Democrats slug way to fouls in congressional primary, Truth Squad finds

Who: Democratic 3rd Congressional District candidates Steve Pestka and Trevor Thomas
What: Television ads, candidate websites and candidate debate
Truth Squad call: Technical fouls on Pestka and Thomas

Steve Pestka, a former state representative, Kent County commissioner and Kent County circuit judge, is battling Trevor Thomas, a former staffer in ex-Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration, to run against incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Justin Amash in West Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District.

The race has turned nasty in recent weeks with Pestka and Thomas making repeated attacks on each other.

Questionable statement: “(Trevor Thomas) supports raising the Social Security retirement age, forcing seniors to work for years more.”

Pestka makes the claim in a television ad, referring to a passage in Thomas’s website that says:

“I believe that those folks who are currently relying on Social Security or are approaching that time should know that their benefits will not be altered. I strongly believe, though, that younger generations -- including my own -- need to adjust their expectations: Social Security can be put on stronger footing if folks under 40 years old are prepared to receive benefits at a later age than our parents have. It’s necessary, and I will push the next Congress to act.”

Pestka is technically correct that Thomas supports raising the eligibility age for Social Security retirement benefits. But the ad, which shows senior citizens he refers to as members of “the greatest generation,” suggests that Thomas would raise the Social Security eligibility age for those nearing retirement.

Questionable statement: “Mr. Pestka has taken to a new low after his numbers started sinking when folks were told he received a 0% rating from Planned Parenthood for voting to strip the group's funding. ”

Thomas makes this statement in a July 13 news release, responding to Pestka’s television ad in which he claims that Thomas would raise the Social Security retirement age.

Thomas’s claim about Pestka’s Planned Parenthood rating stems from Pestka’s 2001 vote in the state House to approve a bill directing state family planning money away from agencies that provided abortions.

Pestka voted with the Republican majority to pass the bill, which was signed into law by Gov. John Engler. In a debate with Thomas on July 16, Pestka said his views on abortion have evolved and that he would not vote in favor of a similar bill today.

Pestka said he is personally opposed to abortion, but would not vote to make it illegal.

Pestka was given a 0 percent rating by Planned Parenthood for his votes on issues related to women’s productive issues during the 1999-2000 and 2001-2002 legislative sessions.

Questionable statement: “As a state legislator, Steve Pestka consistently had a 100 percent voter rating from the League of Conservation Voters and he will continue to fight in Congress to protect the natural beauty that surrounds us.”

Pestka makes this claim on his website, but Thomas says it’s not true. He cites a Grand Rapids Press story from Sept. 28, 2000, that indicates Pestka’s rating from the league on environmental issues was less than 55 percent during the 1999-2000 legislative session.

According to data from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, Pestka received a 55 percent favorable rating for votes during the 1999-2000 session, but was given a 100 percent voting rating in the 2001-2002 session.

Questionable statement: “His opponent? He voted against stem cell research and opposed a woman’s right to choose, even in the case of rape and incest.”

This comes from a Thomas TV ad. Pestka did vote with the House majority on a 2000 resolution asking the National Institutes of Health to “withdraw guidelines for federally funded research using stem cells destructively harvested from human embryos.”

And during his campaign for the state Senate in 2002, Pestka responded to a questionnaire from the Grand Rapids Press that included a question about his position on abortion. Here is the text from that portion of the questionnaire, published on Oct. 29, 2002,  and provided by the Press:

"Do you support a woman's right to an abortion?

"Pestka: Oppose, except to save the life of the mother."

Questionable statement: “Steve voted to increase funding for Planned Parenthood. And he’ll fight any effort to limit access to birth control.”

This one is from a Pestka ad. The ad does not providing any source for the claim that Pestka voted to increase funding for Planned Parenthood. The Thomas campaign has repeatedly pointed out that Pestka once voted in favor of a bill directing state family planning money away from agencies, including Planned Parenthood, that provided abortions. Planned Parenthood has endorsed Thomas in the race.

Questionable statement:  “(Pestka) currently holds major investments in the world's biggest and worst oil companies including Devon Energy, which is currently planning a fracking project here in Michigan.”

Thomas makes this claim on his campaign website, citing Pestka’s federal finance disclosures. Thomas said the disclosures show Pestka had investments, mostly in trusts, in Conoco Phillips, Exxon Mobil and Devon Energy. He also said during the July 16 debate that these investments totaled about $250,000.

Pestka didn’t refute the claims in the debate, according to news reports. He described them as his family’s personal investments and said they are irrelevant in the campaign.

Devon Energy, an Oklahoma City energy exploration firm, leases mineral rights on 360,000 acres of property in Michigan, according to company spokesman Chip Minty. It recently signed a $2.2 billion deal with a Chinese company to drill for oil and gas here and in other states.

Fracking involves fracturing hard rock by injecting water, sand and chemicals under high pressure, releasing natural gas and oil. Many environmentalists oppose the practice, saying it endangers air and water resources.

Thomas provided no evidence that Pestka is invested in the world’s “worst oil companies.”

Overall impression: Thomas is correct when he says that Planned Parenthood gave Pestka a 0 voting record during his two terms in the Legislature. He also is correct in saying that the League of Conservation Voters issued a 55 percent rating to Pestka during his first term. But Thomas ignored the 100 percent voting rating the league gave Pestka in his second term.

Nevertheless, Pestka’s claim that he “consistently” received a 100 percent voting rating from the league is incorrect. And his claim in a July 16 news release that Thomas lied about Pestka’s environmental voting record also is incorrect.

Pestka’s claim that Thomas supports raising the retirement age for Social Security is correct. But his ad that makes the claim is misleading because it features senior citizens which the ad describes as member of “the greatest generation.” That term generally refers to those who came of age during World War II. Thomas says on his website that he would raise the Social Security retirement age for those who are now under 40 years old.

Thomas' critique of Pestka's abortion comments and stem-cell votes has solid backing.

Truth Squad call: The punches Pestka and Thomas are throwing at each other seem off-message in a primary election that both men say is about jobs and the economy.

Pestka and Thomas get technical fouls: Pestka for making misleading statements about his own record and Thomas’ position on the Social Security retirement age; and Thomas for cherry-picking Pestka’s environmental voting record.

We’ll also give Thomas a warning for recklessly making the allegation that Pestka has investments in the world’s “worst oil companies.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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