I think are not right for Monroe County.”

Indeed, lack of civility in the current political climate, said Maxwell, “pierces to the heart of why I am running for Congress in the first place, this bitter, bitter, bitter partisan divide that allows us to get nothing accomplished. … I think calling out ways and saying, look, guys, we’ve got to work together. … We have to start a conversation; we have to work together.”

All well and good, Morelle said. But negative ads by Maxwell’s campaign are “absolutely the ugliest thing I’ve seen in local politics in years,” he added, questioning Maxwell’s call for bipartisan comity.

The ad Morelle objects to features an unflattering photograph of Morelle and an ominously voiced narration decrying Morelle’s ties with former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Silver, a Manhattan Democrat under whom Morelle served as Majority leader, was convicted on corruption charges and ousted from his seat. The ad criticizes Morelle for remarks Morelle made in 2001 doubting a young woman’s claim to have been sexually assaulted by a top Silver aide and counsel Richard Boxley, who was convicted in a separate rape case two years later.

Maxwell refused to apologize for the ad: “I feel the one ad that I had in my campaign that was a little bit negative was enlightening. I felt compelled to make that ad (for two reasons): one is the association with Sheldon Silver and two is the rape allegation from 2001.”

In a late-breaking development that came some five days after Maxwell’s reaffirmation of the ad, the woman who had made the 2001 allegation, Elizabeth Crothers, withdrew an endorsement she had previously made of Maxwell and switched her backing to Morelle, stating that she had accepted an apology Morelle offered earlier this year.

Given the district’s demographics, Maxwell’s no-Trump strategy made sense.

Entirely seated in Monroe County, the 25th is the only local congressional district in which Democrats appear to have a clear edge. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton took Monroe County by 29 points, winning 58.8 percent to 37.5 percent.

And as Rochester Beacon executive editor Paul Ericson recently reported, Democrats’ slice of the local electorate grew from 31 percent to 41 percent between 2000 and 2018. During that period Republicans lost ground, falling from 36 percent to 28 percent of the county’s registered voters, Ericson found. Democratic gains appeared largely in the suburbs where the GOP traditionally has held sway. Independent registration, meanwhile, stayed steady at 24 percent.

In both debates, the candidates’ positions on non-Trump issues generally fell along party lines.

Morelle declares himself in favor of more gun control; Maxwell opposes it. Morelle excoriates the GOP tax cut; Maxwell declares it a success. Maxwell praises Trump’s handling of the economy; Morelle says the Trump boom is riding on the Obama administration’s coat tails. Morelle favors Medicare for all; Maxwell thinks more competition among insurance companies will cure the country’s health care ills; Morelle sees Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns as scandalous; Maxwell would prefer not to talk about it.

Both candidates say they want to preserve entitlement programs. But Morelle favors more heavily taxing high-income earners to fund Social Security and Medicare. Maxwell argues raising eligibility is a better solution.

Referring to a piece Maxwell wrote in the Monroe County Medical Society’s newsletter last summer, Morelle accused Maxwell of advocating privatization of Social Security. Maxwell did not respond.

Both candidates called for strong borders and immigration reform. But they split on the caravan of Central American asylum-seeking refugees that is slowly making its way north to the U.S. southern border.

Trump portrays the caravan as an invading force and is making it a central midterm issue, claiming that it is peopled by terrorists and gang members.

In sending potentially 15,000 U.S. troops “to guard a few thousand men, women and children walking (and now) about 1,000 miles from the U.S. border unarmed, clearly the president as he does on everything makes up his own facts, denies reality and is now doing just about everything he can to politicize the situation, to create a crisis where none exists,” Morelle charged.

Appearing not entirely comfortable with the question, Maxwell allowed that sending troops to the border might be “a little bit over the top,” but as a bottom line “you can’t allow people to barge their way into the United States illegally.”

 On climate change, Maxwell seemed to hew to his promise to stand up to Trump, a non-believer who has called climate change a hoax perpetrated by China and whose administration is aggressively reducing environmental regulation.

