Saturday, October 28, 2006

TOP STORY >>Candidates in hot seat

IN SHORT: Berry defends his record during their debate as Cabot mayor says the congressman is ineffective, lacks character, accepts farm subsidies.

Leader staff writer

The first and only debate between Cong. Marion Berry (D-Gillett) and his Republican challenger, Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh of Cabot, ended with Stumbaugh hurling accusations of infidelity and public drunkenness at the incumbent.

This reporter was one of three journalists on a panel questioning the candidates at the Reynolds Performance Hall in Conway on Wednesday. The debate was the last in a series of live televised debates on the Arkansas Education Television Network (AETN). The candidates face off at the polls Tuesday, Nov. 7 in the statewide general election.

Stumbaugh attacked Berry’s character, saying, “I’ve never been thrown off the floor of the House of Representatives for being drunk. I never showed up at the Holiday Inn in Jonesboro or at the Raddison in Memphis with anybody other than my wife.”
A visibly upset Berry shot back, “Those charges that were just leveled at me are absolutely false. We expected that this would be nastiest campaign the United States has ever seen and it’s turning out to be just that. Unfortunately that doesn’t resolve the problems we face as a nation.”

In a press conference following the debate, Stumbaugh denied his accusations were directed at Berry.
“They were just statements,” the mayor explained.

Throughout the hour-long debate candidates fielded questions on farm subsidies, the war in Iraq, domestic abuse, minmum wage and illegal immigration. Audience members had mixed feelings about who actually won the debate.

“I think some of the things Stumbaugh said in closing statements backfire during an election. I would say Berry had the leading edge in this debate,” said David Keith, a journalism instructor at the University of Centra Arkansas.
Robin Green, 25, a senior majoring in journalism, said the debate had no clear winner.

“I think Berry did a poor job of answering the questions and Stumbaugh turned it personal instead of sticking to the issues,” Green said.

Berry touted his experience but Stumbaugh said the incumbent’s lack of effectiveness–particularly in getting approval for a highway bill that benefits the 1st District–stems in part from how he deals with other members of Congress. He accused Berry of calling Cong. Adam Putnam of Florida a “Howdy-Doody-looking nimrod.”

Howdy Doody was the freckled-face, grinning star of a children’s marionette-puppet show on television in the 1950s.
“No wonder we can’t get anything done,” Stumbaugh said. “Our congressman is busy out there calling other congressmen names.”

Berry didn’t respond directly to the accusation. He said he was proud of the work that had been accomplished, with federal help, on improving the infrastructure of the district in eastern Arkansas that allowed the region to attract such industry as the Hino Motors manufacturing plant at Marion.

The infrastructure improvements that attracted Hino “began long before” that company ever showed interest in Arkansas, Berry said.

A retired farmer, Berry said the only reason for farm subsidies to exist is to support the agriculture industry by offsetting the costs of farming during poor crop years, which keeps price of food low and the supply safe.

“No farmer enters into that business because of the subsidies, sometimes it keeps them in business in bad years, but had it not been for that, there would simply not be that many farmers left,” Berry said.

Stumbaugh accused Berry of using farm subsidies for personal gain.

“Since he’s been in Washington D.C., he has taken nearly $1 million in farm subsidies, that’s why he supports farm subsidies,” Stumbaugh said. Berry denied he has received any farm subsidies from the family-owned farms that still bear his name. Marion Berry Inc. received $801,661 in subsidies from 1995 to 2004, according to the database of the Environmental Working Group, a research and lobbying organization.

On immigration, Stumbaugh accused Berry of acting to benefit himself in a way contrary to what Berry says he believes. He said Berry had knowingly employed illegal immigrants in his Arkansas County farming operations. In a press conference after the debate, Stumbaugh said he has copies of paperwork that shows an immigrant worker who once worked on Berry’s farm was illegal and was using a dead man’s Social Security number.

“He says he doesn’t support amnesty (for illegal immigrants), but he continues to support illegal immigration because it is a dollar in his pocket,” Stumbaugh said during the debate.

The Democratic incumbent said he was also proud of having voted for the strongest anti-illegal-immigration measure ever approved by the House of Representatives.

“I voted for the strongest bill to control our borders that’s ever been passed and I’m proud of that. We voted to increase the penalty for hiring illegal workers by five times to $25,000. We voted to build 700 miles of fence. We’re going to increase border patrol agents by 2,000 a year,” Berry said.

Illegal immigration is also helping to drive up the cost of health care, the challenger said, because “illegal immigrants come in and they get free medical care, and folks have to write it off.”

Berry said one of the biggest ways to benefit those on Medicare and Medicaid would be requiring the government to deal with pharmaceutical companies to get lower drug prices.

“We need to negotiate prescription prices, like every other country does,” Berry said. “If we negotiated prescription drug prices for the American people, it would save ... between $40 billion and $80 billion, if just half the people participated.”

Berry said the 110th Congress plans to raise the minimum wage during its first hour. The new wage will be $6.15 the first year and $7.15 the next year. In the press conference following the debate, Stumbaugh said he’s all for higher wages as long as it doesn’t hurt the bottom line of small businesses.

“We have to be mindful of what’s going to be hurtful to small business owners. When I became mayor, our firefighters were making a little over $6 an hour. Now no one who works for the city makes less than $8 an hour,” Stumbaugh said.

In his closing statement, Stumbaugh said “we need new leadership, and Stubby Stumbaugh is that leader.”

Berry’s closing statement focused on his party affiliation. “We’ve got to get back to a balanced budget–we did it in the early years of the Clinton administration,” he said.

“I am excited about the prospect of going back, as part of a Democratic majority, to bring peace and prosperity to this nation.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.