Steve Pestka and Trevor Thomas, the Democratic candidates in Michigan's 3rd Congressional District, debate in Battle Creek. (Courtesy: Al Lassen/Battle Creek Enquirer)
BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (The Enquirer) -- The two Democratic contenders in Michigan's 3rd Congressional District squared off in Battle Creek on Monday, with one questioning the other's history with health care and the environment.
Trevor Thomas raised concerns about Steve Pestka's record in the Michigan Legislature, not only on women's health care, which has been a campaign issue for months, but also on environmental issues.
Both candidates said they supported recent health-care reform legislation, but Thomas used a question about the health-care law to point to votes Pestka made as a member of the Michigan House a decade ago that went against Planned Parenthood and earned Pestka the support of the anti-abortion group Right to Life.
"If I was there at that time, I would have never taken that vote," said Thomas, a former aid to Gov. Jennifer Granholm from Grand Rapids, who went on to call health care one of his "core values."
Pestka, a former judge and state representative from Cascade Township, responded that his votes didn't result in cuts to anyone's health care services. "I think honesty should be a core value," he said. "I have always supported health care for anyone, and any statement to the contrary is about as false as saying I'm a Republican."
Pestka also repeated his statement that his views on abortion have changed since he was in the Legislature, and that while he remains personally against abortion, he doesn't think those views should shape national policy. He said he would not vote the same way today.
The event at Western Michigan University's Kendall Center was sponsored by the Enquirer and WMUK Public Radio in Kalamazoo and was the first side-by-side debate for the two candidates. Whichever one wins the Aug. 7 primary will go on to compete against Republican incumbent Justin Amash in the November general election.
Thomas and Pestka agreed that Amash is too much of an ideological conservative to represent the people of the 3rd District, which takes on new boundaries for the upcoming elections so that Calhoun County will be in the same district as Grand Rapids.
On the environment, Thomas said he would join the congressional Great Lakes caucus to work on issues like controlling Asian carp, and he supports an effort in Michigan to have more energy come from renewable sources. Pestka said he supports developing new sources of energy, but until that technology advances, the economy will rely on more traditional sources, and those need to be acquired safely and with as little risk to the public and natural resources as possible.
Pestka and Thomas went back and forth on Pestka's standing with the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group. Thomas' campaign pointed to a 2000 article from the Grand Rapids Press saying Pestka earned a 55 percent score from the group's Michigan chapter and said that went against a statement on Pestka's campaign website saying he had a 100 percent rating from the LCV.
Pestka responded that just last week the group affirmed its support. "I'm very proud of my environmental record ... and when I get to Washington I want to take the same kind of record there, in contrast to our current congressman," he said.
Thomas said records show Pestka has personal investments to the tune of $250,000 "in the worst and biggest oil companies in the county," including one acquiring land in Michigan for fracking.
Pestka questioned the merits of bringing up his family's personal investments.
Thomas also tried to make an issue out of Pestka's largely self-funded campaign by linking it to the increase in political spending coming after the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision. Pestka has put $590,000 of his own money into the race, campaign finance reports show.
"Nobody should be allowed to put that kind of money into a campaign," Thomas said.
Pestka said he is being transparent about his campaign funding.
"I hardly think that I'm the only Democrat in the United States that has put their own money into a political campaign," Pestka said. "And I think that again is an allegation that is simply untrue ... I certainly hope I'm not going to spend $590,000 in a campaign against you."
Both candidates said they would work to make sure representing the 3rd District means paying attention to Calhoun County.
And Thomas drew laughs when he said he was surprised to see that the World's Longest Breakfast Table isn't one long table anymore.
"I am an advocate for making sure it goes back to one table, so that we can all sit at one table to try to talk to each other."
By Barrett Newkirk, Battle Creek Enquirer staff writer