“I do believe that climate change is real, and I think mankind contributes to it and I am all in favor of reducing fossil fuels and going to renewables,” Maxwell declared. However, he added, “the problem is that (taking action) immediately now in front of enough scientific research will impose a tremendous burden and a drag on our economy.”

No practical alternatives to fossil fuel now exist or are on the immediate horizon, he said. If we move too precipitously against fossil fuels, he argued, “many of the people in manufacturing and certain industries will suffer tremendously” while “China and India will continue to pollute to promote their economies.”

“Right now they don’t have a way to store electricity,” Maxwell claimed. “I do think scientific research in the future will bring us to where we want to be. Scientific progress will happen. … If they find a way to store electricity over a couple of days, I think fossil fuels will be in trouble.”

Not true, countered Morelle. Storage batteries for solar generation systems do exist, are commercially available and are already sufficiently advanced to make solar power economically feasible and competitive.

“I don’t think the science has to catch up,” Morelle declared. “The science is clear. There are businesses that are being built right now. We need to accelerate those businesses and move immediately away from the reliance on fossil fuels. To not take this seriously or to suggest that it will happen magically is folly. We can’t afford to wait.”

On health care, both candidates agree that high costs are a problem. They favor keeping protections against insurers denying coverage to patients with pre-existing conditions. Both also say they do not favor cutting Medicare or Medicaid. Still, they see plenty to disagree about.

Morelle favors expansion of Medicare to some or all of the population. While expressing a desire not to kill the popular program, Maxwell argued against expanding it.

“Medicare for all is not the way to go,” Maxwell contended in the first debate. “I don’t think the government should be tasked with running the whole health care system. I don’t think they’re ready for it. I don’t think they’re good at it. We’ve talked about getting everybody covered and I think that’s a great idea, but cost is the elephant in the room. The essence of the problem is cost. A single-payer system is just that, single. Competition has got to be introduced into the health care system so as to bring down cost.”

Letting insurance companies sell across state lines has been a staple of GOP health care proposals, including those of Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan, for years. Proponents believe that if more insurers can sell in a given market, greater competition among them will force them to cut premiums.

In a system Maxwell proposes, employers would put money they now spend to help pay workers’ premiums into their employees’ health savings accounts; each employee could shop for a plan, the market would open up, and premiums would plummet.

Morelle, a former chair of the Assembly’s Insurance Committee, objected that Maxwell’s plan ignores the insurance market’s actual dynamics.

Actuarial realities that are driven by risk pool composition and size and the cost of services, drugs and medical equipment, and not prices charged by other insurers, guide premium prices, Morelle said. More companies dividing up a market would leave each with smaller risk pools. Sending employees out to buy insurance on their own would water down group-plan discounts they now enjoy, putting them into higher risk and higher premium direct-pay pools.

“There is no prohibition against an individual company giving money to an employee to go out and make the best deal they can, but you can’t make a good deal when you’re just by yourself in the individual marketplace,” Morelle argued. “The whole important part of insurance is that if you want to drive down cost, you have to share risk. You want bigger pools, not smaller ones.”

There is already significant competition among insurers in New York, Morelle added. Nothing prohibits any insurer willing to comply with the state’s insurance law from selling plans in New York. Plans favored by Republicans would eliminate state regulation and thus strip consumer protections. If an undercapitalized out-of-state company were to go under, for example, its policy holders would be left hanging.

As the curtain came down on debate two, Maxwell insisted: “I object to making this race a decision about Donald Trump. It isn’t. It’s about Joe Morelle and Jim Maxwell,” he said.

“I wish Donald Trump wasn’t the issue either,” countered Morelle. “But then again, I wish he wasn’t the president. The truth is, he is. He looms large over the midterm elections. … And frankly, with all due respect to Dr. Maxwell, it’s not what’s in Donald Trump’s tweets that bothers me; it’s what’s in his heart.”

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