Wednesday, August 13, 2003

At 'Fresh Air Forum,' voters query Kerry

By Anthony Schinella / Staff Writer

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

This is the second in a series of articles about the democratic presidential candidates on the campaign trail.

MANCHESTER, N.H. - A late afternoon thunderstorm may have forced Sen. John Kerry's "Fresh Air Forum" from Victory Park - a small, green space in the heart of the state's largest city - to an auditorium at the N.H. Institute of Art. But it didn't stop residents from grilling the senator on many issues ranging from international trade and health care, to civil liberties and the economy.

Entering to the Thin Lizzy tune, "The Boys are Back in Town," played by one of the art school's rock bands, Kerry spent a short time talking about his 35 years in public life and the reasons he was running for the highest office in the land. He called his life "a journey" - fighting in Vietnam as a soldier and later, protesting against the war. Kerry was also a county prosecutor, lieutenant governor, and senator for the last 19 years in Massachusetts. He said it led him to a "moment in history as critical as anything I have seen in that entire journey."

"Never since I returned from Vietnam in 1969 have I believed that it was so urgent for us as citizens of our country to become involved again, revitalizing our own democracy," he said.

Kerry was critical of President George W. Bush's administration calling it "the greatest say one thing do another administration in recent history." He added that Bush had failed on all his campaign promises and ruined the economy.

"The only jobs George Bush has created are the nine of us running for president," Kerry joked. "Every American I'm meeting in this country is tired of being trickled on by George W. Bush. When you add it all up, the one person in the United States of America that deserves to be laid off is George W. Bush."

When asked about tobacco issues, Kerry agreed to support better Food & Drug Administration regulations of cigarettes, and possibly a $1 increase in the federal tobacco tax.

Another questioner encouraged Kerry to make Wal-Mart buy American products "instead of being a communist dictatorship's [China's] eighth largest trading partner." While Kerry said a president shouldn't regulate what countries retailers buy from, he did say the company should provide health benefits to employees and be better controlled by local zoning and planning boards.

"There are a lot of issues with Wal-Mart," he said. "I think there ought to be a tougher effort to try and restrict the growth [of Wal-Mart] in a way that, in many places, is undoing local economies, and Main Street America, as a result, is under great pressure."

Barry, an unemployed grocery clerk from Manchester, questioned what Kerry would do for working families. Kerry recently met a number of unemployed workers, including those in the technology sector, and many were worried about losing health care benefits. He said his health care plan would allow citizens to buy into the same plan that the president, congressmen and senators have.

"If it is good enough for us, it is good enough for everyone in America," he said, adding that he would work to improve corporate responsibility and preserve workers' pensions.

Another resident asked about Jose Padilla, an American citizen who was declared an enemy combatant by the Bush Administration and has been held in a federal prison without being charged with a crime. Kerry said he voted for the USA PATRIOT Act because it improved the communication between law enforcement officials. But he admitted the law had been abused by Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"We cannot be the country that we are, if we allow terrorists to walk us back on the freedoms and the constitutional rights of Americans themselves," he said.

Jay Travis, an IBEW Verizon worker in Manchester, challenged Kerry's support of free trade agreements, saying Americans couldn't compete with laborers from India, and other low wage countries.

"You keep talking about trade policy, training, and new jobs ... but we can't compete with a globalizing economy," he said. "Middle class Americans are getting destroyed. How can we change our trade policies?"

"That's exactly what I am talking about when I talk about negotiating better trade relationships," he said. "What we can do is have better trade agreements, where we guarantee that we have labor standards, [environmental] standards, and a fairness in the working relations with those countries, so you don't have the kind of imbalance, outsourcing, and rush of jobs that is taking place now. We have this incredible rush to the bottom. [But] if you become protectionist, in a knee-jerk way, you can actually excite a worse economic situation. What we want is fair competition."

Kerry also advocated a payroll tax cut and investment in states and cities, including the preservation of fire department personnel, which had been hit by layoffs in almost every community across the nation.

"Bill Clinton said it best about three months ago," Kerry said. "He said that 2002 proved that strong and wrong beats weak and right. And what I bring to our party and this country is the ability to be strong and right at the same time."

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