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Posted on Wed. Apr. 16, 2008 - 05:21 am EDT

Governor hopefuls joust

Democrats debate campaign ethics, abortion rights, gasoline tax caps

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There was plenty of venom for Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, but the Democratic hopefuls for governor also took verbal swipes at each other in the primary election’s only debate Tuesday night.

Topics included abortion rights, ethics, local government and the economy.

Jim Schellinger, 48, repeatedly told the audience at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Rhinehart Recital Hall that he is not a politician and referred to Jill Long Thompson, 55, as “congresswoman” – referencing her six years in office representing northeast Indiana.

But Long Thompson directly answered more questions and criticized Schellinger’s role in property tax increases and a campaign finance inquiry.

The hall was half-empty for the debate, which involved questions from the audience and a panel of local journalists. In all, candidates took 10 questions and made opening and closing statements.

Schellinger, an Indianapolis architect, at least three times referred to growing up in a family of eight and working his way through college. Long Thompson repeatedly said she never voted for pay increases or tax increases while in Congress.

“I’m running for governor because Indiana can and should be doing better. We deserve better leadership,” Schellinger said in his opening statement. “We were promised a new style of leadership in this state, but instead we got arrogant leadership that is completely out of touch with the challenges and the problems we face every day as Hoosiers.”

Long Thompson countered by talking about being the first in her family to go to college.

“I believed then as I do now that anything is possible, and that’s why I’m running for governor,” she said. “Our state has great promise, but too many families are facing an uncertain future and too many communities are hurting.”

The most interesting exchanges of the night surrounded ethics and negative attacks. Long Thompson’s were direct, while Schellinger employed a more subtle approach.

Long Thompson started by questioning the use of Trident Air, a limited liability corporation formed by Schellinger and his business partners, three days before Schellinger announced he would run for governor.

Trident has since given $60,000 in in-kind donations to the campaign to cover Schellinger’s air travel. A complaint filed with the Indiana Election Commission questions whether the corporation should be registered as a political action committee if its majority purpose is to aid the campaign.

Long Thompson challenged her rival to open the books of both Trident Air and CSO Architects – Schellinger’s firm – to ensure both were following campaign finance rules and to make clear where money is coming from.

“I simply said what I believe is if you are a candidate for public office your public record is a matter of public scrutiny,” she said after the debate.

Schellinger responded that he would do so and said nothing about Trident has been illegal. However, his latest campaign finance report, filed Tuesday, shows he has accepted no further donations from the company.

Long Thompson also pointed to $500 million worth of school building projects that Schellinger’s architectural firm has advocated in front of a state tax control board.

He generally said some of her criticism distorts the truth but otherwise wouldn’t take the bait.

“This is where I’m supposed to come back at my opponent … but I’m not going to go there,” Schellinger said. “We’ve got a governor who has polarized this state. We need a governor that’s going to bring us all back together again.”

Other topics included abortion rights, where Long Thompson said it is important that a woman’s right to choose be upheld.

Schellinger said his faith teaches him abortion is wrong but that he would not focus as governor on adding or changing state restrictions on abortion rights. He was less clear about whether he would sign into law or veto such laws if presented to him by the legislature.

Both candidates were asked to choose one recommendation from a recent bipartisan report on local government reform they would ask the legislature to adopt.

Long Thompson said appointed boards – such as library boards – should not be able to levy taxes, but Schellinger did not endorse a recommendation, saying that some recommendations might be right for some counties but not for others.

Both spoke against Daniels’ use of privatization and outsourcing of state services.

“Government is not a business. It was never intended to be a business. It’s the entity that brings us all together and makes sure that none of us is left behind,” Schellinger said. “We should send a message together as Democrats … that the state of Indiana is not for sale.”

Long Thomnpson compared leasing the Toll Road to selling the farm to buy a new combine.

When asked about high fuel prices, Long Thompson outlined her plan to cap the state’s sales tax on gasoline. Indiana is one of a handful of states that applies the state sales tax to gas purchases.

But Schellinger criticized the high cost of the proposal and said, “We have to make responsible decisions and not knee-jerk decisions in an election year to try to win voters over.”

The primary election race has been overshadowed in recent months by the state legislative session and the presidential primary. From the outset, Schellinger was seen by Democratic Party insiders as the stronger candidate. He had more money, early endorsements and a solid business background.

But he spent months on “listening tours” without taking significant policy stands. He also lost a campaign manager, a communications director and other staffers, causing many to question the legitimacy of his candidacy.

Long Thompson, meanwhile, has built on her name recognition in northeast Indiana and has generally been a more aggressive campaigner. She also was the first to start unveiling initiatives she would tackle if elected.

nkelly@jg.net


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