The two candidates for the 2nd Congressional District seat, Republican Helen Delich Bentley and Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, displayed nearly as many similarities as differences in their approaches to Social Security, prescription drug benefits and other senior citizens' issues at an AARP Maryland forum yesterday.
Both candidates said they oppose privatizing Social Security or setting up individual accounts that would take money away from the Social Security trust fund. Both said the government needs to find ways to make health insurance more affordable.
Both said citizens should be able to form buying groups to purchase prescription drugs. They also said the government should provide a prescription drug benefit for seniors, although they disagree on which party is to blame for the lack of progress on creating one.
Ruppersberger, serving his final year as Baltimore County executive, said he supports a prescription drug plan advanced by House Democrats. Under this plan, seniors would pay a $25-a-month premium and 20 percent of the cost of drugs. Once participants paid $2,000 in a year, the government would pay 100 percent of drug costs.
A plan advanced by House Republicans, he told the audience of about 80 at the State Fairgrounds in Timonium, would not make a real difference for seniors.
Bentley acknowledged that the Republican plan is only "a good start" toward helping seniors afford drugs, which many at the forum said was a prime concern. However, she accused Democrats of stalling and preventing a plan from being enacted this year.
Although Bentley, 78, is a senior citizen herself, Ruppersberger, 56, had looked to the forum as a chance to win over the 2nd District's substantial elderly population by drawing distinctions between his views on senior issues and those of the Republican Party.
His campaign had promised that he would "take on the Republican status quo represented by his opponent," but Bentley didn't cooperate, bucking her party's views on issues such as Social Security, and acknowledging its limitations on prescription drugs and other topics.
The candidates drew larger distinctions in describing how their backgrounds would make them effective advocates for seniors in Congress.
Bentley emphasized her five terms in the House of Representatives from 1984 to 1994. House Republicans have promised to restore her seniority if she is elected and to give her a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. She added that she has many friends in Washington, including President Bush, with whom she met in the White House yesterday afternoon.
"What I bring to the table ... is the ability to go to Washington and make a difference on Day One to issues that affect you and your families," she said.
Ruppersberger said his 17 years as a local government official have helped him see the needs of families in the area, and his two terms as county executive have made him accustomed to setting priorities and making difficult decisions.
"This health care issue, the issues of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, need to be made a priority, and we have to do without in some other areas," Ruppersberger said.
There was no clear consensus among audience members about who responded better to the questions. Many said they were leaning toward one candidate or the other before the forum, and none of those interviewed said they changed their minds.
"I'd really have to go home and digest," said Noretta Weil, 70, an undecided voter from Essex. "They made a lot of points, but I think they pretty much had the same answer for a lot of the questions."