Republican congressional candidates for the 7th District touted vastly different credentials Monday night in a Johnston County GOP debate. N.C. Sen. David Rouzer spoke of his legislative experience cutting budgets, while opponent Ilario Pantano tried to paint him as a Washington insider.
Pantano blasted what he described as Rouzer’s 20 years on Capitol Hill, though Rouzer pointed out that he spent only 10 years working in the city. Pantano said his lack of experience in elected office will make him a better congressman.
“In the past 10 years, I’ve probably spent more time in North Carolina than you have,” he told Rouzer. “I think it’s time for some private-sector experience. I’ve worked with different types of businesses that have different needs, but real private-sector budget constraints. Career politicians are drawn into the morass of lobbyists and special-interest money.”
For his part, Rouzer pointed to his work in cutting more than $1 billion from the state budget last year, adding that he has the skills to cut spending in Washington. “It takes courage, it takes political will,” he said. “I know how to say no, and the record proves it.”
While many of Pantano’s campaign ads have focused on illegal immigration, the issue didn’t come up Monday in questions submitted by those in attendence. Pantano briefly mentioned “protecting our borders” in his opening statement, but he didn’t discuss his repeated claims that Rouzer lobbied on behalf of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Asked about the issue after the debate, moderator Linwood Parker – the mayor of Four Oaks – said local voters are focused elsewhere this year. “I think they’re concerned about the economy, about high gas prices,” he said.
Rouzer, a former aide to Sen. Jesse Helms from McGee’s Crossroads, will square off against military veteran and businessman Pantano of Wilmington in May’s GOP primary. The winner will face U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, an incumbent Democrat from Lumberton, in the November election.
Pantano ran unsuccessfully against McIntyre in 2010, but both men are largely unknown to Johnston County voters. Redistricting recently moved Johnston County to the 7th District with Wilmington and southeastern North Carolina.
Here’s what the candidates had to say about other major issues:
On the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages and civil unions: All three candidates said they support the amendment, which goes before voters at the May primary.
Rouzer said he co-sponsored the legislation that put the proposed amendment on the ballot, and he added that defining marriage as “between a man and a woman” is one of the most important issues today.
Pantano, however, went further and predicted what might happen if the amendment doesn’t pass. “If we don’t pass it, and marriage is not part of our constitution, (existing laws banning gay marriage) can be overturned in several years,” he said.
If that happens, Pantano said, pastors will be forced to marry gay people or have their church’s assets taken over by the government. But in the states that recognize gay marriages, churches that don’t support such weddings aren’t required to perform them.
On improving the economy: Discussing his plans, Rouzer pointed his party’s recent successes in the General Assembly, including regulatory reform efforts, a balanced budget without tax increases and opposition to the health-care reform law. The same efforts are needed on the national level, he said.
“If we can do a quarter of those things in Washington, we can turn this economy and this country around very quickly,” he said.
Pantano said his experience in the private sector gives him the knowledge to help business grow. “It’s a pro-growth agenda,” he said, adding that he also wants to cut corporate tax rates and push the country toward energy independence.
On term limits: Pantano and Rouzer disagree strongly on whether term limits are needed for members of Congress. Pantano says term limits are desperately needed, and he’s signed numerous pledges not to seek reelection, even bonding the value of his home to prove he’s serious.
“The greatest gift that George Washington ever gave the people was that he stepped down,” Pantano said.
But Rouzer said he opposes term limits after working for years with Sen. Helms. Helms, he said, had more power over the “liberal bureaucracy” because he served for so long. And he said President Barack Obama will be “unleashed and unrestrained” if he’s reelected, since he won’t have to face voters again.
“If you want to hand the keys of power to the liberal bureaucracy, term limits will do it,” Rouzer said.
--Colin Campbell, staff writer