Four years ago, Democrat Jerry McNerney, a low-key engineer and mathematician, ousted Republican incumbent Richard Pombo by offering centrist sensibilities that traveled well in an oddly shaped four-county district that included culturally contrasting patches of suburbs and farmland.
Unlike the polarizing Pombo, who seemed to delight in tweaking national environmental groups, McNerney presented himself as a citizen-politician who would listen to his constituents, focus on local concerns and avoid the partisan posturing that has become all too prevalent in Washington.
He has kept his word.
"I'm practical," McNerney said. "I'm here for the people of the district."
He is also realistic. A congressional district that is competitive in almost any year becomes especially volatile when the incumbent is a Democrat and the electorate is uneasy about the direction of a government controlled by Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
With its huge tracts of subdivisions built when the housing market was booming and buyers were willing to endure long commutes for a big home with a yard, the district has some of the state's highest foreclosure rates.
"There is clearly voter angst," McNerney acknowledged during an editorial board interview last week.
McNerney has tried to chart a centrist course. He voted for the health care overhaul pushed by President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi even though "it was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination." He was specifically critical of some of the deals for certain states that were used to secure votes from wavering lawmakers.
McNerney readily lists some of his accomplishments for local needs, such as funding for improvements to the Port of Stockton, a $500,000 grant for a Manteca after-school program for at-risk students and funding for a battered women's shelter in San Joaquin County. At one point, McNerney self-consciously corrects himself for calling these "earmarks" - which they are - because of the pejorative use of a term for stuffing district goodies into legislation.
His opponent, 48-year-old lawyer and businessman David Harmer, has made spending restraint the rallying point of his campaign. It isn't every day that a candidate for Congress promises not to game the appropriations process for the betterment of his district, but such is the purity of Harmer's pledge.
"I'm not an earmarker," said Harmer, adding that he should be held accountable by voters if he breaks his no-earmark pledge. He called earmarks "the gateway drug to the rest of federal spending."
Harmer, smooth and forceful, delivers one pithy sound bite after another: Congress is spending money "like it's gushing out of the well of the Deepwater Horizon." The national debt has grown like a "10-pound tick on a 5-pound dog."
Harmer's tough talk on government spending would have more credibility if he was willing to propose cuts that would bring the budget close to balance. He is not. Instead, he proposes the creation of a commission - similar to one that targeted military bases for closure - to come up with an all-or-nothing package that would not allow influential lawmakers to protect pet programs.
Where Harmer is unambiguous is his criticisms of government intervention, by President Obama and his Republican predecessor George W. Bush, to stabilize the financial industry after the near-meltdown of fall 2008. He criticized the auto bailout deals and the stimulus package and said the housing market would never fully rebound until the current inventory of foreclosures cleared.
"It is going to be painful," he said.
The two candidates could not be further apart on the issue of climate change.
McNerney, who has a background in renewable energy, has suggested that government action - such as requiring utilities to use solar, wind and other such sources - is essential to building the markets that will put California in the forefront of technologies that are about to flourish globally.
Harmer criticized carbon-reduction legislation in Sacramento and Washington as "leading with the chin." If green technology was so promising, he said, it would not require a government boost.
Harmer also has been haunted in the campaign by an opinion piece he wrote for The Chronicle in 2000 that suggested public schools were a "counterproductive anachronism" and could be abolished. He now says he does not advocate the abolition of public schools - noting that all four of his children have attended public schools and that his wife is a substitute teacher.
This race comes down to a choice between a Republican with strains of ideological rigidity and a Democrat with centrist instincts who has made district needs his top priority. Jerry McNerney gets our endorsement.
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