The Port Arthur News
Speaking to a room of about 20 people, District 14 congressional candidates Randy Weber and Rhett Rosenquest Smith discussed and debated some of the issues facing the country today as if every single blue seat in the Jefferson County Courthouse’s jury room were filled.
Republican candidate Weber, sporting black cowboy boots and a dark suit, faced Green Party candidate Smith at a forum held by the Catholic Charities of Southeast Texas Thursday evening.
Smith, who donned a U.S. Navy cap at times during the debate, said it did not matter to him how many people were in the room. He was just happy to be there.
“At least you and I will have this conversation,” he said, “and hopefully share it with all the voters in Jefferson County.”
Weber won the penny toss and opened the forum by talking about the change this country needs. He spouted facts about the economy, the unemployment rate and the national deficit to drive his point home.
“It’s a bad time for America,” he said.
Weber said he would focus on strengthening the lagging economy and getting businesses to boom again because, after all, he is a businessman. He owns an air conditioning company that he built from scratch in Pearland, his hometown.
Smith, who lives in San Antonio, emphasized the importance of children to the nation’s future during his opening remarks. He said there needs to be a clear pathway for children to travel upon to reach adulthood that is free from discrimination, bullying and neglect.
“Children should not feel threatened,” he said.
The first question provided by the Catholic Charities asked how the candidates would work to resolve the stand-still gridlock that has congested Congress for some time now. The Catholic Charities provided questions for the forum that were structured to reflect essential Catholic values and social justice issues, said Daniel Maher, vice president of development and communications at the charity. The audience wrote down a few questions for the candidates, as well.
“The polarization and dysfunction of Washington D.C. trickles down here, and I think it’s reflective of a world in chaos to some measure,” Smith said.
The 62-year-old Navy veteran underlined the importance of reaching out to and understanding people of different faiths and backgrounds. The nation needs to include the various perspectives that make up this country in order to improve its function, he said.
“The arrogance of Washington D.C. politics is very obvious,” he said. “America needs to consider all possibilities.”
But fostering disagreement and prejudice around the world or in Congress would only reflect on our community, our schools and our values, Smith said.
“We cannot afford to keep going down that path,” Weber said, referencing the gridlock in Congress.
As a state representative, Weber has worked on both sides of the aisle, he said. The state legislature got things done by working together, and he would bring that experience to Congress if elected, he said. Weber cited his business background as proof that he knew how to work with people and solve problems, as well.
But by far the most obvious difference between Smith and Weber were their stances on the separation of church and state when it comes to public policy. While Weber touted his Christian faith, Smith stood firmly behind the First Amendment and its requirement that church and state remain separate.
“The government is not God,” Smith said, “and God is not the government.”
On other side, Weber has received the endorsement of two anti-abortion groups and did not desire a separation of church and state.
“I am the church,” he said.
Wade Billingsley was disappointed in the turnout at the forum, but he was impressed by Weber’s ability to debate and communicate his views. Billingsley, an insurance agent, said he stayed out of respect of the state representative but ended up seeing a vast difference between the two candidates. He leaned toward Weber’s sense of American exceptionalism himself, he said.
But Martha Pate, a local teacher, said she attended the forum to hear from the Green Party and the Republican Party. At the end, she said she still supported Weber because his views aligned with hers.