Friday, November 3, 2000
Two state rep candidates offer voters differing viewpoints
The race to elect a state representative from the Chelmsford/Carlisle district has a new twist this time around. The Republican incumbent Carol C. Cleven is opposed, not by a Democrat, but by a newcomer to local politics, Libertarian candidate Patrick El-Azem. The latter has a formidable task as challenger to the 14-year Beacon Hill veteran, who has consistently overwhelmed her opposition at the polls. Nonetheless, a cursory glance at the two candidates' campaign literature confirms that the voters are being offered a real choice.
A former teacher, 18-year Chelmsford School Committee member and, from 1975 to 1986, executive director of the Crittenden Hastings House and Clinic in Brighton, Cleven as legislator has concentrated on issues concerned with health and education, particularly as they affect children, adolescents and the elderly. Asked in an interview about her priorities in the upcoming session, Cleven said she will continue to work to make health care accessible and affordable to all, and to assure that prescription drugs are available to both the elderly and the poor at a price they can afford to pay. She added that although the prescription drug problem is under study in the House to determine what other states are planning and doing, major action will probably be put off to see what the federal government will do post-election. "We don't want to lose out on federal money by going too far ahead of other states, as has happened on at least one occasion in the past," she explained.
Although Cleven wants to see health care accessible to all, she does not support the Question 5 referendum item, first because she feels the patients' Bill of Rights passed at the end of the last legislative session took care of a number of the most critical health care issues and second, "because it provides no answer as to how it will be funded." She suggests that money from the tobacco suit can be used to improve the prescription drug problem, with 75 percent of the income from that source being held to help fund future health care moves.
As a member of the Vision 20/20 health care study, Cleven says she is concentrating on the future needs of the steadily growing 80-plus population and how to best supply the services they will need. She believes that a major part of the solution lies in enabling them to remain in their own homes as long as possible, thus eliminating much of the high cost of providing increasingly scarce nursing home care.
With these declared priorities in view, Cleven opposes the Question 4 and Question 6 tax cuts proposed on the November 7 ballot. "Cuts should be approached more slowly and be geared to the actual revenues," she said, pointing out that were these items to pass, a total of close to $2 billion would be lost to state coffers in the first year. "We can't provide health care services and prescription drug relief while doing that," she explains.
From her post as a 12-year member of the joint House-Senate Education Committee and consistent supporter of education reform, Cleven regrets that the MCAS test ended up as the sole criterion for graduation from high school. She said she and others had wanted testing to be used for purposes of accountability but combined with student folders that track individual progress to help determine final outcomes.
As an outgrowth of the project to widen Route 3 and the accelerating industrialization along Route 495, Cleven has joined the Merrimack Valley Development Council, which is seeking to form a partnership with industry to encourage public transportation and the use of shuttle buses to handle the so-called "reverse commute." Although Carlisle is not a member of the council, the problems highlighted by Cleven parallel and mesh with those under discussion in the Minuteman Advisory Group on Interlocal Coordination (MAGIC) in which the town does participate.
El-Azem is an articulate, young Libertarian making his first run for elective office. Born in Greece, son of a UNICEF administrator, he came to this country to attend Cal Tech. After earning a degree in engineering and applied science, he worked for a number of high tech firms in Massachusetts as a professional software developer and manager. El-Azem is currently employed at Web Technology in Lowell. His wife Laura, a graduate of Bucknell University is managing his campaign.
A visit to El-Azem's website confirms the candidate's Libertarian convictions. An opponent of what he sees as vastly inflated spending by the state legislature, he has written, "It's time someone stands up to the legislature and says, 'Enough is enough.'" In a telephone interview, the candidate revealed that he made his final decision to run for the House when he learned that the legislature was willing to spend $300 million of the taxpayers' money to help fund a new ballpark for the Boston Red Sox. Although El-Azem supports funding "necessary state functions, such as widening Route 3," he would work for an immediate rollback of state taxes and support strong rules for the legislature's budgetary process.
In the health care debate, the candidate has insisted that state government would benefit both taxpayers and patients best "by sharply cutting the huge burden of regulation and bureaucracy currently imposed on health insurance companies." Asked to indicate what specific regulations he might vote to eliminate, he gave the example of state implementation of the federal Cobra program which permits a person leaving an employer to continue his health coverage at his own expense for 18 months The catch, he says, is that state statute forbids another HMO from offering the client a new and perhaps superior policy until the expiration of the 18-month period.
El-Azem also questions the state regulation that forces an HMO to charge patients for all services whether or not they want all of them. He regrets that this lack of flexibility prevents some insurance companies from coming into the state to compete for business and perhaps drive prices down. Finally, the candidate promises, if elected, to introduce or support legislation to make individual health insurance policies tax deductible, and to give taxpayers the ability to open medical savings accounts to pay for items, such as eye glasses and dental work, not covered by most insurance policies.
On his website, El-Azem commits to support any legislation that increases parental choice in their children's education without penalizing the taxpayers. Asked if this means he supports vouchers, he made it clear that while he favors their use to allow movement within the public school system, e.g. to magnet or charter schools, he does not believe the taxpayers' money should go to private or parochial schools. He cites public policy reasons and the fact that such funding would inevitably involve governmental oversight in these presently independent institutions.
Because a major tenet of his Libertarian philosophy calls for decentralization of government decision-making, El-Azem told the interviewer that he opposes the present MCAS straightjacket and insists that "local schools, teachers and parents should control the curriculum." However, since he acknowledged that the schools owe the taxpayers some accountability, he accepted that testing should be part of the mix. On another hot issue, the candidate pledges, if elected, to support reforms that "streamline special education."
Finally, El-Azem observed that because he is committed to frugality in all areas of state spending, thus permitting substantial cuts in taxes, his proposals will give all parents more money to devote to their kids' education.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito