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Enyart, Plummer get personal in Belleville debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 11, 2012 - BELLEVILLE – When the internet news site Politico unveiled its choices for the 10 nastiest U.S. House races in the country, the race for Illinois’ 12th congressional district didn't make the cut.

After Wednesday’s night debate, the political website may consider giving the contest an honorable mention.

In the third and last broadcast debate, Democrat Bill Enyart and Republican Jason Plummer arguably wrote the most combative chapter in the already fractious contest. The two main competitors to represent the southern Illinois district quarreled mightily over policy differences, personal wealth and truthfulness.

The race to replace U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, has attracted national attention mainly because it’s seen as critical if Democrats are to have any chance in winning back the House of Representatives. Outside groups have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into attack ads, a signal that the contest could be close.

In many respects, the debate, which also featured Green Party nominee Paula Bradshaw, had a similar structure to the previous two meetings. The candidates were quizzed on educational policy, foreign policy and the economy of the region. They were also asked about the increasingly violatile situation in Iran, Libya and Syria.

As in previous debates, the most explosive portion came during rebuttals. As he’s done in the past, Enyart questioned why Plummer hadn’t released his tax returns – a fairly consistent criticism against the R.P. Lumber executive since he ran for lieutenant governor in 2010.

In response, Plummer said he wouldn’t release his tax returns “because I don’t believe it's public information.” He repeated an assertion that his financial disclosure form, which candidates are required to file, is sufficient.

“Anything people want to know about my assets or my investments or any liabilities or anything I have is all public information,” Plummer said. “You can go look it up. Now Bill stands here and attacks me on the tax return thing. He’s pretty proud of that. But I guess my question would be, Bill, why do you take so much money from people who refuse to show their tax returns?”

He later noted that U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Evanston, will be raising money for Enyart soon. And, he added, she hasn’t released her tax returns either.

“Not only will Jan Schakowsky not release her taxes, but her husband went to prison for check kiting and tax charges,” Plummer said. “Now Bill, are you going to raise money from Jan Schakowsky while attacking me for this? Are you going to look in the eyes of these people and take money from [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi? At the last debate, when Bill Enyart said he hadn’t taken money from Nancy Pelosi, she was hosting a fundraiser for him in Washington, D.C. If you’re not going to be honest with the voters when you’re asking for their vote, how are you going to treat them when you win?”

Enyart replied that he had no knowledge that Pelosi, D-Calif., was holding a fundraiser for him.

Later in the debate, Enyart alluded to the television commercials attacking him, produced by a SuperPAC funded by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. He added that the St. Louis media market, and other parts of the district, have been inundated with anti-Enyart ads.  

“I have a story to tell,” said Enyart, a retired major general who recently stepped down from leading the Illinois National Guard. “I’m a working-class kid. I’ve been a success. I know what it’s like to pay back a student loan. Mr. Plummer lies to you. He talks about his federal election disclosure; those are ranges. They don’t tell you everything. I don’t care what he made. I know he made somewhere between $946,000 and $5 million last year. But I care about what he paid. Let’s have some tax fairness here.”

After some crosstalk, Enyart then said, “Most lieutenant junior grades will refer to somebody older than them as sir.” The line, used in previous debates, refers to Plummer's service in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

“I referred to Mr. Plummer as Mr. Plummer out of some modicum of respect,” said Enyart, who repeated a similar barb in previous debates.

In a press conference after the debate, Enyart said the continued demands for Plummer to release his tax returns reflected credibility. He noted that former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, D-Illinois, started that trend when he served in Congress.

“The question is, if someone is going to go to Congress and write tax law, then the voters have a right to know what their interest or their conflict of interest in writing those tax laws would be,” Enyart said. “I don’t agree with a lot of members of my party. He accused me of taking money from people who aren’t releasing their taxes. Well, I don’t have any control of whether they release their taxes or not. But as their congressman, I will release my taxes.”

Asked if the personal attacks were becoming distracting, Plummer said, "How you act as a person often will influence your policies."

"And I'm not going to stand on stage and have somebody say things about me that aren't true," Plummer said.

When quizzed on a similar question, Enyart said the debate "got a little heated.”

“I don’t particularly care for it when Mr. Plummer called me a liar,” he said. “But other than that, it wasn’t much different. And I really don’t think that’s the issue. Tempers flare. So I think what we really need to look at is the issues that we talked about.”

Everything from women’s pay to East St. Louis

There was, of course, more to the debate than personal sparring. 

One panelist asked about the candidates' views on equal pay for women. Enyart said that he supported the Lily Ledbetter Act, which provides women more leeway to sue over pay discrimination.

“When I served as the commander of the Illinois National Guard, a colonel got paid as a colonel; it didn’t matter if it was a he or she,” Enyart said. “My wife served as a circuit judge until she retired in this circuit;  she was the first woman judge elected in this circuit. She got paid as a circuit judge. I think that women who are serving in equal positions to men should be paid equally to men.”

Plummer said the federal government “has regulatory bodies in place that do good jobs of making sure people are treated equitably, that people are treated fairly.”

“When situations like that arise, it is something that has to be addressed,” Plummer said. “I can’t speak for every job function out there, but I’ve actually studied the statistic quite a bit as a person with two older sisters out there in the workforce providing for their children. And if you look at what’s happened now, a lot of people have been hit hard. And it’s not fair to a lot of people.”

He added the statistic that “rings true to him” isn’t a statistic cited by the questioner that women make 65 percent as much as men, but how many women lost their jobs after President Barack Obama came to office.

“You want to talk about women losing opportunity?” Plummer said. “You want to talk about women not making money? You want to talk about a war on women, how come they’re bearing the brunt of what’s happened over the last four years?”

The candidates were also asked about how to revitalize East St. Louis, one of the Metro East cities included in the 12th District. Plummer said that what is necessary are improving economic conditions throughout the region, while Enyart advocated improving the city's infrastructure and spurring business creation to reduce the town's high property taxes.

The two also revisited their disagreements on tax policies. Plummer once again advocated eliminating tax deductions and exemptions, while Enyart called for wealthier Americans to “pay their fair share.”

Miss Congeniality?

One rare moment of agreement between Enyart and Plummer: Both had complimentary things to say about Green Party rival Bradshaw, a Carbondale nurse who’s participated in all three debates.

Some in the packed auditorium at Lindenwood also cheered  when Bradshaw called for reduced military spending and an end to American foreign conflicts. While the two major-party candidates previously expressed support for the region’s coal industry, Bradshaw instead called for more investments into renewable energy.

Bradshaw’s place in the race could do more than provide a different perspective: She could take away votes from Enyart and swing the election to Plummer. Rich Whitney, Bradshaw’s husband, performed well when he ran for governor as the Green Party candidate in 2006 and reaped a large amount of votes in the Carbondale area.

But after the debate, Bradshaw dismissed that idea that she was a spoiler. She noted that after the last debate was aired on C-SPAN, she got supportive messages from adherents of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas Republican with a big nationwide following.

“I don’t think this is feudalism,” Bradshaw said. “I don’t think the Democratic or Republican parties own the people. As I noted in my closing, 50 percent of people in this country refuse to vote at all. They don’t like either one of them.”

“If all those people voted for me, I would win hands down,” she added.

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