Last week, Democrat Jeff Morris and Republican incumbent Wally Herger met to debate the future of California's Second Congressional District. The event was sponsored by Chico's Enterprise-Record and the League of Women Voters of Butte County. Questions were directed to the candidates from members of the press, audience members, and event sponsors. The wide-ranging discussion covered everything from the economy to water management, forest fire prevention to salmon fisheries disaster relief, health care to rural schools funding, and of course the war in Iraq and global warming.
The video is about an hour long, so I'll give you some direct quotes with time codes (in case you want to see the good stuff for yourself). Some of my favorite questions came from the press. Here's one at 10:35 from Northstate Public Radio:
Mr. Herger, the day after you were elected to the California Assembly in 1980, you told the Marysville Democrat that you won because the voters are tired of professional politicians. How do you explain your ability to get elected the last 11 times you’ve run?
Ha! Good one!
Herger answered that he originally ran for office because he thought our government imposed too much regulation and too much taxation and he wanted to change that. The rest of his answer could be summed up as "I’m running again because there is still too much regulation and taxation and you should give me more time to fix it." Because, y'know, 22 years is such a short time and less regulation would make the current economic crisis better, right?
Most of Herger's answers were predictable Republican talking points, with a touch of local color thrown in to prove that he remembers which district he is supposed to be serving. But how did challenger Jeff Morris handle the tough questions?
QUESTION: Mr. Morris, your opponent obviously has a lot of experience. Can you explain how well prepared you are to make the leap from rural county supervisor to Congressman?
MORRIS: [If] you look at what we’ve done in Trinity County in the last 3-1/2 years – saving a hospital, getting ourselves out of bankruptcy, expanding our infrastructure, moving forward with sustainable natural resource programs, those are all things that [are applicable] for this district and the nation ... we’re just talking about scale. It’s not a matter of whether I come from a small rural county or not. Do I have the ability to get things done? I think the answer to that is yes.
I also think that building relationship is a key part of any political role, and I’ve been building relationships in the last 3-1/2 years both statewide and nationwide with other leaders from rural and urban areas. And we’re going to need those representatives from the urban areas to be on our side and to fight for our needs in addition to their own. It’s crucially important.
He's right about that. District 2 doesn't have a lot of votes or money. Rural counties need all the friends they can get, and they need representatives who understand that.
Meanwhile, the tough questions just kept coming for Wally:
QUESTION: You said after that first vote [on the $700 billion bailout], that calls were running 100 to 1 against the bailout, and yet you voted your conscience [by voting yes both times] ... I’m sure those people would like to know in 60 seconds or less, why you voted the way you did.
HERGER: [Clarifies that he said "overwhelmingly," not "100 to 1".] I opposed the original plan that came out, that was originally presented to us. I felt that was a bailout... I supported a plan ... that would have allowed us to take up these securities, hold them until the prices came back, hopefully break even ... and I did it for our district and for our area and I do not feel that was a bailout.
So he was against it before he was for it, and he voted yes both times that the bill was presented, despite the fact that his constituents urged him to vote no. Oh, and the bailout? Not a bailout at all. Got that?
MORRIS: I think there’s a difference between voting for something and fighting for something. And I think that if you’re a representative in Congress and you are obviously going to make a decision that is going to be in direct opposition to the beliefs of your constituents, you need to do ... two things. You either need to slow down the process -- if you can -- so that a good decision is made, a rational decision is made, and you should be coming back to your constituents immediately and going through point by point, and demanding transparency and accountability in whatever you’re voting for.
I don’t believe that was done in this case, I do believe there were other options out there, but we are where we are. So what we really need to be focusing on is what are the next steps we’re going to take to continue to address this problem, and I would like to see some additional leadership on that.
Indeed. But enough about the national scene. What would Jeff Morris do stimulate the economy in District 2?
MORRIS: Well, I think we need to start out by making sure we don’t lose what we already have. I think that would be a good place to start. I think we need leadership on the national level to make sure that we actually have the ability to buy food – I mean, it is that desperate here folks, let’s be honest, okay? – put gas in the car, pay for health care ... So some national leadership on financial and economic issues would be a good start.
