U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., and his Democratic challenger, Brad Ashford, jousted over crime, partisanship in Washington and the minimum wage Thursday night in the first debate of their battle to represent the Omaha area in Congress

For the first time in the race, Terry aggressively went after Ashford on his 16-year record in the Nebraska Legislature, citing past votes in which he said Ashford “coddled criminals’’ and raised taxes and fees.

“Why would you do that when violent criminals are being released?’’ Terry said in criticizing Ashford for opposing a prison-related bill pushed by the governor.

Ashford, in turn, went after Terry’s 16-year record in Washington, several times during the hourlong debate tying the Republican to the partisan dysfunction that has caused gridlock on Capital Hill on many critical issues facing the country.

“I believe Congress has failed the American public,” he said. “It’s time for a change.”

The 2nd District race between Ashford and Terry is considered one of the nation’s most competitive congressional contests, with polls showing the two candidates nearly deadlocked. That’s one reason the debate, sponsored by The World-Herald and aired by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s public television station, was also carried live by the national cable channel C-SPAN.

During a portion of the debate where each candidate was able to ask a question of the other, Terry assailed Ashford on crime. He most sharply criticized Ashford for opposing Gov. Dave Heineman’s push to change the state’s good time law, which automatically cuts in half a prisoner’s sentence as long as the inmate is not written up for misconduct. Terry said Ashford would not let the governor’s proposal out of the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.

Ashford countered that it was the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services that failed to properly follow the good time law, by not adding time on to the sentences of prisoners who did misbehave behind bars. In light of all the department’s recent problems, he said he worked with senators this past session to pass a comprehensive law reforming the corrections system.

Ashford also said he’s had a strong legislative record of fighting crime, including laws strengthening penalties for the most violent of criminals. “We’re not coddling criminals, Lee, when we increase penalties for sexual predators, when we increase mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes,’’ he said.

Social Security was one of the many issues for which Ashford criticized Terry for Congress’ inaction. With the program facing mandatory cuts in benefits by 2040 without changes to boost its finances, he said the only thing Terry has done was to support a proposal to privatize the program.

“We have to take privatization of Social Security off the table,’’ Ashford said. “It was on the table in the Bush administration, and you got behind it.’’

Terry agreed that the failure of Washington to deal with the nation’s problems is frustrating, but he denied being part of the problem. In every bill he has pushed in Congress, he said, he has actively courted support from the other side of the aisle.

“I’m equally as frustrated as they are,” he said, referring to the American public.

The two also differed on numerous other issues, including the minimum wage and immigration.

On the minimum wage, Ashford said he would support a proposal on the Nebraska ballot that would phase in an increase in the state’s minimum wage. He criticized Congress for not doing more to help workers, particularly working women who are making less than men for doing the same job.

Terry said he would not support the minimum wage proposal, even though he acknowledged that his own son makes the minimum wage working at a grocery store. He instead talked up job-training programs to help lower-income earners find better-paying jobs.

“The way people are going to get a $20 or $25-an-hour job is to have the skills necessary,’’ he said.

On immigration, Ashford said he supported the bipartisan bill in the Senate that would comprehensively reform the nation’s immigration laws, including providing a pathway to citizenship for those already in the country illegally. He said the state of Nebraska is bearing tremendous costs due to illegal immigration because of the House’s refusal to take up the proposal.

“There needs to be a debate on the floor of the House,’’ he said.

Terry said he does not like the Senate bill because of the pathway to citizenship. He called for the Senate to pass a bill dealing with the other immigration issues first. Then, he said, there can be a discussion of what to do with those here illegally.

Read more World-Herald political coverage.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1130, henry.cordes@owh.com

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