SILSBEE — Eleven of the 12 Republicans vying to replace Steve Stockman in the U.S. House sat on a high school auditorium stage Monday evening, answering questions about health care, taxes and government regulation.
About halfway through the two-hour forum, one candidate, former Seabrook Mayor Robin Riley, approached the microphone to share his thoughts on immigration.
“You’re hearing the same from most of the candidates,” Riley said. “I don’t want to repeat, but I will say I agree with everything that’s been stated.”
The remark underscored the challenge facing the 12 Republicans who hope to represent the 36th Congressional District, which includes portions of southeast Texas and Houston. A runoff is all but certain. Most of the candidates entered the race in mid-December, after Stockman surprised many by opting to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in the Republican primary rather than run for re-election. With less than three months between Stockman's announcement and the March 4 primary election, the candidates have largely framed their positions in the same broad strokes while highlighting their backgrounds to argue that they are best equipped to end President Obama’s health care reform, the race’s leading issue.
“Folks, it’s going to take a dentist to pull the teeth out of Obamacare, and I promise I will be that dentist,” said Brian Babin, a former mayor of Woodville.
Two other candidates, Doug Centilli and Phil Fitzgerald, touted their work in government as valuable training for working with Congress.
“I think I know Obamacare better than just about anybody, and I know how bad that process is,” said Centilli, a former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands.
Fitzgerald, a small-business owner, pointed to his years as Liberty County judge to argue that he can represent the district more effectively.
“You’ve heard us. We pretty much have all the same answers and the same concerns,” Fitzgerald said. “But I think this office is more than that. I think a congressman also is very important in what he can contribute at the local level.”
The other candidates in the race are former Nassau Bay City Councilman John Amdur; El Lago health care consultant Jim Engstrand; high school teacher and former banker Pat Kasprzak, of Crosby; former Pasadena Mayor John Manlove; Lumberton lawyer Chuck Meyer; former Seabrook City Councilman Kim Morrell; Webster insurance agent Dave Norman; and Houston mortgage banker Ben Streusand. Babin won the straw poll held by the Hardin County Republican Women following the forum on Monday.
Manlove was the only candidate not at Monday’s forum, though he has been actively campaigning. Last month, the Houston Chronicle endorsed him in the race.
The winner of the GOP primary will face Democrat Michael Cole and candidates from the Libertarian and Green parties along with an independent candidate.
Actual policy differences among the GOP candidates that emerged at Monday’s forum were narrow.
On immigration, all of the candidates advocated for a dramatic increase in resources to protect the border, though they differed on the finer details.
“We need to use drones, use fences, use the Border Patrol and law enforcement to end the lawlessness on the border and make everyone come through approved checkpoints legally,” Streusand said, echoing most of his primary opponents.
But Engstrand said Texans should be wary of drones on the border.
“If you think the NSA did something wrong with tapping your phones, imagine what they could do hovering over your house,” Engstrand said.
Amdur countered that the border is too large for authorities to ignore the value drones can provide in boosting surveillance.
“We need drones in the air. We don’t need drones spying on us,” Amdur said.
Morrell agreed that using drones on the border made sense, and added that Republicans needed to block any efforts to allow citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally.
“No amnesty because I don’t want the Democrats getting any more voters,” Morrell said. “That’s what this is about.”
Meyer said the border states should police the border themselves and get federal block grants to fund their endeavors.
“People in New Jersey, people in North Dakota really don’t understand this issue,” Meyer said.
Kasprzak advocated more of a kitchen-sink approach, calling for drones and increased military and law enforcement presence. She also proposed a novel reassignment of the TSA’s work force.
“We have numerous TSA agents at (George Bush) Intercontinental Airport doing nothing but standing around. … Let’s put some of those people down on the border building a fence,” Kasprzak said.
The candidates debated whether Republicans should try to impeach Obama, and most of them argued that he deserved impeachment.
“There’s probably no more impeachable offense than … how he is arbitrarily changing the law, with no regard to how the American people are affected,” Norman said.
Engstrand said his first act as congressman would be filing impeachment charges against Obama.
“I call him affectionately ‘the tyrant in the White House,’” Engstrand said.
Others questioned whether pursuing impeachment was a wise use of resources, given that Democrats control the Senate.
“It’s not going to happen unless we have both chambers of Congress,” Babin said. “We’re going to have to wait this man out for two more years, folks.”
Near the end of the forum, candidates were asked how they would represent a district that includes part of urban Harris County and stretches across several rural counties. While some candidates spoke about the importance of balancing the needs of the district’s urban and rural residents, Meyer took a different approach.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to represent southeast Texas in Washington, D.C. I don’t want to represent Harris County,” Meyer said. “Harris County is in the district, unfortunately, but they have plenty of representatives there to represent that part of the district.”
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