Separate pitches to state Chamber

2 Senate candidates address group

Maryland Votes 2006

20 Days Until Nov. 7

October 18, 2006|By Chris Guy and Matthew Hay Brown | Chris Guy and Matthew Hay Brown,SUN REPORTERS

OCEAN CITY -- Private savings accounts promoted by President Bush are a sensible option to buttress Social Security, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele told a business forum here yesterday, while Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin said the proposal would weaken an important safety net that protects millions of Americans.

Steele, a Republican, and Cardin, a Democrat, each addressed a meeting of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce here yesterday in back-to-back appearances. But they did not appear at the microphone together, depriving the business group of a true debate.

The campaigns traded accusations later in the day, however, over Steele's position on abortion and about whether a comment made over the weekend by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland about Steele was racially loaded.

During the Ocean City forum, Steele said he supports at least partly privatizing Social Security by allowing workers to invest their money in individual accounts, rather than letting the government hold and distribute it. His 78-year-old mother should continue to benefit from the current system, he said, but his 18-year-old son should not be tied to it. "Those who are already vested in the system will get their due, but why should we confine my son's generation to a stagnant system?" Steele asked.

Cardin countered that Social Security remains a viable program, even as it requires most Americans to supplement benefits with private savings.

"Social Security is relevant today," Cardin said. "Social Security will replace one-third of your income in retirement. [Privatizing] Social Security would weaken the system."

Cardin said yesterday he would have liked for yesterday's encounter to be a debate, and complained after the forum about changes in yesterday's format in which each candidate spoke separately with no opportunity to challenge the other's answers to questions submitted in advance by chamber members.

The two candidates have met for one debate since the Sept. 12 primary and have one more confirmed to take place Oct. 29 on NBC's Meet the Press.

"He's looking for every way possible he can to avoid talking about issues," Cardin said. "Look at his ads -- he deliberately says things about me that are totally false, and he knows they're false. This [Chamber of Commerce meeting] should be a friendly group for him, and yet he can't stay around and talk issues."

Steele campaign spokesman Doug Heye accused Cardin of "lying," and said, "It's his campaign that blacked out an entire week where he would not debate Michael Steele."

The Senate campaigns also engaged on other issues yesterday -- notably abortion -- trading accusations and responses through e-mail statements.

State Democrats chided Steele for saying that his opinion on abortion was "moot" in a story published on earlier in the day.

The story quotes Steele -- who opposes abortion rights -- responding to a question about his position by saying: "It's in the Supreme Court. What piece of legislation in the [U.S.] Senate is dealing with abortion?"

Asked whether he thought Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, Steele said: "What's that got to do with anything? I'm a Senate candidate. My opinion on that is moot," according to the article.

Pressed further, he is quoted as saying: "Do not think you're going to define me on that question; don't even go there. That is nowhere near defining who I am. It's not even a piece of defining who I am. ... Trying to define me on this issue is ludicrous."

Democrats pounced on the statement and immediately circulated Federal Election Commission reports filed this week by the National Right To Life Political Action Committee indicating that the anti-abortion group plans to spend nearly $20,000 on direct mail pieces in support of Steele's Senate bid to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

"Michael Steele will go to any length to avoid a discussion of the issues," state Democratic Chairman Terry Lierman said in a statement. "But I'm sorry, Mr. Steele. The voters of Maryland think that protecting a woman's right to choose is very relevant. And they deserve to know your position."

Heye, the Steele campaign spokesman, rejected Lierman's comments.

"Michael Steele is a pro-life Catholic, who, as a constitutional officer, has upheld the laws of the state," Heye said in an e-mail. "He will continue to speak out on issues affecting Maryland."

The same MSNBC article quoted Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives, as saying Steele has made a career of "slavishly supporting the Republican Party."

Heye said the comment, made at an event in Prince George's County last weekend, was racist. The National Black Church Initiative President, the Rev. Anthony Evans, and High Impact Leadership Coalition Chairman Bishop Harry Jackson condemned the remark.

In a statement released yesterday, Hoyer said, "I should not have used that word."

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