Markell, Carper face GOP challengers at forum

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WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Democratic officeholders at the state and federal levels in Delaware got their first up-close look Thursday at the challengers trying to unseat them.

Gov. Jack Markell and U.S. Sen. Tom Carper squared off with their GOP challengers at a candidate forum Thursday night, kicking off the campaign season in earnest following Tuesday's primary elections.

Lt. Gov. Matt Denn and Insurance Commissioner Karen Weldin Stewart, along with their respective Republican opponents, Sher Valenzuela and Benjamin Mobley, also answered questions posed by members of the audience at the Jewish Community Center in Wilmington.

Independent Alex Pires Jr. and Green Party candidate Andrew Groff were the only minor-party participants in the forum. They and Republican Kevin Wade are seeking to unseat Carper.

Pires, a firebrand class-action lawyer and wealthy Dewey Beach businessman, wasted no time in attacking Carper, using his opening statement to call Carper the most corrupt senator in the history of the most corrupt state in the union. Pires railed against corporations and big banks, which he said Carper favors as political benefactors over small businesses and taxpayers.

"I favor the little guy... I have no interest in corporations," Pires said. "Everything Tom Carper stands for, I detest."

Carper declined to respond to Pires until his closing remarks.

"There are plenty of bomb throwers in Washington these days. I don't think we need any more of them," he said. "We need bridge builders instead, and that's what I do."

Carper touted his record during the forum and said that if he is elected to a third term and Democrats maintain control of the Senate, he would become chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and an even stronger voice for Delaware in Washington.

"I know how to do it," he said. "I stand fired up, and I'm still ready to go."

Jeff Cragg, a Republican businessman trying to unseat Markell, said the governor has failed to do enough to stem Delaware's unemployment problem, with more than 30,000 people out of work.

Cragg said the Markell administration has used the state economic development office as a "gambling mecca," risking millions in taxpayers incentives for Fisker Automotive, an electric car company whose plan to build electric cars at a former General Motors plant in Delaware has stalled, and to Bloom Energy, a fledgling fuel cell maker that also has received millions in state incentives.

"We need to end one-party rule in Delaware," Cragg said.

Markell defended his job-creation record, saying he took office amid one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history. He rattled off the names of several businesses, large and small, that have added jobs during his tenure, but he acknowledged that there's still more to do. Denn also defended the administration's economic record.

"We've created a good environment here for business and jobs," he said.

Denn and his Republican rival, Sher Valenzuela, offered conflicting views on same-sex marriage, with Denn touting his support of same-sex civil unions and saying "marriage equality is the next logical step forward."

Valenzuela said she supports traditional marriage.

Democratic U.S. Rep. John Carney Jr., who arrived late to the forum after catching a train, defended the Obama administration's health care overhaul and told the heavily Jewish audience that Obama would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. His Republican opponent, attorney Tom Kovach, said his experience as a trained mediator could come in handy in trying to overcome the gridlock in Congress and forge bipartisanship relationships.

"What we have to do is stop blaming the other side and be a leader," Kovach said.

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