STEUBENVILLE - With the election just weeks away, candidates for Jefferson County commissioner, the Ohio Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives took center stage Thursday at a political forum sponsored by the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce and designed to help voters make up their minds.
Taking part in the forum were:
U.S. House of Representatives, 6th District: Incumbent Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, and Charlie Wilson, D-St. Clairsville.
PACKED HOUSE — A large crowd turned out Thursday evening for the candidates’ forum presented by the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce. - Michael D. McElwain
Ohio Senate: Incumbent Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, and Shane Thompson, R-St. Clairsville.
County commissioner: Incumbent Dave Maple, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Robert "Steve" Vukelic; and incumbent Commissioner Tom Gentile, a Democrat, and his independent challenger, Craig "Billy" Petrella II.
While the forum was intended to help voters make informed decisions at the polls, the several hundred people seated in Eastern Gateway Community College's main lecture hall Thursday seemed to know exactly who and what they supported even before the debate began, many wearing T-shirts and carrying signs touting the candidate of their choice and reacting enthusiastically when their candidate addressed the crowd while responding to questions asked by a panel of representatives from local media outlets.
U.S. House of
Johnson, seeking re-election, said the administration's energy policy is choking the coal industry.
"Coal is one of the most affordable, reliable forms of energy we have on the planet," Johnson said. "But we have a war going on against coal just ask the miners who have lost their jobs, ask the families who are paying $300 a year more to fuel their homes, ask the businesses in jeopardy of shutting down because they can't afford skyrocketing energy prices."
Wilson said Washington "has to do something with the EPA," noting he bucked Democratic leaders when he voted against the controversial cap-and-trade climate bill three years ago during the second of his two terms in Congress. Wilson lost the seat to Johnson in the 2010 election.
"The last thing we needed was an energy tax that would hurt our coal jobs," he said. "I voted 'no.' I was proud to be able to stand up for this area."
Wilson said the Obama administration's health care law "was the most difficult vote of my career ... but I couldn't stop thinking about the 31,000 children in this district of ours, all the people who had pre-existing conditions that would have no coverage today. I thought about the seniors there are 116,000 seniors who today have access to preventive care, things like diabetes screenings and colonoscopies, that type of care they wouldn't have had."
But Johnson called the health care law "exactly what the Supreme Court validated that it was, it's one of the largest tax increases on the American people in America's history," and said 40 percent of America's businesses "are saying that's the reason they aren't in a position to grow or expand and hire workers."
"When asked earlier this year why he voted for the health care law Mr. Wilson said it's a way of directing the American people to accept something that's good for them," he added. "As if the American people aren't smart enough to think for themselves. When he voted for the health care law, he voted to cut $716 billion out of Medicare - that's $1.8 billion for seniors here along the Ohio River, $15,000 more per year over 10 years in additional health care costs for seniors."
Johnson told the crowd the federal government should be less involved in regulating the oil and gas industry, pointing out that Ohio "has been regulating the oil and gas industry very well since 1965, and been one of the model states in terms of environmental protection and safety in oil and gas.
"The last thing we need is for the EPA to come in and start stepping on this opportunity for the citizens of Eastern and Southeastern Ohio," he added. "Keep in mind, even the administrator of the EPA herself, Lisa Jackson, has said that in over 1 million hydraulic fracturing operations in over 60 years, there has not been one proven instance where hydraulic fracturing has damaged the water supply. We don't need the federal government coming in and regulating what the State of Ohio has been doing very well."
Wilson agreed, saying it's "an opportunity that's great, going to bring jobs, we need to get as many local jobs as we can."
"My objection is with Congress voting for a two-year transportation bill instead of a five-year transportation bill," Wilson said. "There's no way for ODOT to plan what bridges need replaced, what roads need to be redone - two years is nothing but a patch. Bill Johnson voted for it and I think it was wrong. I think you have to have some outlook ... basically some vision of what's going to happen in our area because of a lack of a transportation bill."
