PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Medicare, Social Security and health care reform are taking center stage in the race to represent Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District.
Incumbent Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, 51, blasts congressional Republicans, who have proposed holding down Medicare costs with a voucher system and for voting repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which reduced prescription drug costs for those on Medicare while also reforming the nation's health care system.
Republican Brendan Doherty, 53, the former head of the state police making his first run for political office, says he wants to give more benefits to those on Social Security while slightly raising the retirement age and has pledged to vote against cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits. He accuses the one-term Cicilline of "scaring seniors" when he links Doherty to national positions Doherty opposes, like vouchers.
Kathleen Connell, state director of AARP and a former Rhode Island secretary of state, says interest in the Nov. 6 election is intense among Rhode Island seniors this year.
"We know that concern is high among seniors as it relates to Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid," she said. "They are aware, and they are paying attention."
About 20 percent of registered voters are age 65 and older in the 1st Congressional District as of Aug. 20, and more than 36 percent are 55 or older, according to the secretary of state's office. Voters 55 and older typically vote at higher rates than those in other age groups.
Cicilline said seniors understand the importance of voting and represent an important voting group.
"Seniors have a big stake in the outcome of these elections," he told The Associated Press. "Seniors are worried about this. ... They're right to be worried about it."
On a recent trip to a senior housing complex in Cumberland, Doherty's hometown, an energetic crowd nodded as Cicilline spoke about wanting to strengthen and protect Medicare and Social Security and about congressional Republicans' votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They booed when he mentioned Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, architect of a budget plan defeated in Congress this year that would have overhauled Medicare by giving retirees a fixed amount they could use to buy insurance on the private market.
Democrats say it would erode the Medicare system and shift costs to seniors, and Doherty does not support the plan. But that didn't stop Cicilline from making it a fundamental talking point during his speech. Indeed, he didn't mention his opponent's name — or even the fact that he has an opponent — a single time during the more than 30-minute talk.
"If you told me when I went to Congress that part of what you're going to have to do is fight for Medicare and Social Security, I would have said, 'You're crazy,'" he told the group. "The idea of creating a voucher program is the worst idea I've heard."
Doherty complains that Cicilline is misleading voters by focusing on what Ryan and other national Republicans say, rather than his own position. He supports the Medicare drug savings contained in the Affordable Care Act, although he says he wants to replace the act with something better.
At a recent visit to a senior housing complex in Pawtucket, Doherty brought along a sign that he often displays at his events, "The Brendan Doherty Pledge," promising to oppose privatizing Social Security and Medicare, to vote against cuts to benefits, and to support an increased Social Security benefit once a person has been retired for 20 years.
He also supports a plan to gradually increase the retirement age to 69 by 2075, something proponents say would strengthen the long-term solvency of program but which Cicilline opposes because it will force people to work longer.
"The fellow that I'm running against is deceiving people and telling them I will affect their Social Security and Medicare," Doherty told the group. "My mom relies heavily on Social Security and Medicare. Believe me, all I want to do is strengthen Social Security and Medicare. Let's just leave it at that."
Ricardo Rodrigue, 70, and Raul Sostre, 82, of Pawtucket, said they liked what they heard from Doherty about increasing Social Security payments.
"We depend on Social Security," Sostre said after hearing Doherty speak. "I can't pay my rent. Pay my bills."
Cicilline says what's more important than Doherty's individual votes on certain issues is his support for a Republican congressional leadership that he argues wants to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and gut Medicare.
It's a message that resonates with voters in Cumberland. Claire Cournoyer, 81, is voting for Cicilline in part because of his opposition to proposed changes in Medicare. Her friend Theresa Levesque, who also supports Cicilline, is more blunt.
"We paid in all our lives," she said. "No voucher."
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