Job creation and improving the economy, two of the major issues on the minds of Delaware voters, remained the focus of a debate between gubernatorial and lieutenant governor candidates Wednesday evening.
The debate, held inside the University of Delaware's Mitchell Hall and sponsored by Delaware First Media, WDDE 91.1 FM and the university's Center for Political Education, was moderated by Delaware First Media's Nancy Karibjanian and UD Political Science Professor David Wilson.
Night two of "Delaware Debates 2012" witnessed a calmer audience than the previous night's debate between the state's candidates for U.S. House and U.S. Senate. While Tuesday's debate began with several people in the audience being escorted out for shouting as they protested the exclusion of third party candidates at the debate, Wednesday night's event got underway smoothly.
Denn, Valenzuela spar over economic development
In the debate for lieutenant governor, Democratic incumbent Matt Denn touted his tenure and that of Gov. Jack Markell's, pointing to the progress the state has made in improving Delaware schools, getting people back to work and reducing the size of state government.
"Gov. Markell and I took our oath of office right here on this stage in Mitchell Hall almost four years ago. It was a very perilous time for our state and our country, in the middle of the worst economic crisis that we have faced in almost a century. And Delaware was hit a lot worse than other states," Denn said. "Yet, working with the departments within the state, we have moved things in the right direction … We're not going to be satisfied until every Delawarean who wants to work has a job, but we have come a long, long way."
Denn's challenger, Republican Sher Valenzuela, on the other hand, said as a Milford business owner, she understands the challenges that small businesses face and believes she can provide a better system of checks and balances in state government.
"I'm running for lieutenant governor because I know how to create jobs," Valenzuela said. "I also want to bring balance to our state government, because women are 53 percent of our state, but men hold all 10 of the top political jobs, and I don't think that's right."
When asked whether or not a new strategy was needed in improving Delaware's economic development practices, Denn said the state has taken a balanced approach in bringing new businesses to the First State.
"We realize that because we're a small state, we're not going to be able to offer the biggest incentives for companies to come here or stay here," Denn said. "We have to create an environment for companies to want to locate, grow and expand here."
Denn said discussions with Delaware business leaders led to the reduction in the size of the state's executive branch, a renewed focus on improving public schools and the removal of regulatory burdens.
Page 2 of 3 - Valenzuela said when it comes to attracting businesses, it's not about reducing the size of state government, it's about improving the regulatory environment.
"We need to improve what we're doing by looking at nearby states where businesses are locating on purpose because of the regulatory environment, the business-friendly environment," she said. "We need to incorporate best practices, and I believe it takes a business mind and business owner to know how to do that best."
The debate quickly became contentious once the issue of state spending came into play. Valenzuela took shots at Denn, criticizing his oversight of the federally funded weatherization program, which was shut down due to reports of fraud and abuse.
Denn said he was the one who shut the program down, not the federal government.
From that point on, Denn made several comments linking Valenzuela to the tea party and playing up her tea party endorsement.
"This is typical in how the tea party is doing things," Denn said. "They're making personal attacks on people. She's endorsed by the tea party and espouses many of its positions. If you want hard-line tea party values at the top of state government, you should not vote for me."
Valenzuela responded by saying she is not a tea party candidate and does not attach herself to the movement. She closed by calling Denn an "extreme progressive."
"Folks, we can do better," she said. "We can restore the important checks and balances to government and give a woman a seat at the table."
Markell, Cragg differ on unemployment, crime
Gov. Jack Markell, Delaware's Democratic incumbent, told voters Wednesday night that he would be honored to serve another four years as the state's leader. Like Denn, he touted his administration's work in bringing large corporations, such as Bloom Energy and Amazon to Delaware.
"Working together, we've reopened shuttered plants, we're putting people back to work and once again we're making Delaware the choice location for businesses to locate and create jobs," Markell said. "We're moving forward here in Delaware, but we have more to do."
Jeff Cragg, the Republican challenger, was quick, however, to point out the 30,000 people who are still unemployed in Delaware. He also noted that the number of people on food stamps in the state has increased since Markell took office.
This election and my candidacy are about jobs and the economy," Cragg said. "This is an unacceptable large number. We've made some progress, but we haven't made enough progress."
Markell said Delaware's 6.9 percent unemployment rate remains well below the nation's 7.8 percent rate. He pointed to the Valero plant in Delaware City, which reopened and saved hundreds of jobs in Delaware, and also spoke of the jobs that Bank of America and Capital One plan to bring to the state.
Page 3 of 3 - "All of these companies are adding jobs," Markell said. "They're putting people back to work."
Cragg said Markell's assertions that Delaware is recovering can be chalked up to political spinning, but the governor maintained that the state's resurgence is reality.
When asked about the escalating violent crime problem in the city of Wilmington, Cragg attacked Markell's administration, saying that issues of this nature would be addressed "more aggressively" if it were happening in an area outside city limits.
"I was a victim of armed robbery in the city of Wilmington in 2006," Cragg said, referring to an incident at his Wilmington business. "I understand exactly how this issue works. I know if that armed robbery would have occurred in Greenville, on Jack's street, it would have been responded to much more aggressively and much more seriously by the state. It's a matter of leadership and it's a matter of making it a priority."
Markell responded by saying that many new programs have been put in place to curb the crime in Wilmington, including additional Delaware State Police foot patrols and increased resources for the city's community centers.
"It's offensive to think you would suggest that we care less about one crime victim than another," Markell said.
Cragg then said he was offended that Markell was offended, noting that "what it really comes down to is assessing the problems," and having a true discussion on crime in Wilmington. He also said that Wilmington is not the only city in the state that needs more attention when it comes to crime, referring to Seaford and Laurel in Sussex County.
Among the other issues raised in the gubernatorial debate Wednesday was the candidates' position on fracking, the method in which natural gas is drilled.
Cragg said he supports fracking and believes it can be done in a safe way.
"Natural gas is the cleanest of fossil fuels," he said. "It's a tremendous opportunity for us to lower our energy costs and get energy independent, so I'm supportive of fracking, but we have to do it in an environmentally sound way."
Markell has opposed fracking, saying that he does not trust the regulations just yet.
"I think natural gas has some significant advantages, and I love the fact that it could create a lot of jobs, but I also think that once you turn this proverbial faucet on, you can't turn it off," he said. "This has to be driven by the science. Shall I be convinced that we have sufficiently robust protections built in to make sure it's safe, than I can see supporting it, but at this point I'm not there."
Several people could be found outside Mitchell Hall Wednesday evening with signs protesting against fracking, saying the chemicals used in the process are not safe.