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JCRC, NCJW Teamed Up to Present Candidates Forum

[by Cynthia Clegg Canada]

On Sunday, Sept. 23, the Jewish Community Center hosted a forum of candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, Kentucky Court of Appeals, Louisville Metro Council and Jefferson County School Board seats. The forum was open to the public, and candidates arrived early enough for attendees to have time to get acquainted before the program began. Several candidates stayed afterward and talked at length with voters.

The event was co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the National Council for Jewish Women, Louisville Section.

The first segment of the forum was a debate-styled exchange between Congressman John Yarmuth and his Republican challenger, Brooks Wicker. Each candidate made a five-minute opening statement, followed by a series of four questions from moderator Carl Bensinger; Yarmuth and Wicker alternated responding first or second to each question.

This was the lengthiest and most heated exchange. Wicker laid out his qualifications to become a member of the U.S. Congress as 30 years’ experience as a small business owner and financial advisor, and expressed his concern that our economy and society are in trouble because of excessive spending and a lack of long-range economic planning. He stated opposition to massive spending, regulation and taxes, and proposed that to improve the economy, we must improve the climate for small-business hiring and reform the tax code to bring home dollars that are currently being held overseas.

Congressman Yarmuth acknowledged the critical debate in this election on the role of government. However, he questioned the assumption that the current economic crisis is the fault of the Democratic administration and argued that in the big picture, we are significantly better off as a society than we were four years ago. To support his argument, he pointed out that in 2008, the U.S. was losing 8,000 jobs a month, whereas in recent months, we have seen consistent increases in new jobs. He also challenged Republican contentions on several other economic issues including the cause of the increased deficit, the claim that government does not create jobs and the degree to which businesses are dependent upon government funds.

The questions posed to the candidates were gathered from the community and selected by the sponsors ahead of the forum. They focused on the Affordable Care Act, changes to the tax code, Iran’s nuclear plan and capabilities, and government’s role in finding solutions for hunger, poverty, and related societal concerns.

Regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities and how the U.S. should support Israel, Congressman Yarmuth broke the issue into two questions: first, what is Iran really trying to do, based on both U.S. and Israeli intelligence? And second, what should U.S. foreign policy be? While he said the U.S. should not make policy decisions based on other nations’ concerns, he also stressed that we are committed to being Israel’s strongest ally. He said that neither Israeli nor U.S. intelligence supports the notion that Iran has any intent to develop a nuclear weapon; but that Israel believes they have a limited window of opportunity for taking military action if that intent proves out. However, he points out, the majority of citizens and members of the Israeli government believe that military action would be disastrous, and he strongly supports continued sanctions against Iran to prevent aggression on their part.

Wicker wants to keep sanctions in place, but he stated that we cannot allow Iran to become a nuclear power. He questioned why, as a dominant power in the oil industry, Iran would want enriched uranium, if not for weapons development. He said that although military action was undesirable and should be an action of last resort, we should be willing to stand with Israel if that action were necessary.

Answers to the other questions also fell along party lines. Regarding the Affordable Care Act, Congressman Yarmuth responded that he believes the act eliminates many discriminations currently in existence, including exclusions for pre-existing conditions and charging women more for the same coverages as men. He pointed out that before the health care act began to be implemented, there were about 800,000 bankruptcies a year because of healthcare costs; this act will eliminate that.

Wicker’s solutions include more transparency in medical care, requiring health care providers to specify what charges are for and give a precise accounting of actual costs; consumer stewardship of health and dollars, resulting in reduced premiums or rebates from insurers; and modification of the tax code to equalize the costs of medical care. He would like to see a market-driven system where citizens are involved in managing costs for themselves.
Regarding possible changes to the tax code and whether to increase or decrease federal spending, Wicker recommended changing the tax code so that everyone pays the same on the same streams of income. He said corporations should be able to deduct dividends, based on his assessment that “almost everyone in this country” has access to dividends through a 401K or mutual fund.

Yarmuth proposed letting the tax cuts expire for the wealthiest two percent, while continuing them for the remainder of citizens. He also recommended ending government subsidies for oil and other big businesses, which don’t need them, and treating capital gains as regular income rather than taxing them at the lower rate.

