Martin, Wagner tout similar conservative views in first major debate
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 2, 2011 - In their first public debate, Republican congressional hopefuls Ann Wagner and Ed Martin each staked out similar conservative territory Saturday before a like-minded standing-room-only Chesterfield crowd.
Both seek to get rid of the federal health-insurance law, dubbed by critics as "Obamacare."
Both support the elimination of the departments of Education and Energy and all but advocated doing away with the Environmental Protection Agency as well.
Both call for curbing illegal immigration by securing the United States' borders by fences or other means, punishing businesses that hire illegal immigrants and deporting as many as possible.
Both declare they want to do away with unions for public employees and support passage of a "right-to-work" law that would bar unions from requiring all workers to join if a majority in a workplace have voted for union representation.
Both say entitlements -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- must be changed to reduce their cost.
Both emphasized their support for the right to bear arms and their opposition to abortion.
Both also decried what they see as out-of-control federal spending and excessive federal regulations, which they blame for slowing down the economic recovery.
And both have little use for President Barack Obama.
"This president is tone deaf. He does not get it," said Wagner. "The government doesn't create jobs. ... Small and medium businesses create jobs. Entrepreneurs create jobs."
"The guy doesn't know how to do anything with the economy," said Martin, adding later, "It's time to make sure President Obama is a one-term president."
Martin asserted that the United States was headed in the same direction as financially troubled Greece unless changes are made. "We have to get government inside the limits it should have," Martin said.
Saturday's debate was the first major public event featuring Wagner and Martin, who are vying for the Republican nomination for the 2nd District congressional seat. The post is now held by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, who's running for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate.
Wagner, of Ballwin, is a veteran Republican activist. She is former chair of the state GOP and most recently served as President George W. Bush's ambassador to Luxembourg. Martin, of St. Louis, is a lawyer who has been active in a number of Republican causes. He narrowly lost a congressional bid last fall against U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.
Martin and Wagner have agreed to participate in at least 10 debates or forums before the August 2012 primary. Saturday's was held in Chesterfield at the Drury Plaza Hotel, with the Drury family -- staunch Republicans -- donating use of the ballroom.
Their chief differences are that Wagner continues to rack in high-profile Republican endorsements and has amassed more cash, while Martin continues to promote himself as the scrappy conservative with strong tea party ties.
Wagner began her opening statement Saturday by announcing the endorsement of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft -- Missouri's former governor, state attorney general, auditor and U.S. senator.
In a statement circulated at the debate, Ashcroft lauded Wagner as "a trusted, pro-life conservative'' and "an outspoken critic of liberal Democrats and their failed policies."
Martin gently tweaked Wagner over her endorsements, which also include ones from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Martin said he was announcing the endorsement of his wife, Carol. He also emphasized his own credentials as former chief of staff to Gov. Matt Blunt and as a lawyer fighting on behalf of abortion opponents.
So far, no Democrat has formally announced for the 2nd District seat, although Carnahan has been encouraged by some Democrats to explore the prospect since his current 3rd District was eliminated during the recent redistricting process. St. Louis School Board member Bill Haas also is considering a bid.
(Carnahan now is believed to be waiting the outcome of a lawsuit challenging the redistricting.)
State House Majority Tim Jones, R-Eureka and the moderator, told the crowd that he was confident the new 2nd District -- like the current one -- would remain solidly Republican. Jones added that he was heartened Republicans took control of the U.S. House in the 2010 elections. Jones observed that if the Democrats had retained control, "it might be Armageddon right now."
For more than an hour, Wagner and Martin answered a series of written questions provided by the audience.
Among the key topics:
Both candidates said that competition was the best way to curb the rising costs. Both also touted the long-standing GOP call for expanded health savings accounts: People can put in their own money tax-free to pay for premiums and other health-care expenses.
Both contended that unions are wielding too much power in government, and costing taxpayers too much.
Wagner said, "I do not support collective bargaining for public employees." She added that it also was "a disgrace" that the National Labor Relations Board has challenged Boeing Co.'s decision to move a plant to a right-to-work state.
"I would support a (national) right-to-work law if I was in Congress," Wagner said.
Martin said he believed that "right to work" was best handled on the state level, but that it should be done legislatively, not at the ballot box. "It's very difficult to pass right-to-work" in a statewide vote, Martin said, adding that's why Wisconsin and Ohio have sought to curb union clout legislatively.
"We need to abolish public sector unions,'' Martin said.
Martin called for curbing the disability benefit now available under Social Security and cited cases where people have received the benefit solely for being overweight.
"We the only country in the world who have poor people who are obese," Martin said.
Wagner praised the proposal of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to change Medicare into a voucher-style program for people now under age 55.
"At least it's a starting point," Wagner said. She emphasized that the nation's entitlements now take up over 40 percent of the federal budget and the cost must reduced.
She also called for changing Social Security for younger workers, while Martin called Social Security "worse than a Ponzi scheme'' because the federal government has used money collected under Social Security for other programs.
The duo ignited their strongest applause when they emphasized their stands against illegal immigration.
Martin called for a change in the U.S. Constitution so that citizenship is not automatically granted to children born in the United States, whose parents are illegal immigrants.
Penalties also need to be stiffer, Martin said, recommending that "if you come here illegally, you can never be a voting citizen."
Wagner said that people who are in the United States illegally "should not have the rights and access to the same privileges that we as the citizenry have."
St. Louis County Republican activist Chris Howard, who sits on the state committee and co-hosted Saturday's event, told the crowd before the debate that he was looking for "lions" to represent the 2nd District and run Congress.
"What we have are a bunch of hyenas, trying to feast on the carcass of the money we send them," Howard said.
Afterward, Howard said Martin and Wagner both qualified as lions.