Asked about the increasingly nasty tone of the race, how voters are responding and whether the race should focus more on issues, Wilson replied only that, "I believe it should focus more on issues."
"However, there are two main areas. Jobs - my opponent has voted to send jobs to trade with Columbia, Panama and South Korea. I think that's a serious problem and second, health care. My opponent has voted twice to kill Medicare, to make it into a voucher system. I think that's wrong."
Johnson, though, said the problem with the 6th District race and what he says the people of Ohio see as a problem today is a lack of integrity.
"The election commission has already established probable cause that Mr. Wilson is lying about my record on Medicare," he said. "He admitted himself that he's lying about my record on job creation. That's the problem with the negative in this election. Look at Mr. Wilson's record on job creation he voted for a stimulus bill that sent hundreds of millions of your taxpayer dollars overseas to countries like China, and he sells furniture right there in Bridgeport, in his showroom, that's made in China. It's disingenuous to say otherwise."
Johnson said Congress must look to regulatory and tax reforms to boost employment .
"Get the regulators off the necks of businesses so that business can grow and hire and expand," he said, describing the U.S. tax code "one of the most onerous tax codes in the free world."
"We need to eliminate the loopholes, let everybody have some skin in the game, but let everybody, including businesses, keep more of what they earned so they that can grow and hire and expand. That's what's going to put people back to work."
Wilson said Congress needs to "stop voting for jobs in Columbia, Panama and South Korea."
"It's real simple," he said. "Jobs have been shipped offshore just look at our steel mill here in Steubenville, the fact that it's being cut up and sold off for scrap. The kind of jobs we need are manufacturing jobs Bill Johnson doesn't believe manufacturing is the way to success for this district (but) it's the only thing, the only thing we have. This is a blue-collar area. It's not Wall Street, it's Main Street."
Wilson said his opponent had twice voted to raise interest on student loans and cut 45 percent of Pell Grant funding, saying "everybody should have a chance to get a college education. I really believe that's the only way to stimulate our economy in this area."
Johnson, though, took issue with Wilson's characterization of the votes, saying his opponent "seems to circle around the truth and never get to it."
"It was the Democrats under he and Nancy Pelossi who put a sunset clause into law that allowed low interest rates for student loans to expire," he said. "Let me ask you a question: Are the student loans high today? No. You know why? Because I voted, along with the Republican-led House, to keep them down. What he's telling you is absolutely untrue."
Lou Gentile said the Kasich administration cut millions of dollars from Ohio's budget, "and it was done on the backs of public education and our local governments." He said local property taxpayers can't shoulder the burden of education.
"Over time, we need to slowly increase the state's share of funding to local school districts," he said. "We need to get back to a system that does that."
He said the state budget increased by $2 billion, but in the process "schools took huge cuts right here in Jefferson County."
Thompson said one of the biggest problems he sees in Ohio's education system "is the disparity in learning between Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus and Buckeye Local, Toronto and Steubenville."
"There's about a $6,000 per pupil per year disparity, and that needs to change," Thompson said.
Thompson said the Legislature needs to "cut regulations, cut taxes and make Ohio more competitive."
"Shale gas, right now there's opportunity for a lot of money to come back when ad valorem, the tax that governs production, kicks in. Local communities are starting to see a little bit of an uptick in the bed tax and some other things. We need to put the hammer down and make sure the oil and gas industry grows. Looking to Columbus to solve our long-term funding problems hasn't worked so well in the past, so I think we need to find sustainable ways to fund investment and have a viable economy."
Lou Gentile said the Kasich administration has espoused "a reverse Robin Hood strategy," taking money away from local school districts and putting it into the state's coffers."
"To attract business to come here and keep business here, we need to be able to provide critical services," he said. "Taking money from (local government) and sitting on it in Columbus is not a formula for growth."
Thompson said he would "be a voice to champion our energy assets and bring growth and jobs" to eastern Ohio," while Lou Gentile said he would continue to "work across the political aisle" to win bi-partisan support of issues important to area residents.
