Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, was joined by Republican nominee David Harmer and the American Independent Party’s David Christensen in a Tracy Press-sponsored forum that asked the candidates for the 11th Congressional District to share their visions for the country.
Those statements of vision were sometimes interrupted by a crowd of partisan supporters, who went to the forum armed with signs, chants and scathing sarcasm. No major altercations were reported, though the crowd was admonished several times by the moderator and other volunteers.
The fever pitch inside the Monte Vista Middle School multipurpose room matched the intensity of the Democratic and Republican 11th District campaigns, both of which see the district as a key to which of the two major parties will control the House of Representatives for the next two years.
The 11th is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with each party claiming about 39 percent of the registered voters in the sprawling district. The GOP sees this race as a chance to pick up a seat from Democrats, one of 40 House seats they need to wrest from the party in power to seize control of Congress’ lower chamber.
Harmer, a constitutional lawyer and former employee for JP Morgan Chase bank, said his top priority as a member of Congress would be to reduce spending to curtail the national debt and deficit. That includes eschewing the practice of sending back federal money to the 11th District via earmarks, which he called the “gateway drug” to out-of-control federal spending.
He also decried the stimulus, which McNerney supported with his vote, calling it a “catastrophic” failure. Harmer said that piling up debt is “intergenerational theft” and that he doesn’t want to pass on a burden of national debt to his children.
"It's not just expensive,” he said, “it's immoral."
Harmer said that while a Republican Congress and president began the profligate spending, Democrats like McNerney have increased it exponentially. Harmer pledged to fight spending increases floated by either mainstream political party.
He also said the best way to heal the economy is to reduce the size and reach of government, which would allow private enterprise to flourish.
“It’s time to stop growing government and grow the economy,” Harmer stated.
He then emphasized three specific policies for making Congress more effective and responsive: abolish earmarks, eliminate the concept of “baseline spending” and have every representative read each bill before a vote can be held on it.
McNerney, who has served two two-year terms in the House of Representatives already, said the key to growing the economy lies in targeted tax cuts for small businesses, making sure the market’s playing field is level, and working on specific legislation to help build jobs, like language that would pave the way for a solar energy farm outside Tracy.
Harmer said he would abstain from earmarks, saying that the country can’t afford to borrow more money for “bacon.”
McNerney, however, touted his record of bringing federal dollars to the district, including for the San Joaquin County Women’s Shelter, Give Every Child a Chance tutoring program and several local transportation and infrastructure improvements.
McNerney said his approach to getting federal attention for the district saves or creates jobs while boosting the local quality of life.
“My opponent is talking about ideology, while I am talking about people," McNerney said. "I am running for Congress because I am inspired to help people."
Harmer, for his part, related stories of business owners who were hemmed in by taxes and government regulations and said he wants to lighten the burden placed on entrepreneurs.
McNerney also defended his yes votes on the TARP bill — often called the bank bailout — and the health care reform package boosted by President Obama.
McNerney said TARP, passed in 2008, was necessary to prevent further economic collapse at a time when banks were failing and Wall Street plunged 700 points in a day. Harmer, who once worked for a bank that received TARP money, said it was a mistake for the federal government to put taxpayers on the hook by propping up lending institutions that made poor decisions.
Regarding health care reform, Harmer said it was the secretive process of the bill’s formation that made it unpopular and unwise, as much as its substance. He said the gargantuan bill was pushed through without giving members of Congress time to look it over, and members of both parties should start over with transparent, open hearings about how to improve the nation’s health care.
McNerney said that he was proud of his vote for the health insurance reform plan, a package he said was “urgently” needed because of the spiraling cost of insurance.
He said that when someone one knows needs health care, “it’s a personal issue.” He told the audience he had seen far too many people denied health care coverage or left unable to pay for health care as he solicited input around the district before his vote, something he said swayed his decision to back the bill.
Christensen, an American Independent candidate, answered the same questions as McNerney and Harmer throughout the evening. Christensen read often from a pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution. His answers frequently touched on policies and programs that, in his mind, were beyond the scope of the federal government to constitutionally enact, and he made it clear that, if elected to office, he would govern his votes and decisions with the Constitution in mind.
For example, he said that if the government wanted to get involved in health insurance reform, it should be done at the state, not the federal, level.
He also said part of the nation’s fiscal crisis is the fault of the Federal Reserve System and manipulation of the value of the U.S. dollar.
He finished the evening by stating that his candidacy offers an alternative to voters upset with the status quo.
Christensen, in contrast to his two opponents, said he had raised no money during his campaign. While that has left him little means to spread his message in the media, Christensen said it also makes him truly free from corrupting influences.
McNerney leads the fundraising race, with $1.5 million on hand to finance the last month of campaigning. Harmer had about $500,000 on hand as of the same reporting date.
Each candidate has collected sizeable sums of money this year, Harmer totaling $550,000 raised in the third quarter of 2010, with McNerney raising about $700,000 during the same time.