Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, and Republican challenger Kenneth Kondner squared off in a debate last night that highlighted their sharp differences on health care, gun control, reducing the federal deficit and other issues.
In the debate taped earlier this week and aired last night on Maryland Public Television, Mr. Kondner, a Woodlawn dental technician, voiced support for several positions pushed by Republicans, including school choice, enterprise zones and reducing taxes to spur the economy and reduce the deficit. Mr. Mfume often took the opposite view.
One of the few dramatic exchanges came when the candidates addressed the cost of health insurance. Mr. Kondner slammed Mr. Mfume for supporting universal health care. He said the country needs "tort reform" to reduce the number of medical malpractice lawsuits and lower health care costs.
Mr. Kondner then said many of the estimated 34 million people in America who are without health insurance "don't want coverage."
That statement left Mr. Mfume incredulous. "I can't believe you said that," the incumbent responded. "I don't know anybody who doesn't want insurance."
Mr. Mfume, who is seeking a fourth consecutive term, represents an area that is mostly poor and mostly black. The 7th Congressional District includes 60 percent of Baltimore City, and western and northwestern Baltimore County.
During the debate, Mr. Mfume said school funding should be "equalized" between rich and poor school systems to improve education for the underprivileged. Also, he said, the federal government should provide more incentives for small business development to "grow the economy." Mr. Mfume backed limits on funding increases for entitlement programs and higher taxes for people earning more than $200,000 to whittle away at the federal deficit.
Mr. Kondner, who never has held elective office and was trounced by the incumbent in the 1990 election, portrayed himself as an outsider determined to reform government. For instance, he said, members of Congress should take a $35,000 cut in salary, which is set to increase to $133,644 a year beginning Jan. 1. Members currently earn $129,500.
"They should lead by example," Mr. Kondner said.
He also took a hard line on crime. He advocated the death penalty for big-time drug dealers and said it is time for politicians in Baltimore to "stop making excuses for criminal activity."
Mr. Mfume said the death penalty would do little to deter crime, even though in the past he has voted to impose it for certain "hideous" crimes.