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5th Congressional District Democrats in Devens debate

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DEVENS — Five Democratic candidates vying to fill former Rep. Marty Meehan’s seat in the U.S. Congress squared off at the Devens Common Center on Tuesday night in a 90-minute debate moderated by former WBZ radio journalist Jay McQuade.

Sponsored by the Lowell Sun, Nashoba Publishing, the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Devens Common Center, Lowell City Councilor Eileen Donoghue, Acton Rep. James Eldridge, Andover Rep. Barry Finegold, Tewksbury Rep. James Miceli, and Middlesex Community College Dean of External Affairs Niki Tsongas answered questions posed by McQuade and each other.

They sparred over free trade, global warming, the Iraq war, health care and economic development, as well as taking shots at each other over experience and past votes.

All of them favored an investigation of oil companies for price gouging, and all but Miceli — a 16-term incumbent — supported limit terms as Meehan had promised (then later reneged). None have chosen a presidential candidate. All support lifting the trade embargo on Palestine.

Eldridge and Tsongas supported troop withdrawal in 90 days, while Donoghue saw an 18-month departure period. Finegold supported the plan by Sen. Joseph Biden to set up three Iraqi states, and involving free-world leaders. Miceli would not “telegraph” a U.S. departure from Iraq because that would lead to “utter chaos” and the “worst massacres.”

All but Miceli would have voted for the “Obama/Clinton plan” to cut war funding.

Asked if they would support the current immigration plan, involving two new visas and temporary citizenship for illegals, all expressed sympathy for immigrants who have been waiting years for citizenship.

Donoghue said the plan at least does something to halt “de facto amnesty.” Eldridge backed a “path to citizenship” approach and fair trade with developing countries to raise living standards and encourage unions for workers. He opposed the family preference option.

Finegold would secure the Mexican and Canadian borders, as much for security as immigration, and wondered why the U.S. has to “import” workers. Miceli opposes the “amnesty bill” proposal, preferring to beef up enforcement of current law and starting to arrest violators.

Tsongas supported an “earned path,” securing the borders, holding employers accountable for hiring illegals, and a focus on educating future American workers for the job market.

Eldridge backed single-payer universal health care, saying premiums would not increase although payroll taxes would, while employers would not be hurt footing the bill. Donoghue would vote for it if there is the “political will,” and favors a Medicare expansion to cover children.

Finegold supports either a “free market” or single-payer approach, stating he remains “unafraid” to take on the status quo. Tsongas said guaranteed health care access was put in place by President Truman, and supports the current Bay State system while not ruling out universal health care.

Miceli supports the current House version as the “best of both worlds” between a free market and subsidy approach. He said he would support single-payer, if it can be done.

The candidates were asked if Meehan was wrong in voting for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and how they could help keep jobs from leaving the state.

Miceli said he would not have voted for NAFTA and the economic stimulus bill is a step in the right direction. He asked who is paying for the list of economic proposals except for business, which is “biting the hand that feeds you.”

Tsongas insisted America can compete in a global economy but environmental standards that cripple workers must be addressed. Unsure whether she would have voted for NAFTA, she favored an “educated work force,” seeing colleges as a resource.

Donoghue said NAFTA was a mistake, a “race to the bottom,” and wants to end the importation of workers in biotech and medical device industries with a state/private partnership that emulates the Raytheon/federal government agreement to hire graduates.

Eldridge said he is a “fierce critic” of NAFTA, emphasizing a need to unionize developing countries to increase living standards and took credit for helping bring Bristol-Myers Squibb with 750 jobs to the area. Minimum wage should be increased and the federal system “walked away” from the housing challenge, he said.

Finegold said NAFTA does not take care of American workers and, since “the Wang and Digital” era has ended, emphasis should be placed on alternative-energy jobs. The federal government needs to look at low-income housing credits, he said.

Candidates were asked if the current policy of increasing taxes on “big oil” to reverse foreign dependency could lead to cutbacks in exploration and increased dependency.

Eldridge said he wants exploration to decrease because more risky technologies are destroying, for example, the Canadian economy. He favors alternative solutions such as Cape wind, solar and raising fuel mileage. Finegold also favored “going green.”

Miceli agreed that current policy is trying to politically recover money reaped by oil barons. Crediting a move away from gasoline as a “small step forward,” he favored hydrogen, corn and sugar-based energy but said there is no delivery method.

Tsongas favored all current Congressional actions, calling for increasing gas mileage and generating 15 percent of electricity by alternative methods by 2020. Donoghue agreed with the others, supporting a cap on emissions, a requirement for 44 miles per gallon, use of hybrids, and called the Bush pro-big-oil stance, “wrong.”

Tsongas asked Miceli how he would address global warming, and he replied the U.S. shouldn’t be the only country addressing the need to decrease greenhouse gases.

Calling for a close to corporate tax loopholes, Eldridge asked Tsongas how overseas job loss can be changed.

Tsongas called for a “change in tone” in U.S. policy, stressing the increased value of higher education.

Eldridge said Washington Democrats aren’t standing up for free trade, health care or protection of workers. Tsongas answered there must be investments in research and development, and in education.

Miceli asked Eldridge how he plans to pay for universal single-payer health care. Eldridge said he’d repeal the Bush tax cut, and said the free market is the solution, not the problem.

Tsongas asked Finegold how a $100 billion renewable energy plan to build solar power and hydrogen-powered cars for military bases can be funded if Iraq continues. Finegold said a repeal of the Bush tax cuts will save 1 percent of the budget each year and that, with a $140 billion expenditure on gasoline each year, attitudes must change.

“It’s a matter of priorities,” he said. “No Alaska ‘bridge to nowhere’ and no tax breaks for military contractors.”

Eldridge asked Finegold about the bill he signed requiring abortion patients to wait 24 hours before having the procedure, in order to examine options. Finegold said he would take his name off the bill.

In closing comments, Miceli promised voters, “You can believe in me. You can trust me. There’ll be money to be had for all projects.”

Eldridge said, “There’s never a convenient time to lead and it’s easier to let political expedience dictate” but that “leadership will win the day.”

Tsongas promised to “change the tone of politics and the direction of our country. Hope is a possibility we all have for the future,” she said.

Finegold promised “not to accept no for an answer” and to “wake up Washington” to the plight of workers and alternative energy.

Donoghue said, “I know how the (federal mandates) impact all of us. Washington hasn’t done its job,” and “there can be no substitute for experience and leadership.”

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