By Mary E. Paulet
October 19, 2010 (San Diego) – Angry shouts, jeers and boos frequently interrupted responses by Democratic contender Francine Busby and incumbent Republican Brian Bilbray in the only scheduled debate among 50th Congressional district candidates. Moderator Ken Davy, award-winning editor of the North County Times, called for a civil debate with discussion only on substantive policy issues, but supporters of both candidates drowned out responses as Davy struggled to control an exuberant crowd and keep candidates on point.
Busby labeled Bilbray as “more of a lobbyist than a politician.” Bilbray repeatedly dodged questions over his ethics, including his close ties to the Congressional Cigar Association, a quasi-lobbying association, and his seat on the board of advisors for Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a designated hate group with ties to neo-Nazi groups. Bilbray highlighted his support for tax cuts and attacked Busby's stances on the economy, healthcare and immigration.
The debate, sponsored by the San Diego Chamber of Commerce North, was held at Del Norte High School in 4S Ranch. Candidates for the 50th Congressional District from the Peace and Freedom and Libertarian Parties- Miriam Clark(P&F)and Lars Grossmith(LIB) also participated.
The candidates began with opening statements.
Busby opened by promising to serve the people with “honesty, integrity and diligence.” She then accused Bilbray of a “betrayal of trust of the people” by founding the cigar club where lobbyists “spend tens of thousands on lavish parties to influence legislators.” She also assailed Bilbray's ties to FAIR. She further said he betrayed people’s trust by voting against financial reforms that would have prevented massive foreclosures, voting against tax breaks to help small businesses, and voting to lift a moratorium on offshore drilling in a district that includes 20 miles of coastline as well as inland areas.
A recent Busby mailer titled "Bilbray After Dark" depicted Bilbray in a smoking jacket and called him "more like Duke Cunningham every day." Cunningham, the former Congressman representing this district, is currently in prison on charges that include bribery. Bilbray's campaign previously called that ad "false and misleading" but declined to identify any specific inaccuracies in the allegations raised over his cigar club and alleged favors for lobbyists.
The San Diego Union-Tribune stated on September 9th that the Congressional Cigar Association "has proved to be a tool used by lobbyists" and said it "violated the intent of ethics rules limiting gifts from lobbyists." The Watchdog Institute at San Diego State University, on September 6th, stated that "politicians and their staffers have puffed and partied with lobbyists" via the cigar club and noted that Bilbray introduced or lent his name to bills that would benefit those lobbyists.
FAIR accepted a $1.2 million contribution from the Pioneer fund, described as a neo-Nazi group, according to reports by 10 News and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The SPLC has designated FAIR as a hate group that supports eugenics.
In his opening statement at the debate, Bilbray ignored the charges regarding FAIR and the cigar club. He fired back by criticizing Busby’s support of policies that he claimed are a “spending problem” in Washington. Busby has voiced support for the stimulus bill and healthcare reform, but opposed other expenditures. Bilbray opposed those measures, but has voted for other expenditures. According to the Washington Post, Bilbray voted for a defense appropriation bill that also increased unrelated federal spending by $17 billion. Democrats opposed that measure, which was backed by Congressional Republicans.. (http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/members/b000461/key-votes/)
Bilbray cited high unemployment and the national debt as key problems. He noted that although his party is in the minority in Congress, “President Obama signed my bill that saves $95 billion a year of wrongful payments” then added, “People want to see us work together to create jobs and security for America.”
Grossmith called for an end to bailouts and wars as well as eliminating the Federal Department of Education entirely.” Clark mused the US is “destroying civilizations” in an attempt to control natural resources.
Clark observed, “There will be no money for any programs that we want as long as we’re spending trillions on war.” She called for an end to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and also voiced concerns over global warming. She urged students in the audience to look up the works of climate scientist James Hansen, who has warned that it may be too late to reverse climate change. Clark also warned that oil companies are funding efforts to “confuse people on global warming.”
