Democrat Ethan Berkowitz, challenging Congressman Don Young for Alaska's seat in the U.S. House, declared in a debate Monday night he'd have a better chance of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling than the 18-term Republican.
"Don's had the chance to do it and hasn't done it. He'll tell you he got it out of the House, but he didn't get it through the president and that's the test of a bill," Berkowitz said in the Anchorage debate.
Berkowitz said the argument for ANWR drilling needs to be about the nation's trade deficit, not just increasing the supply of oil.
Young said he's passed ANWR drilling through the House 10 times. It would be law if Democratic President Bill Clinton had not vetoed it, said Young.
Young said Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic Speaker of the U.S. House, has a huge hammer "and will not allow the burning or development of fossil fuels."
Young asserted Berkowitz, if elected, would be taking his orders from Pelosi and the Democratic majority in the U.S. House. "The reality is, Ethan, if he was Congressman, would do exactly what she says he will do when it comes to national issues," he said.
Berkowitz bristled, saying he's tough enough to represent Alaska over his party, and that Young knows better than to suggest otherwise.
"I can't wait to go to Washington D.C. and tell Nancy Pelosi she's wrong about ANWR," he said.
On health care, Young talked about a shortage of medical personnel. He brought up as a potential solution investing some Alaska Permanent Fund money in personnel so "they could retire their debt, and provide the service to our constituents." Berkowitz didn't address that, but called for changes including letting small businesses pool for insurance.
This was the first debate between Berkowitz and Young since the candidates won their respective party primaries in August. AARP sponsored the debate in the Wendy Williamson Theater on the campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Before it started, AARP showed videosof Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and his Democratic challenger, Mark Begich, answering questions. Both supported the recent Congressional bailout package, but neither was happy about it, and Begich said he did so "grudgingly."
Stevens and Begich didn't debate in person because Stevens is on trial in Washington, D.C., on charges of failing to disclose gifts.
Berkowitz and Young disagreed on the bailout. Young, who voted against the package, said "it's a huge debt we're going to leave to our grandchildren," and it's not a good idea to give the treasury secretary power over $700 billion.
Young claimed the current credit crisis is the result of a lack of domestic energy production, saying the nation is sending too much money overseas to buy oil
Berkowitz said he would have been a reluctant supporter of the package. He said the Permanent Fund has lost more than $3 billion, and that the credit crunch also endangers family investment accounts as well as the ability to start businesses in rural Alaska.
"So the crisis that happened on Wall Street affects us here in Alaska," he said. "It is a massive problem."
Young, responding to a question from the moderator, challenged Republican presidential nominee John McCain to even try to mess with his earmark money.
"I look forward to sending John McCain the first package of earmarks for Alaska and I dare him to veto it," Young said, referring to McCain's pledge to crack down on earmarks. He said Alaskans ask him for earmarks for everything from roads to hospitals.
Berkowitz said he'd fight for earmarks -- the spending directions members of Congress write into budget bills without hearings -- if Alaskan communities ask rather than campaign contributors.
"As long as people know who is asking, why they are asking and there's absolutely no question that it's being done to benefit a contributor or a supporter," Berkowitz said.
Congress voted to ask the Justice Department to investigate a Young earmark in Florida. Young says a local university asked for it, but it would have also benefited a developer who raised money for Young's re-election campaign.
The debate moderator, former KTUU news director John Tracy, asked Young if he's supporting Gov. Sarah Palin for vice president, suggesting Palin considers Young one of "the good old boys" she's running against. Palin has sparred with Young and backed Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell in his failed attempt to unseat Young in the August Republican primary.
"Gov. Palin is a great candidate. She's going to do a great job," Young replied.
Young said he doesn't need Palin's endorsement. He said Alaskans know him, what he can do, and that he's right for the job.
Berkowitz joked that he's supporting "Barack Obama and Tina Fey."
"I know Sarah and I like her, and I think with a little more seasoning she'll be ready for the national stage," Berkowitz said. "I just don't think her time is yet."