As part of our Q&A series with candidates in contested races for the March 2 primary, we present excerpts of a session with two men competing for the Democratic nod to run against incumbent Rep. Steve Chabot in the 1st District U.S. House race.
Richard Lerner of Amberley Village, a former press secretary to former Sen. Bill Bradley, has a long background in journalism and public affairs. Greg Harris of Clifton, a director of non-profit community foundations, ran against Chabot in the 2002 election.
Q. Tell us about your background and why you believe you are the better candidate for your party's nomination.
Richard Lerner: I'd like to contribute to the common good. I am in a point in my life when I would like to contribute as a participant as opposed to an observer. I would like to be an advocate for people of this district. For too long now, too many elements of this district have not had good representation. I will give Steve Chabot credit for being very consistent. But he's an ideologue and he's wrong on virtually every one of those areas he's concentrating on. I don't think he's representing the interests of many of the people in this district.
I think I know what it's like to be surviving in our system right now as just an ordinary, everyday person. I also have a good grasp of how government works. I think that's a pretty good combination.
Greg Harris: My parents are lifelong teachers. I was a teacher for six years. I went on to work in the not-for-profit community development sector. I don't like the word "politician." I like "public servant." When I was director of Citizens for Civic Renewalwe looked to develop best practices to solve pressing problems - no Republican or Democratic solutions, but what policy works. We spearheaded a lot of the work on school redesign into community learning centers. We did a lot of work on urban sprawl. Most telling is the work we did in promoting regional collaboration.
I'm talking about issues at the local level, but the biggest monument to the shortsightedness of politicians is the major federal deficit - $525 billion alone this year. That's a monument to not having the courage to make tough decisions, not reining in spending, not advocating tax increases if you think they're needed.
Q. Steve Chabot is a well-established incumbent. Why do you believe you would better serve the residents of your district?
Harris: Steve Chabot is perhaps the most honest member of the United States Congress. He has a strong philosophical anchor. He believes in what he votes for. I happen to have major differences with his political philosophy. What we need in the First District is someone who really has his finger on the pulse on the kinds of unique problems we are facing - problems of poverty, of urban sprawl, of educational opportunity.
I think when you are an ideological politician, the district you represent becomes almost becomes incidental to your agenda. And I think that's Mr. Chabot's major downfallThe first thing I would do as congressman would be try to work collaboratively with other members of the Ohio congressional delegation to try to make sure we get better return on the dollars we are already sending to Washington.
Lerner: Part of the problem is his policies are not balanced. You need to reflect the diversity of the people you represent. Take an issue like the war in Iraq. Many Republicans have stepped up to voice some doubts. I haven't heard anything from him. You're supposed to be in touch with people, find out what they're saying and what they want you to say.
It's the same thing on the economic issue, on the deficit. We've got a racial situation here. We've got a very significant percentage of people who are below the poverty line. It's not a question of being a flaming liberal. It's a matter of saying I'm taking these people into account as I make my decisions. My sense is that either he's out of touch or he's ignoring them.
Q. Tell us about your district and what you perceive its biggest needs and issues are.
Lerner: I think this a district like many others around the country. Many of the problems we have here can be found certainly around the Midwest.
There's a lot of dialogue about crime. I don't know how much a congressman can do about crime. It's a local issue on day-to-day basis. But the federal government can set the tone for where the concentration of effort takes place.
One thing that's obvious is that education in this town is in big trouble. We've got this big building program underway, but there's no question there's only so much you can accomplish with new buildings. We have an enormous problem statewide on how to better finance education.
I perceive the district to be a divided district. We have people who are doing quite well and we have people who are very hard pressed, and the people doing quite well are somewhat disconnected from those who are not. One of the responsibilities of a congressman is to be mindful of everybody's needs.
People what to know what you think, but in many cases I think what I think is perhaps less important than what they think. I would like to see a bottom-up approach instead of a top-down. We've seen so many politicians going around making promises and espousing ideals, and over time it's become apparent most of them can't deliver.
Harris: Race relations is a major issue in this district. Too many people in this district have taken playing off divisions to an art form - west side vs. east side, black vs. white. Most of it is veiled. It's not direct. We really need a healing kind of leadership.
I want to take sort of a macro view. I really risk being branded a one-issue candidate when I talk about urban sprawl, but it has many layers to it. When you develop land at five times faster than the population is growing, what that's doing is emptying our urban core. The older suburbs are really struggling, the neighborhood business districts are struggling, homeownership rates are plummeting.
We have to address health care in this country. The poor are covered by Medicaid. Seniors are covered under Medicare. But the 44 million people who have no health insurance are primarily working families who are priced out of a system that's all or nothing, and I think we have to start looking at if we want to continue on as an employer-based health system. We have to look at universal health care. It's not only a very humane objective, it's also a cost-effective objective.
Q. What question would you most like Steve Chabot to answer?
Harris: You run on the slogan, "Working hard for working families." Why are you opposed to (raising) the minimum wage, and what are you going to do about the 44 million members of working families who have no health insurance?
Lerner: I would like to know why he has not been heard more talking about the kinds of things that both of us consider to be very important. And how can he reconcile his apparent priorities with the apparent diversity of views in his district?
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