About 380 people filled Long Theatre to watch Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) and his Republican challenger, Ricky Gill, trade barbs and policy positions at the event hosted by the university and San Joaquin League of Women Voters. Another 190 or so people were watching in the university’s alumni hall via live video feed.
The candidates are running for the newly drawn 9th Congressional District, which includes Tracy north of Interstate 205. The 9th District, redrawn by a citizens commission in 2011, also includes Stockton, Lodi and parts of Contra Costa County.
McNerney and Gill repeatedly tried to turn the discussion toward ideas that have played prominent roles in advertisements leading up to the debate — that McNerney is unable to speak for the district because he is a carpetbagger who recently moved from Pleasanton into San Joaquin County, and that Gill is a neophyte who is ill-prepared to identify with working Americans.
McNerney, 61, has represented Tracy, parts of San Joaquin County and parts of the East Bay since he defeated Rep. Richard Pombo in 2006 in the old 11th District. He is a mathematician, has been involved in the wind energy business and has, as he said at Monday’s forum, gone through at least one bout of unemployment.
Gill, 25, recently graduated law school from University of California, Berkeley. The San Joaquin County native grew up on his family farm, is a Boys and Girls Club volunteer in Lodi and served as a teenager on the California Board of Education.
Gill repeatedly said the county has suffered from “outsourcing” its congressional representation, and tried to link McNerney’s roots outside the 9th District to San Joaquin County’s unemployment rate of 14.2 percent — far above the national and statewide averages of 8.2 percent and 10.4 percent.
“We face a crippling level of underrepresentation,” Gill said.
“We have been neglected by our Bay Area congressman,” he continued, calling residents of San Joaquin County “marginalized” and “forgotten."
McNerney, on the other hand, highlighted his experience in business and in Congress representing the county, pointing to a list of legislative accomplishments that includes helping convince Veterans Affairs officials to build a military veterans hospital in French Camp and securing funding for improvements at the Port of Stockton.
“I want to continue to serve this community, because I see so much potential,” he said. “I will work for the middle class and not the wealthy of the country.”
Both candidates fielded a battery of questions from a three-person panel during the course of an hour, while San Joaquin League of Women Voters President Kathy Casenave moderated in the sweltering theater.
McNerney outlined his top priorities as creating jobs, protecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and serving military veterans.
Priorities listed by Gill included reforming education, putting the community back to work, cleaning up government and ensuring San Joaquin County and the rest of the 9th District has a voice in the federal government connected to the area.
In a rare moment of agreement, McNerney and Gill said a plan endorsed by California Gov. Jerry Brown to ship water around the Delta — known as the peripheral tunnel project — would hurt the area’s agriculture-based economy.
But McNerney attacked his opponent for taking campaign contributions from farmers who would benefit from the governor’s plan.
Gill called McNerney a “Jerry-come-lately” to the issue, saying the congressman took too long to stand up on the floor of Congress to oppose the plan and has taken no concrete steps toward stopping the peripheral tunnel.
Agriculture — worth $2.2 billion to San Joaquin County in 2011, according to the county agricultural commissioner in a July report — also took center stage during a discussion about free-trade agreements and the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation that includes food assistance programs as well as subsidies to farmers, ranchers and dairymen.
McNerney said farmers should be offered “whatever support makes sense for them,” and said the federal government has a legitimate role in providing food assistance. He also has voted against the Central America Free Trade Agreement.
The congressman said unbalanced free trade arrangements have cost thousands of American jobs and “benefit one area of the economy more than another,” attributing the closure of car manufacturing facilities in San Jose and San Joaquin County at least partly to such agreements.
Gill said the agreements benefit the overall economy, and help many farmers in San Joaquin County by opening up markets in other countries. Gill said that his opponent’s vote against trade agreements contradicted a spoken commitment to protect agriculture.
“For the past six years, we really have a congressman who has earned an F from the Farm Bureau Federation,” Gill added, referring to the 16 percent rating McNerney has earned from the U.S. Farm Bureau Federation. However, no California member of the House of Representatives received higher than a 66 percent rating, according to the federation’s website.
The two also jousted about the size and role of government.
Gill, who has signed a pledge to not raise taxes, espoused his support for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, a presidential line-item veto to eliminate wasteful spending, a congressional rule forcing bills to only address a single subject and sunset clauses that cause legislation to expire after a certain period.
He said the federal budget should “contain national priorities.”
McNerney said concern about government overreach was valid, but that often-discussed ideas, such as eliminating the department of education, are “not constructive proposals.”
“In the long run, there is a need for the federal government” to provide for national security and “help when people need it the most,” McNerney said.
McNerney said a series of foreclosure workshops he has hosted around San Joaquin County to connect people with programs that help them stay in or sell their homes are the type of assistance elected leaders can offer people hit hard by the housing market crash and weak job market.
Gill countered that a representative needs “clean hands” to help alleviate the suffering caused by the market meltdown that led to many area homeowners losing their houses. He said he has made good on a pledge to not take campaign donations from Wall Street.
He also suggested McNerney is beholden to the financial industry, saying his opponent took more than $300,000 from Wall Street banks that helped precipitate waves of foreclosures. McNerney voted in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program — also known as the bank bailout plan — in October 2008.
McNerney called Gill’s claim that he was in the pocket of bankers absurd following the debate.
During the forum, he countered that Gill was tainted by donations from people associated with the Westlands Water District, a water district in Central California that favors the governor’s idea to ship water around the Delta.
“They’re going to want their money back,” McNerney said, “and they’re going to get their money back if this man gets elected.”
Gill had earlier said farmers up and down the state support him in spite of his peripheral canal stance, because he understands the industry and the hurdles they face.
After the forum ended, McNerney said he hoped people would remember his positions.
“My opponent was strictly on the attack,” he said, again touting his experience. “I really stuck with the issues… I’m out there working on the issues.”
Meanwhile, Gill reiterated that people should remember “there’s a truly local choice” and that his lifetime in the area helps him relate to both the urban and rural parts of the 9th District.
“There’s a real economic consequence about having a congressman from Alameda County,” Gill said.
• Contact Jon Mendelson at 830-4231 or firstname.lastname@example.org