I would also say that we need to be looking at forestry, but the only way we’re going to be successful at forestry is if we don’t throw rocks at the environmental community. I cannot believe that the term ‘radical environmentalist’ has already been used in this forum [by Representative Herger]. That is why we’ve been successful in Trinity County with forestry projects ... we don’t go out and insult people before we ask for their help.
We also need to be looking at education – a long hard look at education – and working with our state partners to get some more educational facilities up here and retain access to healthcare.
Sounds good to me. After this, Jeff really came out swinging. It wasn't hard to do, when Wally tossed him opportunities like this:
QUESTION: Congressman Herger, in 2005 you conducted 8 meetings during a 2-day swing through our district to convince your constituents that they needed to strengthen the Social Security program by approving changes that would allow individuals to set up individual accounts in stocks and bonds with Wall Street firms. [Audience laughter] From today's perspective, does this still seem to you a good direction?
HERGER: If we look at the history of the United States, the history of any economy ... if we look back prior to the 1930s and the Great Depression, over the long term, people who have invested in our economy have done very well. We have periods of time, like we're in right now and other periods of time, when we have dips. But we will come out of these dips. Right now we have a very serious situation with Social Security. It is going broke ... we have to change what we're doing ... the plan that I was advocating would have ... allowed the person on Social Security, if they chose to, to take 7% and invest that in a safe way. And yes, I support that and I think that that's part of our answer.
Nice. Let's make our most fragile citizens dependent on the whims of Wall Street. And what was that about a dip?
JEFF: Well, I'm glad we didn't do it. [Audience laughter.] A "dip". [Audience laughter.] I'm not sure that my grandfather would characterize the Great Depression as a "dip."
[Pause. Jeff shakes his head, looking frustrated.]
We need to be putting systems in place, retaining systems that protect people in this economy, in any economy. That is why these programs were created. And if somebody has been in Congress for the last 22 years and the system is broken, it's not the fault of the people who elected them. So let's make sure that the system is funded, let's make sure that the system continues or modify it so that it continues sustainably and is not a victim of Wall Street, and let's make sure that we first do no harm. Medicare is the same issue. We've been privatizing Medicare for the last few years and it is headed the same direction. I don't think that's where we want to be going.
You tell 'em, Jeff. How about another tough question for Wally?
QUESTION: Barack Obama accuses John McCain of voting with President Bush 90% of the time. You have voted with him even more often than that. Why should voters who think that the President has made a mess of things vote for you? [Audience laughter.]
Ouch! Now that's the kind of no-holds-barred questioning I like to see from the press.
I'll leave you with my favorite part of the program -- Jeff's closing statement.
MORRIS: I think that in Northern California we need someone to represent us. We need somebody who is engaged in the district -- engaged in our daily lives -- and understands what the real challenges are. Not the challenges that are coming from lobbyists, not the challenges that are coming from the media, but the challenges of the day-to-day lives of the citizens of this district.
In the last 3-1/2 years, I have helped turn a bankrupting county around. I have helped to save a hospital. We have a sustainable forestry project in Trinity County that is creating jobs, sending lumber to our local mill with the support of the environmental community. I know how to work with people. I know how to get things done, and I do it to the best of my ability with respect.
People have lost trust in government, and that is a shame, because our government is the only one we’ve got. If we are not engaged with our government and our government is not engaged with us, we are doomed for failure.
I would ask for your vote and I would ask for your support. But more importantly, I would ask for every single person in this room to be involved in their government and community -- locally, statewide and nationally. I’d like to be elected, but more importantly, I would like to see this district be fully engaged in the process. This is not going to work without every single person here. It’s not going to work with misrepresentation in Washington or in California, but it certainly is not going to work if we don’t participate.
I ask for your vote and support. Thank you.
Please help support my brother Jeff Morris for Congress.
If you'd like to see Round 2 of Morris vs. Herger, there is another local forum scheduled for Tuesday, October 21. It's my understanding that it may be broadcast on KIXE, Redding's public television station. Details (when available) will be posted at www.jeffmorrisforcongress.com.