Jefferson County Commissioner
Tom Gentile vs Craig "Billy" Petrella II
Tom Gentile said the oil and gas boom "has done a lot for a lot of people," not just landowners.
"If you talk to local businesses, talk to people in local restaurants, everybody says they're starting to benefit," he said. "Everybody saying it's going well. Of course, we always want jobs (to stay) local, but even when people come in here to work they're spending money in our grocery stores, in our restaurants and pulling into our gas stations."
Petrella agreed that the community as a whole is benefiting, saying it's "an exciting time for us, we could be on the brink of something that could be very big for our community."
"We need somebody who can embrace that," he said, adding that with rumors of more hotels being built, the county needs to get a hotel occupancy tax on the books.
With regard to the county taking over Smithfield's water system, Petrella said it could never be a positive to turn water off "to 400 citizens who need water to survive," though he said more research could have been done.
"It's a very sticky situation," he said. "I do support those who need water in the southern part of our county, however, we have to respect the people who have been paying for our water district for 37 years, paying in and paying in, listen to their concerns because they continually are the ones paying the bills and I think they should have a voice and representation. All they need is transparency and to be welcomed in, say here's where we're at, we understand your concerns."
Tom Gentile, though, said the commissioners looked at the deal very thoroughly before deciding to move forward with the acquisition.
"The residents are paying their bills, the village is not paying us," he said. "We are buying that system for $150,000 -that's what they owe us. That is about the cheapest acquisition of customers the county could ever get. When we did Rush Run, we spent $2 million and picked up 106 customers, about $19,000 a customers. If we spent a million dollars upgrading Smithfield's system, at 400 customers we would pick them up for $2,500 per customer. It's a great deal."
Gentile said acquiring the Towers office building in Steubenville makes sense.
"We're looking for a place to purchase rather than keep paying rent," Gentile said. "We're currently paying about $84,000 a year in that very building, and we're paying another $20-some thousand, maybe $30,000, in various other buildings around the county. It doesn't necessarily have to be that building; we're looking for an opportunity to discontinue paying rent and pay ourselves as the owner of the building."
But Petrella said the original purchase price quoted for the Towers was $1.7 million, which he said was well overpriced. While he said he's happy the committee "came back with a much lower price when we start looking at repairs, they're going to be sizable.
"I understand purchasing a building rather than renting," Petrella said. "But there are other buildings, there are other options. We don't want to put that on the taxpayers."
Maple vs. Vukelic
It was Vukelic himself who raised questions about his criminal record, acknowledging he made mistakes in the past, "and I apologize for my mistakes."
"I owe taxes, I pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes in this county," he said. "I'm on a tax agreement with the treasurer and auditor, I will pay my taxes in full."
Later, in response to questions from the panel, he said that, in order for him to serve, he first must win the election.
If that were to happen, "I will take that winning vote to the judges of Jefferson County," he said. "Both of them have sealed the records of individuals for more severe crimes. I cannot serve unless I win."
Maple said the issue of his opponent's past conviction has not been a part of his campaign.
If you read any of my literature, watch any of my commercials or listen to my radio spots, I have not mentioned the challenges Mr. Vukelic spoke about because of (his record). I have not. There are other folks who want to say that about him, but I have not."
Maple said when he took office, "the industrial park really had an empty spec building and one tenant."
"We've seen it grow in the last few years, had good growth both in the industrial park and the airpark," Maple said.
Maple said the commission is always looking at ways to maximize opportunities, even though the development climate has not been good in recent years
"We do offer incentives, up to and including free property to businesses that create jobs in our county," Maple said. "We will continue to try and offer incentives to locate in our county."
Vukelic, though, said the county needs to be "more involved in enticing companies to come here, and utilize our rail and river."
"I think people see the industrial park is vacant, there's a very, very sparse population growing there," he said, promising to "assist businesses interested in coming" to Jefferson County.
But he questioned giving local businesses tax breaks, saying if you "give one local business tax breaks, don't you think everybody should get tax breaks, free property and free grants and whatever else goes free?"