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Plummer and Enyart set acrimonious tone in second debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2012 - The three contenders for Illinois’ open 12th District U.S. House seat converged for their second debate, with the two major party candidates acrimoniously sparring over federal tax policy and their backgrounds.

Democratic nominee William Enyart, Republican nominee Jason Plummer and Green Party nominee Paula Bradshaw met Thursday at the Marion Cultural and Civic Center for their second of three debates. Enyart and Plummer are locked in a nationally watched race to replace U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, who is retiring. The district includes portions of the Metro East.

While Enyart and Plummer sparred in their first debate in Carbondale, they were especially adversarial Thursday night. Their first disagreement came near the beginning, when the two diverged about whether to raise taxes on higher income individuals.

Enyart said he would be for such a proposal, noting that the Joint Chiefs of Staff painted the deficit as a national security issue. He then stated that wealthier individuals weren't paying their fair share after passage of "Bush millionaire tax cuts."

After noting that tax cuts enacted in President George W. Bush’s administration were extended under President Barack Obama, Plummer said that hiking taxes on higher earners would hurt small business owners.

The two candidates also disagreed on the DREAM Act, an immigration proposal championed by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Plummer came out against it, while Enyart praised a provision that would give immigrants who join the military an expedited path for citizenship.

But the debate became especially heated during its rebuttal period.

After being criticized continuously for a statement at the last debate that the economy was improving under Obama, Enyart noted that Illinois added 10,000 jobs last month and saw its unemployment rate go up because more people are looking for work. He then claimed Plummer “wants people to be depressed – I’m sorry, I’m not going to feed that type of attitude.”

After criticizing Plummer for not being specific about which tax deductions he would reduce, Enyart then rebuked Plummer for continually linking him with Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. He then said “if he wants to run against Nancy Pelosi he needs to rent a villa in San Francisco, not O’Fallon.” 

“I know what it’s like because I grew up working class and having struggle where I had to get today – I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” Enyart said. “Now, Mr. Plummer talks about class warfare. You’re right. There is class warfare – and I’m sorry I’m going to sound like Paula Bradshaw for a minute. But you know what? The class warfare has been going on for 10 years. George Bush cut taxes for millionaires, got us into two wars and that’s why we’re in the critical deficit situation we’re in today.”

Plummer said his comments “are focused on the people of southern Illinois,” adding that Enyart “likes to talk about me.” He took issue with Enyart calling him “an inherited millionaire,” noting that his grandparents were of modest means and his parents – who started RP Lumber – are still alive.

“I see my parents out there breathing – I’m not sure what I could have inherited from them,” said Plummer, who then pointed out his father didn’t have running water or electricity growing up and went to college on a scholarship.

He said his father started his business, which he said employs about 1,000 people, adding that “we wish we could employ more people in southern Illinois.” He then once again criticized Enyart for being a “trial lawyer from St. Clair County.”

“You want to know why our health care system struggles? You know why small businesses leave southern Illinois? It’s because of lawsuits and it’s because of public policy by people such as Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama – who Bill Enyart supports,” he said. “If we make sure we’re going to represent southern Illinois, we have to admit there’s a problem. I know there’s a problem in southern Illinois. The people know there’s a problem in southern Illinois. And we’re going to work together to solve those problems.”

The two also sparred over whether Plummer endorsed U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. Plummer strenuously denied that he supported that document, adding that “if you say that again – you’re being dishonest to the people of southern Illinois.”

Enyart said his supporters had recorded Plummer praising elements of the budget in Alton earlier in the summer.

“I swear an oath as an officer – my honor is very important to me,” Enyart said. “And I don’t have to lie, unlike Mr. Ryan or Mr. Plummer for that matter. So let’s just keep it on the up and up, Mr. Plummer.”

In the middle of the debate, Enyart strongly disputed that either Plummer or Bradshaw could match his expertise on defense issues. At the end of the debate, Enyart said "let's compare lieutenant junior grade to major general." That's a subtle reference to Plummer's service as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves.

The two did find one area of agreement: Both opposed same-sex marriage, which set them apart from Bradshaw. Bradshaw said "the government support of marriage that we have should be open to everybody."

The debate comes as third-party groups have stepped up their involvement in the 12th District contest. Both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have launched attack ads, a suggestion that the respective national parties are making the race a priority. Other third party groups have gotten involved in the race as well.

The candidates will meet for a final debate on Oct. 10 in Belleville, one of the Metro East cities encompassed in the 12th Congressional District.  

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.