Hassan & Cilley’s No Contrast Non-Debate

Primary elections ask voters to make a choice based on differences, but neither Jackie Cilley nor Maggie Hassan gave undecided Democratic primary voters much to go on in Wednesday night’s WMUR / New Hampshire Union Leader debate held at Saint Anselm College’s Institute of Politics. Both candidates passed up opportunities to contrast themselves with their opponent, prompting long-shot participant Bill Kennedy to comment, “I haven’t heard much beyond the watered-down rhetoric.”

The hour-long debate gave equal time to the three candidates, who fielded questions on state issues from New Hampshire Public Radio’s Josh Rogers, WMUR’s Josh McElveen, and the Union Leader’s John DiStaso.

McElveen kicked things off with a direct question to Cilley about whether she thinks New Hampshire needs a broad-based tax. Cilley, who has refused to take The Pledge against such taxes, gave her usual dodge before finally stating, “I think that everything is on the table.” McElveen then asked Hassan whether she is a “pledge zombie,” and Hassan reiterated her pledge to veto a sales or income tax.

DiStaso followed up with a question noting that in her first run for state senate in 2002, Hassan had stated that she would vote for the “right” income tax, and asked whether Hassan’s changed position was politically motivated. Hassan suggested her position today grew out of conversations she’s had with voters over the years making clear their opposition to such a tax.

Rogers kept up the line of questioning, challenging Cilley to go further than her earlier dodge and cut to the chase: How much revenue do you think the state needs? Cilley responded with a convoluted statement about “fair redistribution” of resources – meaning, higher taxes for someone. Cilley later stated that the state is “not making the investments that we need to make” – meaning, more spending.

“The first thing that we have to do is stop the Tea Party,” Hassan said, responding to a question from moderator Tom Griffith about her plans regarding jobs and the economy. Hassan and Cilley both stated support for restoring funding to the state university system. Hassan also voiced support for doubling the state’s tax credit for research and development and for raising cigarette taxes.

DiStaso raised a more emotional issue of capital punishment, asking each of the candidates if they would commute convicted cop killer Michael Addison’s death sentence and whether they would have vetoed the Kimberly Cates capital felony law. Hassan and Cilley responded with answers that could haunt them politically in the fall campaign. Both Hassan and Cilley said they would not commute Addison’s sentence to life, despite their personal opposition to the death penalty, but both also said they would have vetoed the Cates bill. Cilley, lamely, tried to draw a distinction between her personal beliefs and what she would do as governor on issues of capital offenses.

McElveen turned discussion to the Hepatitis C outbreak at Exeter Hospital and the state’s role in public health issues. Cilley, who got the question first, seemed unprepared for it and gave a blah-blah response. Hassan, who lives in Exeter near the hospital, had a better grasp of the issue.

DiStaso offered the candidates an opportunity to contrast themselves with retiring Gov. John Lynch. Given a chance to appeal to left-leaning primary voters who might be frustrated by Lynch’s centrism, Hassan gave the Governor a full rhetorical embrace. Cilley offered faint praise – “I thank him for his service” – then quoted the governor’s retirement announcement when he spoke of giving way for “new leadership and new ideas.”

McElveen then asked the candidates to state why they would make a better choice than the person standing next to them, and again, the women declined to draw a sharp difference. Hassan rattled off three relatively minor pieces of legislation on which the two former state senators had voted differently – concerning payday lending (Cilley voted against capping interest rates), the smoking ban in public places (Cilley opposed the ban), and a bill concerning financial penalties for labor violation. Hassan indirectly underscored the reality that the two had essentially identical voting records as state senators.

Similarity, not difference, also characterized the candidate’s pro-gambling positions, with Hassan stating flatly that “both Jackie and I have voted for expanding gambling proposals in the past.”

All the candidates dodged on Northern Pass, saying they didn’t like the existing plan but would be open to an alternative.

McElveen asked Cilley and Hassan how they could argue that they could defeat a conservative Republican opponent in the general election, given that they both lost to conservative Republicans in their 2010 re-election campaigns for state senate. Cilley laughed off the question, saying, “That was a very different time and things have changed.” Hassan said, “I have a plan to stop the Tea Party and begin reversing the damage.”

Kennedy, who was given equal time in the debate, is making his first bid for public office and did not show the political skills needed to get elected governor. Earlier in the debate he promised “karaoke Fridays” at the State House. His closing statement, something that should have been well-prepared and rehearsed, came out as a rambling mess.

Fergus@ferguscullen.com, September 5, 2012

Author: Fergus Cullen

Fergus Cullen is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party (2007-2008) and an editorial page columnist for the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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