By Grant Welker
DEVENS -- The difference between U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas and challenger Jon Golnik was clear by the time they answered the first question during an hourlong debate Wednesday night: Are people better off than they were two years ago?
"I think the answer to that question is no, they are not," Golnik, a Carlisle Republican, said, citing what he called chronically high unemployment rates and spikes in gas and food prices.
"I absolutely believe people are better off," Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, said, pointing to 31 consecutive months of private-sector job growth that she attributed to the federal stimulus program. "We are on a path, but is there more to do? You bet there's more to do."
Tsongas and Golnik also debated changes they'd make to the federal tax code, ideas for creating jobs, the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, gridlock in Congress, and how to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran. Golnik, who was the more aggressive of the two, attacked Tsongas' history of voting with her party on nearly every vote, and Tsongas defended her votes in favor of key legislation on health care and the stimulus, and her work with businesses in the district.
Tsongas praised the effects of government action on the economy, health care and alternative energy subsidies, while Golnik called for repealing the Affordable Care Act, scaling back regulation on businesses and offering those entering the workforce to invest in private accounts as an alternative to Social Security.
The debate, held at the Hilton Garden Inn, was sponsored by MediaNews Group, the parent company of The Sun and the Sentinel & Enterprise, and by the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce.
One criticism Golnik returned to a few times was Tsongas' vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act, which includes a medical-device excise tax that Golnik said will cost three businesses alone in the 3rd Congressional District $100 million a year. Tsongas said that she did oppose the medical-device tax when it was brought to vote by itself but wouldn't vote against the entire health-care program because of that one component.
"I wasn't going to throw out the baby with the bath water," she said.
Tsongas called for ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans and extending it for everyone else, while Golnik said he would make the Bush tax cuts permanent. When asked about subsidies for alternative-energy companies, Tsongas pointed to successes such as a Lawrence company and said only three such companies have failed. Golnik called for an end to the subsidies, saying that if they companies were viable, they'd be able to get funding from private-sector sources and not the government.
The stark difference between the candidates was also clear when they were asked what measures they'd take to add jobs to the economy.
Tsongas talked about successes when companies worked in partnership with the government, including a Lawrence company that planned to move to North Carolina but is now staying after working with the federal, state and local governments. She also defended government regulation on what had been a "Wild West" Wall Street. Golnik said companies have $2 trillion on their balance sheets but are afraid to hire workers because of uncertainty thanks to political interference, and said too many regulations stifle the economy by imposing too many restrictions on small businesses.
Golnik defeated Tom Weaver of Westford in the September primary by more than a 2-to-1 margin. He lost to Tsongas in the 2010 election, 55 percent to 42. Tsongas, unchallenged in the Democratic primary, has been in office since winning a special election in 2007.
The debate was moderated by Daniel Asquino, president of Mount Wachusett Community College, and included questions from three panelists: Chris Camire, the Sentinel & Enterprise's Statehouse reporter; Bill Kole, the Associated Press New England bureau chief; and Marisa Donelan, the city editor of the Sentinel & Enterprise.
Follow Grant Welker at Twitter.com/SunGrantWelker.