photo: left to right--Mike Benoit, Duncan Hunter, Ray Lutz
By Miriam Raftery
October 18, 2010 (El Cajon) – Congressman Duncan D. Hunter, who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, is an experienced combat veteran. Friday night, he found himself under fire on two fronts, as he defended his record in Congress during a debate with two challengers. Democrat Ray Lutz, a businessman and founder of the Citizens Oversight Projects (COPS: http://www.citizensoversight.org/) and Libertarian Mike Benoit, a small business owner and Constitutional advocate, peppered Hunter with criticisms of his stances on issues ranging from war to civil liberties.
The debate among 52nd Congressional district candidates, held at Cuyamaca College in El Cajon, was sponsored by the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce. Scroll down for our detailed coverage of each candidates' responses to questions posed by audience members, as well as a link to the full video and to our "fact check" on the debate.
Efforts to sway voters began outside, with each candidate's supporters armed with signs and banners.
Inside the debate forum, candidate led off with an opening statement, followed by audience questions read by moderator Steve Hamann, editor of the East County Herald.
Benoit, who has been running for Congress in each election since 2000, said he is concerned that our inaliable rights have been usurped through gerrymandering that has made districts not competitive.
“The system is broken,” he said. “The economy is the worst it’s been in decades.” He noted that the national debt is $13.5 trillion and the deficit is also high. He objects to fighting two wars and believes Social Security is “about to go bust…The welfare state is about to collapse.” He also voiced concerns over home foreclosures at record high levels. “We’re in deep trouble,” he concluded.
Hunter praised citizens for making an effort to “see what’s going on” by attending debates and educating themselves over the Internet. He then proceeded to blast “liberals in Congress and activist judges” who he said have “hijacked our country.”
He said the “economy is recovering in spite of liberals…in spite of what’s happened in the last 23 months” since President Obama took office. He views the federal government’s actions towards General Motors as “scary and dangerous.” Hunter said his focus in Congress remains on national security and border security. Noting that his younger brother recently returned from Iraq, he added, “One of my main focuses is safety for our troops.”
Lutz declared, “I’m the people’s candidate. I’m your candidate. I’m here to represent you,” he said, adding that he does not take money from special interest PACs (political action committees). He described himself as an entrepreneur and businessman who has worked hard in start-up companies. He also cited his record of community activism fighting to keep Blackwater, a private military contractor, from building a base in Potrero and opposing Sunrise Powerlink.
“The most important job of government is to keep jobs here, do not export them," said Lutz, who wants to bring troops home. Instead of investing in warfare, he wants investment in in incentives to build a national system of solar energy manufacturing and put people to work retrofitting homes with solar energy.
A 10-year-old student asked the first question. “Our youth is our future,” the student from Murdock Elementary said. “What would you do to help public education?”
Hunter replied that “Competition works in schools” and called for pushing “everything down to the lowest level.” He added, “States are so beholden to federal dollars…Why should your tax dollars go to other schools in other states? Let people send kids where they want,” the Congressman concluded. He also praised homeschooling and parental involvement. “My son does better when I stay home and help do his homework with him.”
Lutz disputed Hunter’s assertion. He cited a book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch, a former advocate of competition in education who has since reversed her position. “Competition does not work,” Lutz said. “No Child Left Behind is not working…it was designed to fail,” he added, noting that it’s impossible to expect 100% of students to meet test standards. “No Child Left Behind set no standards; it relied on each state to set its own standards, which is a big problem,” he said.
Lutz disagrees with privatizing schools or having students travel long distances, as in a New York district where kids travel 90 minutes on average to attend a charter. “Having local neighborhood schools and fixing it at home—that’s what I believe we’ve got to do,” Lutz said. “We should revitalize our public schools, and we CAN do it.”
Benoit called for eliminating the Federal Department of Education, drawing a nod from Hunter. Benoit noted an increase in homeschooling and said that homeschoolers “are excelling and beating public schools.” He expressed concern that children’s “thirst for learning” declines by graduation and said he’s seen “a lot of decay” in the public school system.
The next question asked how the candidates would bring more jobs to East County.
Lutz said he wants to incentivize small businesses, including incentives to install solar and have a million Americans retrofit their homes and businesses with U.S.-made solar systems. “That’s American know-how and labor,” he said, calling for solar manufacturing plants in every Congressional district, including East County, instead of seeing jobs shipped to China.
