(As explained yesterday, the Enterprise editorial board is not endorsing candidates this election cycle, but we are sharing our thoughts on the two Congressional races in this area. Yesterday's editorial focused on the 23rd District of New York.)
With the exception of an ugly television ad showing U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand's face on a pack of cigarettes, the election for New York's 20th Congressional District has been remarkably, pleasantly civil, focusing on issues instead of smears. Remember the scrap two years ago between Mrs. Gillibrand and then-incumbent John Sweeney? Yikes.
The 2006 victory for Mrs. Gillibrand, a Democrat, was largely because most people, including us, had had more than we could take of Mr. Sweeney. His personal and political style did little to quell suspicion that he was, as accused, unethical and personally unfit for the office. That vote was mostly personal; this time, it will be mostly about issues because both of their characters hold up to scrutiny.
Republican challenger Sandy Treadwell's harping about his opponent's legal work for tobacco giant Philip Morris is a waste of time and money. Her defense is convincing: She was a junior associate with no choice about what cases her firm assigned her, she has voted against Philip Morris' interests in Congress despite the company's donations to her campaign, and the Treadwell-led state Republican committee got donations from Philip Morris, too. No big deal.
If people vote along party lines, Mr. Treadwell will win because Republicans massively outnumber Democrats in this gerrymandered district, which dodges Democrat-leaning cities as it reaches from Saranac Lake to the Poughkeepsie outskirts, plus a big spur into central New York. If you live in the towns of North Elba or Keene, this is your district.
But one of the things that makes this race so interesting is that each of these leading candidates has a strong cross-party pull. Each is centrist and independent, willing to break party ranks on national and world issues, not just those that affect the 20th District. Rep. Gillibrand is a member of the relatively conservative Blue Dog Democrats, and Mr. Treadwell - like his friend, former Gov. George Pataki - has always been moderate on social issues such as abortion.
Both tout themselves as fiscal conservatives intent on trimming government waste, but with different approaches. Gillibrand's top priorities include pay-as-you-go budgets, closing tax loopholes and giving the Internal Revenue Service the staff to get tougher on tax cheats. Treadwell says he wants to shrink the overall federal government but offered few specific cuts, the U.S. Postal Service being one.
We agreed with both candidates on the biggest Congressional vote of the year, the $700 billion Wall Street bailout. Rep. Gillibrand voted against both House bills, one of only three of New York's 29 House representatives who did, and Mr. Treadwell said he would have done the same. Both favor re-regulation of the financial industry.
Here are the most important distinctions between them:
Taxes - Mr. Treadwell says he wouldn't vote to raise taxes for anyone, ever, period. That means he wouldn't touch existing tax breaks for oil companies, multimillionaire corn ethanol farmers or hedge fund managers. Rep. Gillibrand, like presidential candidate Barack Obama, favors ending these corporate tax breaks and also raising income taxes for those who make more than $250,000 a year.
Economic stimulus - Rep. Gillibrand says Congress needs to approve more stimulus payments to Americans to avoid a spike in unemployment, an investment she admits would come right out of the national debt. Mr. Treadwell favors tax cuts instead.
Health insurance - Rep. Gillibrand favors giving every American the option of buying into Medicare, making this public system competitive with private insurance plans. Mr. Treadwell, like presidential candidate John McCain, favors a tax credit for health insurance and allowing one's health insurance to be portable from one job to another. Both would let all sectors of the federal government buy cheaper drugs from Canada.
Iraq war - Rep. Gillibrand would set a deadline and pull U.S. troops out soon. Mr. Treadwell says he would do what the generals advise.
Beyond the big issues, however, there are personal factors that matter to voters - most importantly geography. Although Rep. Gillibrand and her family have been regular visitors to Lake Placid all her life, Mr. Treadwell's local ties are much stronger. He has owned a house here since 2004 and says his campaign headquarters on Main Street would become a district office if he is elected. Plus, his family's farm in nearby Westport has been his and his wife's primary home since 1972.
Ultimately, a voter's decision may well come down to economic philosophy, which tends to break along party lines. Mr. Treadwell supports a Reagan-style trickle-down approach. Rep. Gillibrand prefers to tax the top of the economic spectrum and shore up the bottom.