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Kirk and Cornyn face off in Wednesday debate

By Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Suzanne Sprague, 90.1 reporter: In last night's televised debate at KERA, both candidates tried to claim the political promised land of saving Social Security. Throughout the campaign, Republican John Cornyn has proposed letting workers privately invest some of their Social Security taxes. But in the debate, a reporter said the Social Security administrator predicted such a plan would cost the trust fund $1.7 trillion. John Cornyn responded his proposal had been misconstrued.

John Cornyn, Republican nominee: We should never, ever cut benefits for current retirees, but we need to do something. And, I'm not for privatization. I'm for allowing younger workers, should they choose to do so, to invest a portion of their payroll taxes, in something like an IRA, to get a better rate of return.

Sprague: Cornyn accused his opponent of not having a Social Security plan, but Democrat Ron Kirk said Cornyn's approach wasn't feasible.

Ron Kirk, Democratic nominee: The most responsible thing we could to do Social Security and extend the life of it by 20 years and have a greater rate of return than you recommend is first of all, stop borrowing from it. The greatest threat to Social Security right now is Congress continues to borrow from Social Security to fund other measures. And then secondly, pay down the debt. Deficit reduction is a real meaningful way to prolong the life of Social Security.

Sprague: Later in the debate, the candidates took up the political hot potato of affirmative action. They agreed the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to prohibit race-based admissions at the University of Texas Law School had forced talented minority students out of state. So John Cornyn said the U.S. needs a national color-blind standard for college admissions.

Cornyn: Affirmative action was never meant to be a permanent solution. It was meant to be a transition. I think even Dr. Martin Luther King was an advocate of transitional use of affirmative action and ultimately I think it's unfair to have a system of set asides and quotas to treat people differently based on the color of their skin.

Sprague: Ron Kirk said race and ethnicity should be considered in admissions decisions.

Kirk: It is not the law in the state of Texas that any child is admitted on a set aside, on a special policy or solely on the basis of race, but race should be one of many criteria that any college or university can look at in building an ethnically strong and diverse talent pool.

Sprague: But the debate clash became more personal when the questions centered around the candidate's professional records. Ron Kirk criticized Cornyn for launching the nationwide Republican Attorneys General Association about three years ago to solicit campaign contributions. Kirk accused Cornyn of courting big industry for the Association while the state had lawsuits pending against the donors. Those contributions have never been made public.

Kirk: What we don't know is how much and who from because he used a legal loophole to fund it through the national committee and keep those donors secret. And the sad reality, when many other attorneys general across the country were suing Aetna and suing Microsoft or suing other big companies for consumer fraud, our attorney general was asleep at the switch and the consumers of Texas didn't have legal counsel.

Sprague: Cornyn claimed he personally never received any money through such fundraising and that it didn't affect his prosecutions. He also questioned Kirk's ethics as a lobbyist for the Southland Corporation, which was fighting penalties against merchants who sold cigarettes to minors.

Cornyn: The logical question that occurs to me is was he doing what he did at that time because he truly believed or because he got paid for it? And I think those are fair questions and I don't think Mr. Kirk has adequately responded to them and I think the public needs to take that into account in determining who is going to represent them and the public interest in the U.S. Senate.

Sprague: Kirk answered he didn't oppose penalties on merchants, but wanted parents and children to share in the blame for illegally purchasing cigarettes.

During and after the debate, both candidates said they wanted to end partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C. Ron Kirk frequently invoked president George W. Bush's name in the debate. John Cornyn linked his Social Security plan to former Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And, in a post-debate press conference, he said he could work best with members of both major political parties.

Cornyn: I'm the only one who has operated in the Texas Legislature, working with Republicans and Democrats in order to get things done for the benefit of Texas families. And I would point again to the child support work we've done when the Legislature was determined to take that role away from the attorney general's office because of the poor work of my predecessor.

Sprague: Ron Kirk said Cornyn's high child support collection rate, while laudable, isn't relevant to the debate about bi-partisan cooperation.

Kirk: There is no debate in Texas that deadbeat parents ought to pay child support. A much better example for John Cornyn was when he had a chance in redistricting that he could act out and work in a bipartisan way. He gave them the back of his hand and gave them a very mean spirited plan that even the Justice Department rejected.

Sprague: The candidates also danced around several questions. Ron Kirk said he was reserving judgment on whether to ban assault weapons. And Cornyn refused to answer whether he ever had used illegal drugs, saying there is a zone of privacy for youthful indiscretions. Moments earlier, Ron Kirk had admitted trying marijuana in college, and not liking it. But after Cornyn's response to the drug question, Kirk joked he wished he had let Cornyn answer it first. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.

To contact Suzanne Sprague, please send emails to ssprague@kera.org.