Candidates Janice Hahn and Craig Huey disagree on nearly every key issue at play in the July 12 runoff election for the seat in the U.S. Congress vacated earlier this year by Jane Harman. But nowhere are their respective differences starker than on the issue of Medicare’s future.
The government entitlement program intended to provide a medical safety net for senior citizens is at the forefront of a nationally volatile, political battleground. At issue is a budget plan offered by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wi.) that, among other things, proposes to drastically reform Medicare by creating a “premium support” system that would partially privatize the program. Ryan has resisted the “voucher” label, but essentially Medicare would make payments – limited by “means testing” – to private insurance companies chosen by seniors.
Democrats have seized on the issue. In New York last week, Democrat Kathy Hochul won a surprising victory in a traditionally Democratic Congressional district and did so largely because of her opponent’s support for the Ryan plan.
Huey, a Republican, scored a surprise victory of his own in the May 17 “jungle” primary that featured 16 candidates from all parties vying for the District 36 seat. Democrats enjoy an 18 percent party registration edge in District 36, which stretches from San Pedro to Venice and includes Torrance and all three beach cities (but excludes the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where Huey lives).
Hahn, an L.A. City Councilwoman, was considered a frontrunner but was expected to face Secretary of State and fellow Democrat Debra Bowen in a runoff. Internal campaign polls in the final month of the campaign showed the two running neck-and-neck and Huey scoring only single digit support.
But Huey, who owns his own direct marketing firm in Torrance, ran a close second to Hahn and earned entry into the runoff election. Hahn won 24.6 percent of the vote, Huey 22.2 percent.
Huey ran as an anti-establishment candidate in favor of drastic spending cuts in the federal budget. He supported the Ryan plan and he is not backing down, although he takes pains to offer assurances that nobody currently 55 or older would see a change in their benefits under the plan.
“With the Ryan plan, what are the best choices when there are no good choices?” Huey said in an interview this week. “See, nobody has offered anything better. There are problems with the Ryan plan, but there has got to be dramatic reform. Nobody is talking, even Ryan, about any of the seniors losing Medicare – anybody over 55 losing Medicare. Everyone is looking to stop the bleeding, because if something isn’t done, nobody is going to get anything.”
Hahn also believes that spending cuts are necessary but promises to protect Medicare if elected to Congress.
“I think what Americans want to hear from all of us is we understand the need to cut spending,” she said. “We understand there is a deficit and a debt, and we have to rein in spending in this country. But I think Mr. Huey and I have differences in opinion as to how we should rein in that spending. I absolutely don’t think we should balance our budget on the backs of seniors, as it relates to Medicare and Social Security. We’ve got to protect Medicare at all costs. Seniors are very worried about that, and I think they made their voices heard in New York – keep your hands off Medicare and Social Security. And that is something I will protect when I go to Congress.”
Huey does not shy from using the term vouchers. He believes such a system may be necessary to introduce competition and thereby greater efficiency into the Medicare system. He argues that drastic changes are necessitated by the $1.6 billion federal deficit and the $13.4 federal debt.
“I mean, we are headed for an economic tsunami similar to Greece,” Huey said. “All we are doing is paying more and more money to China because of debt. We are paying billions of dollars that isn’t going to help anybody – we are paying government to borrow money we don’t have. So Medicare is bankrupt, and other programs are bankrupt, and they are going to require very careful changes. So that has to be done – we can’t live as if we are not in a crisis, because we are.”
Hahn adamantly opposes a voucher system.
“The voucher system is problematic because it basically allows others to make decisions on what kind of care you are going to get,” she said. “How much money will you have in your voucher to pay for it, and when you run out, then what happens? You don’t have medical care anymore? Or you have to take much more money out of your own pocket? I think that the Paul Ryan will take more money out of seniors pockets to pay for that, and with rising gas prices and fixed incomes, they can’t afford to take more money out of their pockets to rein in spending. I think there are other ways to balance the budget and rein in spending.”
Specifically, Hahn argues in favor of bringing troops home and reducing military spending.
“I think the first thing to do to cut spending is to bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan – right there is $10 billion a month,” Hahn said. “That a good place to immediately cut spending, and that is something I am an advocate for. I think there are ways to reduce the military defense budget beyond just bringing the troops home. I think there are programs that are wasteful. I think there are duplicative programs we could streamline to be more efficient in the military.”
She also believes the federal tax structure should be made more progressive.
“I think that people making a million or a billion dollars ought to pay their fair share of taxes,” Hahn said. “That is a way we could get more revenue in this county – is not to give more tax credits to the wealthy. There are ways to balance this budget without going after seniors.”
Huey is adamant that seniors would not be harmed by the Ryan plan.