The debate soon turned to questions for the candidates. The first inquiry- if the candidates thought that the Bush era tax cuts should be extended--drew varied responses. Grossmith replied, “Absolutely, It’s your money, you should keep it. He then stated that taxes “feed the monster.” Busby gave a mixed response. She stated that the tax cuts were responsible for the recession but would support continuing cuts for those with incomes under $250,000. She also called for funding to help communities. “We’re tired of selling cookies to pay for our schools,” added Busby, a member of the Cardiff School Board. Clark replied that she is in favor of letting the tax cuts expire. Bilbray opposes eliminating the tax cuts and insisted, “We don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem.”
The night then turned to how the candidates would end the war in Afghanistan. “When our men and women are in harm’s way, Congress needs to give them the tools to win,” said Bilbray, who has supported funding for the wars. He offered general support for Obama’s policies regarding the war, stating the President has acted “responsibly” in that regard. He also stated that local government in Afghanistan needed to be given more direct control over tax revenue. According to Bilbray, “The US should learn from Afghanistan”. Busby focused on ensuring that US troops had adequate resources and added that the wars show a “clear need for clean energy” to make the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil. Grossmith blamed both Republicans and Democrats for the war.
According to Grossmith “Republicans started the war … the Democrats took the baton and ran with it.”Blaming both major parties became the central theme of the night for Grossmith. Clark cited past U.S. policies in the mideast and blamed the CIA for overthrowing the Shah in Iran. She would bring troops home.
The crowd became invigorated during a question on healthcare reform. “We are the only major country in the world that does not have healthcare for its people,” said Clark. She stressed the need for maternal healthcare coverage and discussed how the U.S. had exceptionally high infant mortality rates; many children per thousand do not live to see their first birthday. According to the UN (United Nations) US infant mortality rates are the highest in the developed world. (http://unstats.un.org/unsd/demographic/products/indwm/ww2005/tab3b.htm)
The crowd chanted “You lie!” when Bilbray spoke of how the healthcare reform bill made it illegal to live in this country “without buying a product from a business.” Bilbray called the bill “snake oil.” Busby stated that “There is something in this bill for everyone to love and for everyone to hate….It is a good first step.” She added, “I want to be at the table” for improving healthcare reforms “because people in this country deserve to have affordable, quality healthcare.” The statement drew cheers from her supporters and jeers from Bilbray backers. Grossmith predicted that the healthcare reform bill will bankrupt the United States and suggested that employers withdraw from offering healthcare coverage.
The debate turned to immigration, asking candidates to state their positions on the Dream Act, a proposal would grant citizenship to the foreign-born children of illegal immigrants who served in the military or attended college. .Grossmith stated that he “was for open borders”. Clark criticized the absence of a civil service option.. Bilbray attacked the bill as being “a cynical way to use children.”
Busby stated support for comprehensive immigration report and said that these children “had not committed a crime.” She believes children should be allowed to get an education and serve in our armed forces. She also supports visas for a dependable labor supply that would allow immigrants to pay taxes and “contribute to our economy.” She added that “Mr. Bilbray is one of the biggest obstructionists to immigration. FAIR paid him $300,000 to lobby for them. He is still on their board, still an advisor to them.” During a rebuttal period, Bilbray ignored the FAIR allegations and called for e-verification by employers to avoid hiring illegal immigrants.
When asked about ethics—specifically, regulations on lobbyists and disclosure of their involvement with members of Congress, Bilbray quipped that what’s needed is an electronic verification system for campaign donors. He did not answer the question as to whether he would support the reforms proposed. He noted that he did, however, vote for a campaign reform bill in the past. Busby noted that on a bill requiring disclosure of campaign ad financing, “Mr. Bilbray chose not to vote.” Busby said that unlimited spending by corporations on political advertising “undermines our Democracy” and accused Bilbray of supporting special interest lobbyists. “We have a member of Congress who made the news because he opened the back door to let those people in. Your member of Congress IS the lobbyist.” Clark advocated giving candidates free air -time to deliver their message. Grossmith called for full disclosure of candidate funding with no limits on contributions. “I don’t take contributions” declared Grossmith.