When asked to identify the best course of action in tackling hunger, poverty and other societal concerns, and what government’s role should be, Wicker’s answer was to grow the economy, reduce taxes (or at least keep them at the level they are) and get people back to work. He argued that raising taxes impedes growth.

Yarmuth proposed investing in infrastructure, innovation, and education. In addition to local business successes like those at Ford and GE, he mentioned construction on Louisville’s bridges, which will create hundreds of jobs and inject $400,000 into the economy in the next few years.

The remaining candidates each made statements that were about five minutes in length. Those candidates were: for the Jefferson County Court of Appeals: Judge Irv Maze and Judge Jim Shake; Metro Council, District 8: Councilman Tom Owen and challenger Kirt Jacobs; Metro Council, District 26: Councilman Brent Ackerson and challenger Sarah Provancher; and JCPS School Board, Highlands/St. Matthews: David Jones, Jr., Elizabeth Berfield, Philip Haming, and George Tollhurst.

Metro District 8 candidates Kirt Jacobs and incumbent Tom Owen sparred over who could be more involved in the life of the Highlands district. Jacobs proposed “fresh leadership for dynamic community.” His plans include new green space, a proposal for public safety that includes a pedway over Baxter Avenue, encouragement of higher-end restaurant development as bars close along the Baxter Avenue corridor, and reimplementation of the Baxter Ave./Broadway trolley.

Councilman Owen rebutted with his own experience as an involved community leader who uses his bicycle to travel around the Highlands, stay in touch with residents, and get to meetings outside the immediate area; he contended that “you can’t get any more ‘sustainable’ than that.” He pointed to his own concern for public safety and reminded the attendees of his regularly scheduled, ongoing community contact events at local coffee shops and other venues.

Metro Council District 26 candidates Sarah Provancher and incumbent Tom Ackerson struck a similar tone, with Provancher’s claim that she didn’t have a “name” in local politics, but that she did bring the prospect of “honest female leadership” to the council. Ackerson’s response included a list of several women in council leadership positions whose tenure had not been subject to scrutiny for possible ethical issues.

Beyond that, Provancher listed qualifications including involvement with the arts, parks, and the Habitat for Humanity Board, and said she would be an accessible representative who would engage with citizens and business in the district. Ackerson stressed his commitment to getting out and talking with constituents, saying that is what public service amounts to; he also listed accomplishments such as infrastructure, safety, and beautification improvements during his tenure, including sidewalks in the Winchester Road and Bon Air/Del Rio areas, park improvement, and bike paths in the area.

For Court of Appeals, Irv Maze – a well-known figure in the Jefferson County Court system – is challenging incumbent Jim Shake. Maze listed as qualifications the fact that he has been involved in public service since 1985, has practiced law continuously for 32 years – including the time he has been in public service – and his experience since 2008 as a circuit court judge.

Shake claimed his own service as a judge for almost 20 years, during which he has heard everything from death penalty cases to complex civil action; he also listed the recommendations of many community attorneys who have given him high evaluation scores over the past 10 years. Judge Shake cited endorsements from the Kentucky Justice Association, Citizens for Better Judges, and the Courier-Journal to support his candidacy.

School Board candidates included David Jones, Jr., Elizabeth Berfield, Phil Haming, and George Tollhurst. Jones’ approach was from the perspectives of a businessperson and a parent of former JCPS students, as well as a JCPS alumnus. He expressed concern that JCPS is not delivering an appropriate level of education to about half of its student body, as well as conviction that change is possible.

Berfield, as the mother of two young children and the spouse of a University of Louisville professor, said parental involvement is a concern, but that other community factors are key – specifically, exposure of students to drugs, violence, and other negative influences that the school system and parents are unable to control. She wants to see a system where other support systems take care of such outside influences and schools have the resources and tools to educate children, with funding for special needs as well as basics.

Haming, a former teacher and coach, supports neighborhood schools, but he also agrees with the recent decision not to implement an immediate across-the-board shift to a neighborhood plan. He believes such a drastic change should be implemented one step at a time, starting with the youngest children. He pointed out that for every school bus we’re able to take off the road, we could pay for another ECD teacher and give eight special-needs children the individual attention they require to succeed.

George Tollhurst is a retired former business owner and 50-year resident of Louisville. Tollhurst established himself as being anti-busing, anti-merger, anti-union, and anti-“educational elite.” Rather, he wants to see a “back to basics” approach to education reform.

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