Republican Rep. Dan Lungren and Democratic opponent Ami Bera discussed the role of government on issues ranging from job creation to abortion Tuesday as they fought to win over voters in one of the country's most competitive congressional districts.
The event, sponsored by The Bee, Capital Public Radio and News10, marked the first time the two-time rivals have gone head to head in a formal debate.
Each sought to cast the other and his party as responsible for the country's financial difficulties while portraying himself as better-positioned to make necessary changes in Washington.
"He puts forth those same policies that got us into this mess," Bera said of Lungren, whose political career stretches over three decades.
Lungren characterized his opponent as the "status quo on steroids," as he sought to tie Bera, who has never held public office, to the policies pushed by national Democratic leaders.
Both candidates sought to downplay their own partisan ties, making clear overtures to the independent and swing voters who will likely determine the outcome in the 7th Congressional District, where Democrats and Republicans represent virtually equal shares of the electorate.
Lungren spoke of his work across the aisle on gun control and other issues, saying Democrats often come to him when looking to forge a compromise.
Bera took several stances that put him at odds with many in his party, including reversing his 2010 position in support of federal funding for high-speed rail.
He bemoaned what he sees as a Congress that has "failed to create enough jobs to get this community working again." The Elk Grove doctor cited conversations with out-of-work residents during volunteer shifts at a local medical clinic. He called for government investment in higher education and local infrastructure projects to create more jobs.
Lungren countered that Congress cannot itself create jobs but has the ability to "inhibit or promote an environment" in which jobs can be created. He advocated an approach based on the understanding that "a limited government is the best government."
"I have a vision of the future of America that comes out of the promise of America," he said. "The idea that you can be the best that you possibly can be with God's talents, not encumbered by a government that tells you they know better. Not a government-answers-all situation where jobs are created by the federal government, where every answer is given to you, where every obligation is imposed on you."
Bera, in a comment that went unanswered, said his view of individual liberties extends to women's "right to choose." Lungren opposes abortion rights.
"This is about individual freedoms," Bera said. "As a doctor, I don't want the government coming into my exam room making those decisions for me. I want to empower my patients to make the decisions that best fit within their faith, their family circumstances and their individual circumstances."
Outside the television studios, several dozen protesters organized by Planned Parenthood, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the CREDO SuperPAC, a liberal group, waved signs and led chants about ousting Lungren.
On the the question of Medicare, each candidate accused the other of backing changes to the program that would lead to reduced access and higher costs for the region's seniors.
To address the housing and foreclosure crisis, a major issue in the Sacramento County district, Lungren called for extending a tax credit for homeowners who go through a foreclosure or a short sale.
Bera criticized the Obama administration for not doing enough on the issue, saying the federal government should work more closely with banks to ensure people have access to loans and refinancing options.
The debate also got personal at times, as Bera pressed Lungren on whether he is leading by example on cutting spending and reducing debt, citing public pensions he has earned during his time in state and federal office. Bera said it's time for leaders to sacrifice, pledging to reject any congressional salary until area unemployment is below 5 percent, down from the current 10.3 percent, and decline to take a pension until retirement benefits for seniors are secure.
Lungren countered by pointing out that he won't receive a federal pension until he leaves office and detailing his work to cut spending in the U.S. House of Representatives. He also accused Bera of "questioning my integrity, questioning my honesty, questioning my sincerity, questioning my motivation" after pledging through a surrogate not to make personal attacks.
Bera said his charges against Lungren "are not personal attacks. Those are the facts."