Hunter retorted, “This is what separates liberals and conservatives.” He added, “I can’t do anything to create jobs. I can relieve the burden on you and those jobs will appear.” He suggested that Lutz should start a company and see if the free market would support it. “Let’s not talk about creating jobs. Let’s talk about how do you get government out of the way, so you can create jobs.”
Benoit said the Libertarian philosophy goes even further than what Hunter proposed. “Let’s actually get government out of the way,” he said, adding that social programs are “sucking up resources.” He warned about the nation’s money supply and said the Federal Reserve “robs you” and “creates a boom and bust cycle.” He likened the situation to the Depression and added, “They’re doing it again –we are losing all these houses.”
On rebuttal, Lutz asked why Hunter is giving a staff member a hefty earmark. Then he added, “I said I would encourage a million businesses to take part…He wants to leave it in the hands of Sempra Energy, a big corporation,” Lutz said of his energy and jobs policies, drawing cheers from the audience. “This is the difference…I’m working for you.”
Hunter replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Lutz named the campaign staffer, who Hunter then acknowledged is the CEO of General Atomic, which makes Predator drone aircraft—and received a generous earmark that he added. Hunter said he is concerned with “saving American lives and killing the enemy…We’ve got to have the best military that we can.” He added, “The Bush tax cuts need to be extended,” drawing boos from some audience members. Pointing to Lutz, he added, “He will not support Bush tax cuts. He is a job and a tax cut killer.”
Benoit drew chuckles by noting, “The Bush tax cuts were miniscule for me. Companies can deduct everything…how come individuals can’t do the same thing?” He then used his rebuttal period to warn of problems at the Federal Reserve, “a private bank owned by shareholders…They print money and buys Treasure Bonds, and doesn’t pay any taxes.”
Candidates were next asked their views on illegal immigrants and border security.
Benoit said government created and exacerbated the problem over the past 45 year in two ways: stopping the migrant worker program and expanding the welfare state, which he said encouraged migrants to come here for “free healthcare and free babies.” He wants to send more troops to the border.
Lutz praised law enforcement locally for raiding a bakery in Otay Mesa last week that was found to be hiring illegal immigrants. “We need more of this,” he said. Lutz noted that another U.S. policy that led to more illegal immigration was “grain dumped by NAFTA” (the North American Free Trade Agreement) which lowered the price of corn and other crops in Mexico, putting Mexican farms out of business. He said he favors a “difficult path to citizenship” for people living in the shadows. “I would charge $10,000 and a $100 a month fine.”
Hunter said that “border security is national security” since the 9/11 attacks and indicated that he believes terrorists have crossed our borders. “They are here,” he said, then added, “Don’t trust Mr. Lutz. Secure the border first.”
Benoit wants to “bring troops home from around the planet and start defending our own border.” He said he predicted that construction of the border fence would push people eastward into rugged terrain and into boats offshore to cross into the U.S., and noted that he was correct. “They’re losing their lives trying to cross in the desert,” he said, adding, “We created Arizona’s problem.”
On rebuttal, Lutz added, “I’m for border security,” but said he doesn’t believe completion of the wall is the best solution. He noted that currently there is a legal path for farmworkers to enter the U.S. as well as for wealthy Mexicans. “But for everybody in the middle, there is no legal way to come into this country.”
Hunter insisted the fences work. “Thank God we have the fence in San Diego,” he said, adding that it has dramatically cut down on crime, particularly drug-related crimes. He also cited concerns over violence in Mexico. “More people in two years were murdered in Mexico than in Afghanistan and Iraq combined,” he said.
The moderator lightened up a tense mood by asking a light-hearted question. “Why do all candidates wear red ties?” Hunter quipped, “Because our wives buy them for us.”
The next question asked candidates to name the number one thing they are committed to do to improve alternative sources of energy in the 52nd Congressional District.
Hunter said we ought to have solar “if the market will bear” but added that until clean alternative fuels are available as cheaply as diesel, “I’m gonna use diesel.” He called for oil drilling offshore and in Alaska to meet U.S. energy needs.
Lutz noted that Germany is building 4500 megawatts of solar in one year alone. He noted that the German government provided financial incentives for people to install solar, then sell it back to the power grid. He said investing in clean alternatives will also help prevent “fighting resource wars” and noted that the University of California, San Diego is developing new bacteria-based biofuels. “No, Mr. Hunter—it is not impossible to do; we can do it and we will.”
