The Bay Area News Group held its editorial board meeting with the 15th Congressional District’s three candidates this afternoon in Pleasanton.
Incumbent Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, was pressed on his series of recent gaffes in which he has made accusations against Democratic challenger Eric Swalwell and a San Francisco Chronicle columnist; he apologized for those, as well as for the not-quite-apology he issued several weeks ago. We’ll be posting a full, separate story on that.
Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of what the candidates said during the hour-long meeting.
Chris Pareja, 40, a Hayward businessman who’s running as a conservative independent, opened by saying he favors “more responsible public spending;” lessening the “regulatory burdens” on small and mid-sized businesses; and rolling back laws that infringe upon civil liberties, such as those allowing indefinite detentions or mandating health insurance coverage. He said it was Obamacare that inspired him to seek public office, making him realize you have to be inside the system to change it. “I definitely have a lot of Tea Party support,” he said, but he also has been endorsed by the Contra Costa County Republican Party and other conservative groups.
Swalwell, 31, a Dublin councilman and Alameda County prosecutor, said he’s a local native who’ll bring “new energy and ideas to Congress” including a “mobile Congress” initiative to let lawmakers spend more time in their districts. He said Dublin has successfully controlled its costs in recent years, including striking a deal with workers on pension contributions, and he wants to bring that kind of fiscal discipline to Washington. “I think the greatest threat to our national security is our national debt… so being fiscally responsible in Congress is important to me,” he said. “I think Congress is struggling to think big.”
Stark, 80, said he has “accomplished a great bit in my first 20 terms and there’s more to accomplish,” such as protecting Medicare and Social Security for future generations; cutting military spending, including ending our current wars while avoiding new ones; advancing education bills for disadvantaged children; and bringing home more federal funding for district infrastructure projects. Asked how many more terms he might seek, he replied “That’s a question I think I don’t want to answer until after the election. I would not want to go in under any circumstances as a lame duck.”
Tons more on specific issues, after the jump…
On the No Child Left Behind education law:
Stark said he agrees with author George Miller, D-Martinez, that some changes are needed, in cooperation with teachers’ unions, to evaluate and reward teachers for good performance, and that less emphasis should put on teaching to tests.
Swalwell said he would vote to repeal the law, which is labeling schools as failures without giving them chances to succeed, leaving students without options, and “handcuffing teachers” with excessive testing requirements. He agreed with Stark that better teachers should be identified and rewarded, and that while “you still need testing, right now there’s too much of an emphasis on testing.”
Pareja said he doesn’t believe in teacher tenure as it exists today, because it results in younger, more eager, more energetic teachers being first on the chopping block. He said he supports school choice as a means of letting the free market drive improvement, and is against federally centralized education standards. “Not everyone is cut out for college,” he said, and so there should be technical and career education for those who aren’t, as well as tools and training for teachers working with special-needs students.
On balancing debt reduction with stimulus:
Pareja said the best way to reduce debt is to increase gross domestic product, and let the tax revenues follow, while cutting spending. “To me, stimulus should be an absolute last resort. Is it completely off the table? No, but there are there 95 out of 100 things I’d like to see tried first? Yes.”
Swalwell said debt reduction is vital, but needs to be balance with economic stimulus until the nation is definitively out of its slump. “I see them as hand-in-hand,” he said, citing as an example the idea of increasing Energy Department grant money for putting LED lights in federal buildings – saving the government on energy costs in the long term but creating manufacturing jobs now.
Stark said he is “very much for stimulus.” The government always carries debt, he said, and in times of economic crisis must let it grow in order to keep people in their jobs and homes.
On Social Security:
Swalwell said “it’s a big problem, it’s a big concern” best addressed by raising the payroll tax cap from its current level of $110,000. He also called for building into the system an index that would automatically raise retirement ages in proportion to life expectancies.
Pareja said he agrees with gradually increasing the retirement age over time, but also in privatizing part or all of the program so people can make their own investment decisions. He also would let people opt out of collecting their benefits if they don’t need them, and take a tax deduction instead.