“We made a promise and a pledge and there can be no changes that break a promise and a pledge,” Huey said. “At the same time, we have got to change the system so there is more competition and more cost control. Under ‘Obamacare’ that is coming up, $500 million was cut out of Medicare, which is basically chasing doctors out of the system. We not only have a system going bankrupt and endangering the whole economy, we have doctors who are abandoning the system. I mean, we live in a fantasy world that there isn’t a problem – it’s a disaster to any senior. So the seniors are protected but something has to be done to protect everybody, including seniors, in the next few years.”
The candidates’ differences over Medicare are indicative of a broader divide over the role of government. Huey rails against “career politicians” and is generally suspicious of governmental interference. He has won support of many Tea Party activists for stances that include abolishing the Department of Education, curtailing the powers of the Federal Drug Administration, and loosening regulations promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency. He cites his experience in the private sector “making tough decisions” that successfully expanded his business for three decades as the kind of background needed in Washington.
Huey believes in a Reagan-style revolution in which government leaves businesses more unfettered to serve as the engine for a rejuvenated economy.
“I think it comes down, in this race, to what I would call economic fallacy and economic reality,” he said. “And you can’t live in a fantasy. That is what got us to the position right now where it is a crisis. Everyone is going to lose when the stock market crashes or when there is a major Depression and we can’t get this economy turned around.”
Hahn is serving her third term on the L.A. City Council and is the daughter of former County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and sister of former L.A. Mayor James Hahn. She believes in government, and cites her experience forging a compromise between private and public interests in the passage of the Clean Air Protection Plan at the Port of Los Angeles. She says this experience offers a sharp contrast to her opponent.
“He wants to defund the Environmental Protection Agency,” she said during an interview at the Memorial Day festivities in Redondo Beach. “I think in this district – in Redondo Beach, where we are today – they depend on their ocean and beaches being clean. They depend on tourism. So when beaches are not clean, not healthy, that hurts the local economy. So the EPA is an agency I think this district depends upon. I think he also wants to defund the Department of Education. He says our schools don’t need more money, they just need reform. I think people in this district don’t like the fact we are having to lay off teachers and class sizes are getting larger. Schools have taken a huge hit in the state and federal budget, so I disagree with him on that. I think our schools need more money to allow them to keep teachers and reduce class sizes and make sure every student has a great education.”
Huey takes aim at Hahn’s experience on the L.A. Council. He noted that she changed her ballot designation from “L.A. City Councilwoman” on the primary ballot to “Local City Councilwoman” in the runoff.
“It’s such a great reflection of the career politician she is, because, you know what? She is part of a bankrupt city,” Huey said. “She hasn’t seen a tax she doesn’t like. People care about the fact the City Council is bankrupt…So she is designated in the primary as L.A. City Councilwoman and now she has changed that to local councilwoman – I mean, it is just hiding and running from the mess in Los Angeles that she has been a part of.”
“This from a guy who doesn’t even live in the district?” Hahn said. “I think local councilwoman actually describes me in a better way. We represent a lot of cities in this district, not just Los Angles, so I think it speaks to my local government experience and it reminds people that I am local and I’ve been here and I’ve worked on issues and have created jobs and cleaned up the Port of Los Angeles. And I do have a plan.”
Hahn called Huey an extremist whose views are out of touch with the district.
“He said he was willing, if there wasn’t an agreement, to shut down the federal government if we couldn’t come to an agreement on our differences. I don’t think the American people want that. I think what we need are common sense solutions to this budget problem. I think we need people who will compromise….You don’t need people who are so extreme that they would shut down the federal government – that would hurt veterans, that would hurt the poor, it would hurt the people that rely on disability checks. That is an extreme position to take. Americans want someone like me, who has a record of bringing people to the table and solving problems, realizing we have difference of opinions. But to make a point, you are going to shut down the federal government? You know, that is a person who has never served in elective office. That is a person who has never had to compromise. That is a person who doesn’t understand what it takes to solve people’s problems.”
Huey, who lives in Rolling Hills Estates, said that he grew up in Hawthorne, went to high school in El Segundo, lived in Manhattan Beach and Lomita, and has run a business in Torrance for three decades. He also noted that Jane Harman didn’t live in the district when she was first elected and that redistricting would likely bring the Peninsula back into District 36 this year.
“This is my district,” he said. “This is where I grew up. This is where I’ve had my business for 30 years. I know this area backwards and forwards.”
Huey, who has pledged to spend as much as $800,000 of his own money in the campaign, also dismissed the notion that he is simply positioning himself for a run in 2012. Political observers still regard his candidacy as a long shot – 57 percent of the vote in May went to Democrats, after all – but he believes the tide is turning in District 36.
“I would not spend the time and money for some future district that nobody knows what it is going to look like,” he said. “When I make a business decision, I don’t do it based upon speculation. That wouldn’t be a wise use of time and money. My wife and I, we would not be doing that. We expect to win.” ER