Benoit said the government should “get out of the way and release liberty,” then added in a sarcastic tone, “I’m sure Duncan Hunter is in favor of legalizing hemp. The Constitution was written on hemp paper.” He noted that hemp can be an effective alternative fuel and can also be used as a fiber for clothes and other products. Noting that hemp was once a popular crop in America, he added, “William Randolph Hearst and his paper mills were the reason that hemp is illegal today.”
Hunter responded, “I don’t think we should legalize marijuana or hemp.” He then rebutted Lutz’ assertion that the recent wars were fought over oil. “We’re there to make sure we are not attacked again…We are not there to protect fossil fuels.”
Lutz told the audience, “I agree we need to get government off your back…but Sempra won’t want to give away $4 billion in profits.” He noted that the P.A.C.E. program which incentivized solar energy loans for homeowners was recently done away with by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Benoit gave Hunter a lesson on hemp. “Marijuana is not hemp,” he said, noting that hemp has only a fraction of the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and that hemp grown next to marijuana will results in cross-breeding that leaves the marijuana less potent. But the Libertarian added, “I am in favor of legalizing marijuana…People who make vices into crimes are criminals in my view.”
Benoit also agreed with Lutz that oil was a factor behind the Iraq war. “If you restrict oil supply, prices go up. It was about supporting the industrial-military complex.”
Next, the moderator asked candidates what are the most important issues facing the 52nd Congressional district.
Besides jobs, as previously stated Lutz expressed concern that “25% of people are upside down in their homes…These banks are mishandling mortgages,” he said, noting that 6.2 million Americans have been foreclosed on by banks “as fast as possible.” He said big banks are “gambling” with equity and called the bailout of banks at the end of the Bush administration “the biggest transfer of wealth” in our history. Lutz called for a moratorium on foreclosures.
Benoit noted that some state attorneys general have filed legal action which amounts to a moratorium and that in some cases, “they can’t event tell who owns these mortages.” He predicted the real estate market will be locked up, adding, “We’re close to a meltdown.” Then he added, “Duncan Hunter just voted $53 billion for NASA. Why not just freeze it (spending)?”
Hunter called NASA “vital” and noted that many products such as calculators have been developed out of NASA research. He called the problems in the housing market a “symptom” of the economic downturn and claimed that “California lost 500,000 jobs since the stimulus went in place.” He called for “lower taxes on people who create wealth” and insisted that people could afford healthcare and houses if they have jobs.
Lutz said jobs is the most important issue, but named some other concerns. He said we need to “stop the bleeding” noting that homeless rates are up and demand at food banks has risen 50% as more Americans fall into poverty and homelessness. He also disputed Hunter’s numbers on California jobs. “We also gained some jobs and unemployment has flattened out,” Lutz noted accurately, according to ECM’s fact check. “He (Hunter) is not including that in his analysis.” He reiterated his call to invest in incentivizing job creation in America so that dollars and companies will stop leaving the U.S. economy to go overseas.
Benoit said he opposes depleting the private sector through taxation and endless wars.
Hunter retorted, “I don’t understand liberal math” and insisted his facts were correct on unemployment. As for the housing market, he faulted the federal government for “encouraging banks to give loans to people who could not afford those homes.” He then stated that there is a “false bottom for the housing market. We have to let it fall out, then it will come back again.”
The next question asked candidates’ views on a federal judge has ordered the Pentagon and the U.S. military to stop enforcement of the don’t ask, don’t tell policy regarding gay and lesbian service in the military on grounds that it is unconstitutional.
Benoit said he doesn’t agree with a federal judge “taking that kind of power. It if went to the Supreme Court, that would be different.” He added that he thinks the military needs to make policies that are best for the country. Later he added, “Let’s bring the troops home and ask each of them personally,” how they feel about repealing the policy.
Lutz said he opposes don’t ask, don’t tell and praised the judge’s decision. “You don’t have to be straight to shoot straight,” he said, then chided his opponent for once making a comment on CNN expressing concern over “hermaphrodites” in the armed forces. “Mr. Hunter thinks he can’t operate if there’s a gay around,” Lutz said, noting that since one in ten people are gay, Hunter likely served alongside gay people in the military but didn’t know it. He said it’s time for Hunter to “get over it” and stop opposing the repeal of DADT.
