Questions about Israel and the Middle East dominated a debate Sunday, held in the synagogue of Congregation Etz Hayim, between U.S. Rep. James Moran and Andrew Rosenberg, his challenger for the Democratic nomination in the 8th District. It was the candidates’ second meeting of the day, following a noon debate at the Agudas Achim synagogue in Alexandria.
Coming a day after Israel’s assassination of the leader of Palestinian militant organization, the Middle East was “topic A in the public mind today,” said debate moderator Ed Cowan. The questions reflected that prominence, and led to disagreements between the candidates on what Israeli and American policies should be in the West Bank, and in the Middle East as a whole.
The killing of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, and similar strikes by Israeli military units, are the wrong moves, said Moran. “What I would’ve done is capture them. … Violence begets violence.”
But Rosenberg said Israel’s move was justified by terrorist attacks on Israelis for which Hamas has claimed responsibility. “Israel has a right to go after murderers,” said Rosenberg. “I am against … the use of the term ‘assassination.’ Criminals aren’t assassinated; criminals are brought to justice.”
<b>MORAN AND ROSENBERG</b> disagreed on what policies the United States should pursue in the region. The country’s main priority in the region should be “to create security on the ground,” said Rosenberg, and that means “making sure our friends there remain strong.”
“We’ve got fundamental differences with that part of the world, and we need to support Israel, he said.
But Moran said that military might was the wrong answer. “We need to work to create economic interdependence in the Middle East” in order to create jobs, he said. “The young population there poses the greatest threat to stability, and we need to ensure they have something to do.”
<b>LISTENERS MAY HAVE</b> parsed Moran’s answers on Israel particularly closely. In March 2003, he made statements at a Reston town hall meeting placing some blame for the Iraq war on the Jewish community.
Speaking at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Reston on March 3, 2003, Moran said, “If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq we would not be doing this. The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going and I think they should.” Moran’s remarks appeared in the Reston Connection. Moran’s campaign manager recently denied that Moran made those comments, but on Sunday, Moran again admitted that he did.
Moran apologized for those statements last year, and repeated his apologies on Sunday. “I hate it … if I hurt people’s feelings.”
But, he said later, those statements should be seen as a sign of what makes him a good congressman. “My greatest strength is also my greatest weakness, and that’s my passion. Sometimes I lead with my heart over my head. But I believe my heart is in the right place.”
During his explanation of those comments, Moran and his campaign aides attempted to pass out a packet putting Moran’s comments in context.
That attempt drew a public rebuke from debate organizer and Etz Hayim representative Ann Schwarz-Unitas, who said the campaign was violating ground rules laid down beforehand prohibiting the distribution of campaign materials during the debate.
<b>BOTH CANDIDATES AGREED</b> that there must be wider access to health care, and said they would oppose efforts to define marriage as solely between a man and a woman.
Answering questions on gay rights and health care, and in his opening statement, Moran said, “People shouldn’t suffer from the accident of birth,” which led him to support increased civil right throughout his seven terms in Congress.
But he undermined that support three years ago, said Rosenberg, by voting for House Resolution 3162, the USA PATRIOT Act increasing surveillance abilities for the FBI, CIA and local law enforcement.
“This is an area where the congressman and I are likely never to agree,” said Rosenberg. “I would’ve voted against the Patriot Act.”
Moran said he would still support the powers granted in the act. “The problem is implementation,” he said. The Patriot Act “is being abused by this Attorney General.”
<b>THROUGHOUT THE DEBATE,</b> Moran said the best reason to reelect him was experience. The run against Moran is the first time Rosenberg has run for any elected office.
“I don’t believe serving in the Congress is an entry-level position,” said Moran. “I spent a decade preparing to run for local office, a and another decade in local office before running for Congress.”
Rosenberg pointed to his work as a legislative aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and public policy work at D.C. law firm Patton, Boggs as preparation for work in the Congress.
In turn, he said that voters’ experience with Moran was the best reason to vote out the incumbent. The comments in Reston were the most recent in a long line of problems dogging Moran, said Rosenberg, pointing to ethics investigations by the House and the Federal Elections Commission, and Moran’s 1984 resignation as Alexandria’s vice mayor.
“You need to be above reproach,” said Rosenberg. “You can’t draw questions about your credibility.”
</b>AFTERWARDS, AUDIENCE MEMBERS</b> were pleased with both candidates’ performances.
“I thought it was a good debate,” said Hank Applebaum, from Arlington. “This is a real debate. Most [local debates] are just fora.”
But with many wearing buttons and stickers supporting one candidate or the other, few were swayed by what they’d heard. “I’m very much for Moran, and I’ve heard most of this before,” said Amy Applebaum.
Alexandria Democrats Steve Newman and Barbara Brenman agreed it was the incumbent’s debate to lose, and “Moran wins,” said Newman.
The congressman himself disagreed. “I didn’t feel particularly at the top of my game,” he said. But that was partly an effect of the situation. “I prefer to debate Republicans over substantive issues. It’s easy to be a critic when you’re standing on the sidelines.”
Rosenberg saw the debate as a victory, which will spark a change. “There’s no question but that there’s a real appetite for change in this district,” he said. “We feel confident we have what it takes to win.”
Rosenberg is the first Democrat to challenge Moran since the congressman first won his seat in 1990. Virginia’s Eighth Congressional district includes Arlington, Alexandria and parts of Fairfax County.