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The comments came during a debate sponsored by the Johnston County Republican Party. The May GOP primary pits Rouzer, a Johnston County resident and former aide to U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, against Pantano, a military veteran and businessman from Wilmington. The winner will face U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, an incumbent Democrat from Lumberton, in the November election.
Pantano ran unsuccessfully against McIntyre in 2010, but both men are largely unknown to Johnston County voters. Redistricting recently moved Johnston County into the 7th District with Wilmington and southeastern North Carolina.For his part, Rouzer pointed to his work in cutting more than $1 billion from the state budget last year, adding that he has the skills to cut spending in Washington. “It takes courage; it takes political will,” he said. “I know how to say no, and the record proves it.”
Pantano blasted what he described as Rouzer’s 20 years on Capitol Hill, though Rouzer pointed out that he spent only 10 years there.
Pantano said his lack of experience in elected office would make him a better congressman.
“In the past 10 years, I’ve probably spent more time in North Carolina than you have,” he told Rouzer. “I think it’s time for some private-sector experience.
"I’ve worked with different types of businesses that have different needs but real, private-sector budget constraints. Career politicians are drawn into the morass of lobbyists and special-interest money.”
A third candidate, perennial office seeker Randy Crow of Bladen County, spent much of his time on the stage railing against “banksters” – a term used to compare bankers to gangsters. He blamed the recession on complex financial practices such as interest-rate swap loans. “If you want a person in Washington who has dealt with banksters and will work to stop them, please vote for me,” Crow said.
While many of Pantano’s campaign ads have focused on illegal immigration, the issue didn’t come up Monday in questions submitted by 7th District Republican voters.
In his opening statement, Pantano briefly mentioned “protecting our borders,” but he didn’t reiterate his claim that Rouzer had lobbied for amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Asked about the issue after the debate, moderator Linwood Parker – the mayor of Four Oaks – said local voters are focused elsewhere this year.
“I think they’re concerned about the economy, about high gas prices,” he said.
Here’s what the candidates had to say about other issues:
On a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages and civil unions: All three candidates said they support the amendment, which goes before voters North Carolina in May.
Rouzer said he co-sponsored the legislation that put the proposed amendment on the ballot, and he added that defining marriage as “between a man and a woman” was one of the most important issues today.
Pantano went further and predicted what might happen if the amendment doesn’t pass. “If we don’t pass it, and marriage is not part of our constitution, (existing laws banning gay marriage) can be overturned in several years,” he said.
If that happens, Pantano said, pastors will be forced to marry gay people or have their church’s assets seized by the government.
(In the states that recognize gay marriage, churches that don’t support such weddings aren’t required to perform them.)
On improving the economy: Rouzer pointed his party’s recent successes in the General Assembly, including regulatory reform, a balanced budget without tax increases and opposition to the national health-care law. The same efforts are needed on the national level, he said.
“If we can do a quarter of those things in Washington, we can turn this economy and this country around very quickly,” Rouzer said.
Pantano said his experience in the private sector gives him the knowledge to help business grow. “It’s a pro-growth agenda,” he said, adding that he also wants to cut corporate tax rates and push the country toward energy independence.
On term limits: Pantano and Rouzer disagreed strongly on whether Congress should be subject to term limits. Pantano said term limits are desperately needed, and he said he has signed numerous pledges not to seek reelection, even bonding the value of his home to prove he’s serious.
“The greatest gift that George Washington ever gave the people was that he stepped down,” Pantano said.
But Rouzer said he opposes term limits after working for years with Helms. Helms, he said, had more power over the “liberal bureaucracy” because he served for so long.
“If you want to hand the keys of power to the liberal bureaucracy, term limits will do it,” Rouzer said.