Hunter responded vehemently, “I disagree. I support don’t ask, don’t tell,” then added, “I never saw anyone make fun of a military officer in the way Mr. Lutz just did. We’re fighting two wars.” He claimed that all military leaders have advised against changing policies in the middle of a war.”
Lutz emphasized that “I will be fighting to end these wars.”
Hunter noted that war is “gruesome” and “demanding” but said, “We didn’t send my little brother or me to die..We are there to keep us safe.” He recalled that after 911, people were “scared to go to the mall” and said that the reason why there haven’t been attacks on U.S. soil since 911 is because “we are fighting them over there, not over here.” His remark drew both cheers and jeers from the crowd.
Candidates were next asked if they support or oppose embryonic stem cell research.
Hunter said he is against use of embryonic stem cells for research, though he supports use of adult stem cells. “I’m against cloning, too. I’m pro-life,” said Hunter.
Benoit said, “I don’t think it’s a federal government decision…I don’t see that in the Constitution.” He called it a state issue, not federal.
Lutz clarified, “It is not going to be where we are aborting babies to do research” with stem cells. He said use of embryonic stem cells, such as from fertilized eggs that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics, is important to find cures for diseases and that is needed to keep the U.S. competitive with other countries in basic research.
Candidates were asked how they can make a difference in Washington amid a broken partisan system.
Lutz said he will come home to the district more often to interact with constituents, adding that if all members of Congress would do that, “by God, they may be able to debate,” a clear jab at Hunter, who declined numerous invitations for other debates prior to the deadline when absentee ballots were in the mail.
Benoit said, “It’s important to have more people in Washington concerned about your liberties.” He called the healthcare bill a “tyranny bill” as an example.
Hunter noted that he introduced legislation to “make sure Gitmo detainees can’t come here” and succeeded in getting a bill passed to exempt small businesses from healthcare requirements. He criticized a “closed process” for amending bills and called for greater transparency.
Lutz asserted, “Mr. Hunter is part of the broken system.” He said Hunter “raised half a million dollars, mostly from PACs” for his campaign. “He’s in there for them – he’s in there for big billionaires. He’s not in there for you,” he said. “I’m here for you. I won’t be working for billionaires.”
Benoit said of Hunter, “I don’t think he’s there for the big guys. I think he’s there for himself,” the added, “I’m there for your liberties.” He added, “Both Democrats and Republicans have splut up your money for earmarks.”
Hunter responded by saying he’s sworn off earmarks “for everything” and added that both parties have pledged to stop earmarks, though Democrats made exceptions for universities and unions, he said. Hunter then quoted Karl Rove, former Bush advisor, claiming that Democrats are attacking Republicans’ character.
Each candidate then made closing statements.
Benoit emphasized that he is “against these foreign wars” and expressed dissatisfaction with both parties. He faulted Democrats for spending too much on social programs such as healthcare, Social Security and welfare. “I’m not happy with Republicans,” he specified. “They said they were for smaller government and for small businesses.” But since Reagan’s presidency, Benoit noted, the debt under Republican leadership has risen. He noted that the national debt is now a record $13.3 trillion and the national deficit has reached $1.3 trillion, which he said is “enslaving our children.” He concluded, “I don’t care if it’s for social programs or warfare, you have to pay for it.” He also said the Federal Reserve has printed too much money and thatt inflation will occur. “Both parties let them get away from it,” he said as his supporters cheered.
Hunter told the audience that whether they are Democrats or Republicans, or don’t vote, “I’m still your representative.” He called his father, the former Congressman of the same name, “a wise man and a great Congressman” that he is proud to follow. For Hunter, the election is about “the economic hijacking of our economy” under “23 months of liberal rule.” He wants to reduce spending and “let freedom and liberty thrive” if Republicans regain control of Congress and predicted, “We’ll take back control in November,” to applause from his supporters.
Lutz said that “total deregulation of business is not the answer” and noted that under Republican rule in the past, “we went from a surplus at the end of the Clinton era to a total meltdown” under George W. Bush’s presidency when Republicans controlled Congress as well. He called for a change in the Hunter family “dynasty” but drew boos by suggesting that voters elected Hunter without realizing that he wasn’t his father. Lutz concluded, “We have a big choice,” then suggested that choice is between ”someone who will work for you,” or someone who is working for special interests. “I can get manufacturing back in this country because I know how to do it,” he pledged. “We can shift from warfare to manufacturing.” He concluded to cheers from his supporters, “I wish you the best of Lutz!”