Mikulski, Pipkin spar over incumbent's record in debate

Candidates' positions often mirrored parties'

U.s. Senate Race

Election 2004

October 19, 2004|By David Nitkin and Kimberly A.C. Wilson | David Nitkin and Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski defended her voting record on taxes and defense last night during a televised debate with E.J. Pipkin, a one-term Republican state senator who sought to align himself with President Bush in an aggressive attempt to topple the popular 18-year incumbent.

Pipkin reiterated charges - raised in television attack ads that have defined the race in recent weeks - that Mikulski voted to raise taxes more than 300 times in her career. He criticized Mikulski for opposing weapons programs and military pay increases, as well as the use of force in Iraq.

"I believe it's important that we fight the terrorists in Baghdad, rather than in Bethesda or Baltimore or on the Bay Bridge," Pipkin said. "And clearly, we don't want foreign policy to be dictated by France."

Mikulski did not directly address questions about votes cast to raise taxes, but called herself a consistent supporter of middle-class tax breaks. Regarding the Iraq war, she criticized the Bush administration for failing to present an effective plan for restoring stability after military operations ended.

Mikulski said she regretted her vote nearly four years ago to confirm Donald H. Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, in light of his handling of the Iraq war.

"What a poor civilian leader he has turned out to be, to either help President Bush or support our troops," Mikulski said. "He didn't have a plan for the war and he certainly didn't have a plan for peace."

Party allegiance

In many cases, the candidates presented themes and positions during the hourlong debate on Maryland Public Television that mirrored those of their respective parties' presidential nominees.

Mikulski said she opposed privatizing Social Security and called the president's Medicare prescription drug benefit a boon for insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry that does not provide enough help for senior citizens.

Pipkin said the Senate should rapidly approve Supreme Court and federal judges nominated by Bush rather than delay because of religious concerns.

Mikulski repeatedly said her Republican challenger was waging a campaign devised by the national GOP and being repeated in Senate races elsewhere.

"My opponent is a first-term, only-term member of the Maryland General Assembly. He is running a cookie-cutter attack campaign right out of the national Republican playbook," she said.

In an interview following the debate, Mikulski campaign manager Michael Morrill said similar allegations - such as the number of votes for taxes - are being used in races against incumbent Democratic senators in Washington, Connecticut and South Dakota.

Personal history

Mikulski, 68, is a familiar figure in Maryland politics. She is seeking her fourth term in the Senate, and served five terms in the House of Representatives, first elected to Congress in 1976.

Pipkin, 47, remains a relative unknown. But his visibility has been on the rise in recent weeks as he has poured more than $1 million of his own money into television advertisements that have attacked Mikulski on taxes, the environment and other issues.

A Dundalk native with an MBA from the Darden School at University of Virginia, he made millions as a Wall Street junk-bond trader in the 1980s and 1990s. After leading a fight to stop the dumping of dredged spoils in the Chesapeake Bay near his home in Queen Anne's County, Pipkin ran for the state legislature in 2002, spending more than $600,000 of his own money to defeat incumbent state Sen. Walter Baker, the influential chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Mikulski has countered Pipkin's ads by highlighting his Wall Street career. During his opening statement last night, Pipkin chose to address the junk-bond question rather than introduce himself and his platform to potential voters.

"If you use a Nextel phone or are watching this on a cable station owned by Comcast, those are companies that have used junk bonds to finance their growth," Pipkin said. He went on to tell how Reginald F. Lewis, a lawyer from East Baltimore, used the high-risk, high-yield bonds to raise money for the first billion-dollar financing deal ever conducted by a black businessman. Lewis' name will soon appear on a black history museum being built in the city.

"Ms. Mikulski may want to take his name off that building because he used junk bonds to finance that transaction," Pipkin said. "I don't."

In a homespun appeal designed to reinforce her connection with Maryland voters, Mikulski returned to her roots during the debate, describing herself as the hard-working daughter of a grocer who learned customer service as the family tradition. She said she would break with her party, if necessary, on issues such as free trade and would fight for better health care and to protect Social Security.

"I am absolutely opposed to turning over Social Security to Wall Street, where we will have to deal with either the bull of political promises or the bear of the market," she said.

Pipkin stressed the need for smaller and more efficient government programs as he addressed questions on public and higher education. While Mikulski called for additional federal grants to help students pay for higher education, Pipkin said high-paying jobs should be wrung from the system in an effort to make tuition more affordable.

In the University System of Maryland, "they've got more six-figure jobs than I've ever seen in the private sector," Pipkin said. "We need to take a hard look at what those costs are."

A poll by Gonzales Survey & Research earlier this month showed Mikulski leading in the race, 58-34 percent, among likely voters. But the Pipkin campaign said the poll represented progress, and that the Republican challenger had been gaining ground and building name recognition since the ads first started appearing.

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