The five candidates seeking to represent the 10th Congressional District break down into a group of three on the left and two on the right as revealed in a forum at Saint Mary's College on Monday night.
Ranging from political left to right are: self-described socialist Mary McIlroy from El Cerrito of the Peace and Freedom Party; Jeremy Cloward from Pleasant Hill of the Green Party; liberal Democrat John Garamendi from Walnut Grove; conservative Republican David Harmer, a San Ramon resident; and libertarian Jerry Denham from Walnut Creek, representing the American Independent Party.
State Lt. Gov. Garamendi is the presumed front-runner in Tuesday's election to replace Ellen Tauscher, who resigned in June to take a job in the U.S. State Department. The career politician has the best name recognition from his three decades in state politics and is running in a district in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 47 percent to 29 percent.
Although both McIlroy and Cloward said they are running because neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have addressed the problems facing the country, both were in agreement with Garamendi on just about every issue discussed during the one-and-a-half hour forum.
Garamendi joined with McIlroy and Cloward in supporting the proposed government-run health care plan now making its way through Congress.
"The public option is necessary," said Garamendi. "We need not be frightened about it. Every senior is involved in a public option that works well – it's called Medicare."
Harmer opposes government-run health care, saying it would replace insurance companies' privately run bureaucracies "with one mammoth government bureaucracy." He supports increasing competition by allowing insurance to be purchased across state lines, favors reducing lawsuits for medical malpractice, and wants to remove the tax penalty for those purchasing insurance outside of a company plan. Denham argued that the federal government has no power under the U.S. Constitution to be involved with health care and a variety of other issues.
Garamendi also agreed with the Green and Peace and Freedom Party candidates that the U.S. should end the war in Afghanistan.
"It's time for us to wind down the military operation and ramp up the economic and educational programs in Afghanistan," he said. "We will not win this war militarily. We will have to win it with economic and social development."
Harmer disagreed, saying that when President Obama was a candidate "he declared that Afghanistan was the central front in the war on terror and urged that we increase the resources. Now he seems to be equivocating. I would respectfully challenge the president to live up to his rhetoric. Define the mission clearly: what it is we need to accomplish, what vital American interests are at stake. Then provide the resources necessary to accomplish that mission and not allow political considerations to intervene."
On the subject of Social Security, Garamendi again joined with McIlroy and Cloward in opposing a privatization option that would allow Americans to invest their contributions on their own, pointing out the risk in putting money in the stock market. Harmer supports an investment option, saying that there is no money in the Social Security Trust Fund and that privatizing contributions would allow people to pass their retirement savings onto their heirs. Denham agreed with the privatization option, but said it should be done on the state level, not the federal.
The candidates agreed on the need to reduce the federal deficit, which is currently at $1.4 trillion annually, as well as the national debt, which is approaching $12 trillion and projected to increase to more than $21 trillion in the next decade. But they disagreed on how to go about it.
McIlroy and Cloward favor slashing the defense budget. Garamendi blamed President George W. Bush for the deficit by cutting taxes for the wealthy and starting a war "based on borrowing," and said he had helped President Bill Clinton cut 15,000 positions in the Department of the Interior. Harmer blamed Obama and the Democrats in Congress for tripling Bush's deficit and opposes spending stimulus and bailout money. Denham supports cutting every federal government agency by 25 percent and reducing total spending by 90 percent.
Garamendi again agreed with McIlroy and Cloward on the issue of global warming, warning that the planet is headed for disaster unless carbon dioxide emissions are reduced. Harmer and Denham are skeptical, with Harmer pointing out that carbon dioxide is exhaled by people and essential to life, not a toxic pollutant. Denham called global warming "a big lie."
There were two rare issues of agreement among the candidates. They all favor auditing the federal reserve system and they oppose constructing a peripheral canal in the Delta.
The one moment of levity in the serious discussion occurred with Denham's response to the question of what was the most difficult decision of his life.
"To get married," he said without elaboration as the several hundred people in attendance laughed. The moderator joked that she hoped his wife wasn't in the audience.