When asked how they would bring jobs back to the 50th district as well as their views on the economic stimulus, candidates had very different opinions. Busby said that the objective, which succeeded, was to prevent a depression. She said federal funding has created some jobs here in San Diego. She also faulted corporations that have moved jobs overseas to avoid paying taxes and contributing to our economy. Grossmith stated opposition to the stimulus. Bilbray advocated bringing back capitol overseas to improve the economy and voiced opposition to the stimulus. He added that only 3.5% of the stimulus bill was for roads and transportation infrastructure. Clark reasoned, “You CAN put people to work” and cited as an example the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Candidates were asked their views on repeal of the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT) and same-sex marriage. Bilbray noted that he voted against repeal of DADT because he wants to see a survey of military personnel first. But he added, “It’s common decency. We must keep an open mind. Grossmith went even further. Ha questioned if any governmental involvement in marriage is necessary. Busby viewed the matters as equal rights issues guaranteed in the Constitution. Clark, who also supports equal rights for all, said gay rights issued have been used as “another way of dividing us.”
Busby challenged Bilbray regarding gun control. “I want Brian Bilbray to say he won’t loosen restrictions on carrying concealed weapons in a school district.” Despite a recent shooting at a Carlsbad school, Bilbray declined to make such a pledge. He cited the Constitution as a bulwark against limits on firearms. Grossmith chimed in “I kind of support guns everywhere.” Clark cited support for the Second Amendment but did not support personal ownership of guns.
On cap and trade , a federal proposal to issue carbon credits that can be bought and traded on the open market with the goal of limiting total greenhouse gas emissions, Clark likened it to “rearranging deckchairs on the titanic”. Grossmith stated that global warming was a scare tactic for those of limited intelligence. Bilbray said he opposed the cap and trade bill because it included clean coal and ethanol fuel funding. “There is no such thing as clean coal,” he added. Busby noted that “In this district we have some of the greatest climate change scientists in the world,” then noted that Bilbray has oil company-backed climate change deniers as his backers. She highlighted the importance of the 50th district being on the “cutting edge of green technology,” adding “It’s going to be our future here…The future of this country and our world has to be in clean energy.” Busby countered that he supported tax breaks for algae fuels (such as those being developed locally to fuel military fleets).
During closing statements Bilbray took jabs at his Democratic opponent. “If you think the healthcare bill was great, vote for my opponent. If you think passing bills in the dead of night without anybody reading them was great, vote for my opponent. If you think you’ve got enough jobs in San Diego and you’re not taxed enough, vote for Mrs. Busby…The best way to provide healthcare is with a good job, not a welfare check.”
Busby’s statement focused on her stated desire to serve the voters in the district , not “the special interests.” She noted that Bilbray took over $200,000 in contributions from banks and voted against financial reforms on the big banks “that put us into this tailspin.” She said Bilbray took $244,000 from the insurance industry and voted against healthcare reform, also taking money from oil companies to vote for offshore drilling. Regarding the Congressional Cigar Association, she challenged her opponent, “Mr. Bilbray should take his name off that and shut it down.”
Grossmith asked voters to make history and be the first district to elect a Libertarian Congressman. Clark used her closing statement as an opportunity to claim that the Untied States is still engaging in torture and has more people in jail than other nations.
The fireworks spilled into the lobby after the debate’s conclusion. According to several witnesses, including a staff member from the East County Magazine, an angry mob crossed the lobby and swarmed around Busby as she made her way out of the debate. The self-identified Bilbray supporters chanted accusatory statements at her.
Michael McQuary, President of the La Jolla Democratic Club felt so concerned about the deteriorating situation, that he said he stepped between the angry crowd and Busby. “I’m a former school principal,” said McQuary, who said the crowd was “pushing” and behaving in an intimidating manner that he suspected was orchestrated. He said he shouted at an aggressive individual hoisting a Bilbray sign to “back off” and that the man slipped and fell. Busby supporters formed a “human shield” around her, according to Linda Poniktera, Busby’s communication director. “They were mobbing her; her physical safety was definitely threatened,” Poniktera said. “It was borderline violent. One big guy was so aggressive that we had to form a human blockade.”
The President of the Chamber of Commerce came forward to escort Busby to Poniktera’s car in order to assure Busby’s safety, Poniktera said, adding that she then drove Busby to her vehicle.