Stark said to guarantee current benefit levels indefinitely, the payroll tax would need to be increased by 3 percent – 1.5 percent for the worker, 1.5 percent for the employer. He, too, called for raising the tax cap and said he would be willing to scale up the retirement age. “It’s a strong social program that I think has been the backbone of protecting the less fortunate in this country, and I think we can make it work.”
Stark said every possible diplomatic and economic solution should be attempted and given a chance to work before turning to a military strike against uranium-enrichment facilities: “I don’t think we’ve yet run that string out.” He said he would support military force only when the United States is attacked or knows an attack is imminent. If Iran attacked Israel, he said, he would support the United States taking Israel’s side.
Swalwell called for a continuation of economic sanctions, saying that bombing Iran while other alternatives still exist could lead Iran to do exactly what we don’t want: expedite its weapons development. An attack upon Israel would have to be answered with America’s full force, he said, but conversely, America should do all it can to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran: “We can’t let that happen.”
Pareja said it’s fine to rely on diplomacy and sanctions, but he learned growing up as “a skinny kid in San Lorenzo” that “there are certain people who only understand physical violence.” He said his views aren’t inconsistent with Swalwell’s, but he’s somewhat tougher than Stark on willingness to defend Israel. But he said any and all military action must be approved by Congress, unlike recent actions by the Obama Administration in places like Libya. “I do not believe our form of democracy is cut out for the rest of the world, I don’t believe we should be pushing it on people.”
On health care reform:
Pareja said some parts of the current law – such as letting young adults stay on parents’ insurance policies until age 26, and banning rescission of ill patients’ policies – should be reintroduced individually, but on the whole, “I’ll be glad to see it go” if the Supreme Court deems it unconstitutional this year. “With so much legislation that we pass, we’re trying to fix symptoms, not the root cause. The root cause is, health care costs are just too high,” he said. He would move to solve that by establishing clinics for the uninsured, in order to get them out of high-cost emergency rooms for basic care, while letting the rest of America have free choice and a free market. “I don’t believe in single payer; I have family in Canada, I’ve seen how that works.”
Swalwell said he supports the Affordable Care Act’s reforms, but it’s not bringing costs down enough; he spoke of the need to control the sustainable growth rate, capping what doctors are paid. He also cited a local pilot project in which paramedics at certain firehouses offer some basic care to the uninsured. “We still need to find ways to keep costs under control.”
Stark read from a letter sent to him by President Obama, thanking him for his contributions to the Affordable Care Act. If the Supreme Court tosses it, he said, “we’ll re-introduce legislation that does meet constitutional muster.”
In closing, Stark said he’s the only candidate with a record to be challenged, a record of which he’s proud – including COBRA insurance, the Affordable Care Act, trade adjustment assistance for workers laid off from the NUMMI auto plant and billions in funding for local projects. Dinged by Swalwell for living in Maryland, he said he maintains a townhouse in Fremont and is here in the district at least twice a month for town hall meetings, other events, holidays or other causes. And criticized by Swalwell for his attendance record, he said he long ago made a decision to skip quorum calls – “They take a half an hour away from your work and they do nothing and are usually there to stall proceedings” – but rarely misses important votes.
Swalwell reiterated his record as a local councilman, planning commissioner, arts commissioner and prosecutor, as well as his desires to impose fiscal discipline while partnering government with business to spark job creation. “More importantly, I will always, always, always live in my district and commute to Washington, not the other way around,” he said. “And I think showing up and working hard is what the people in this district need.”
Pareja in closing noted he’s the only one who brings recent business experience to the race. He said his nonpartisan status means voters have been opening up to him, and he’s finding it’s not hard to build consensus on defining the issues; it may be harder to agree on solutions, he said, but “we need to have an adult conversation.” He said he’s interested in solving problems, not treating symptoms: “If it’s good for the people, that’s what I’d fight for, not just what’s good for the party line.”