Democrat Ami Bera and Republican Doug Ose engaged Wednesday in a detailed examination of the other’s shortcomings, using their only scheduled debate to infuse the congressional contest with tension over health care and the economy.
The hourlong meeting was testy and at times personal, with the candidates clashing over jobs, immigration and foreign policy as they vie in one of the country’s most closely watched races for the House of Representatives.
Ose, a 59-year-old developer and former three-term congressman, sought to put the incumbent on his heels early, pillorying him as the personification of congressional intransigence and offering a raised finger as he launched into a criticism of the health care overhaul.
“The problem is that Obamacare is killing jobs,” Ose said. “If you don’t have a job, you can’t afford to pay for the health insurance that you so desperately need.”
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He returned to health care again in the debate, telling Bera, “You voted to cut $716 billion from Medicare.”
Bera, an Elk Grove physician serving his first term in Washington, accused Ose of lying about the health care law’s impact on Medicare. Recalling his tough race in 2012, when he unseated GOP Rep. Dan Lungren, Bera called the charge “déjà vu all over again.” Throughout the debate, he referred to Ose, who has been out of Congress for nine years, by his former House title.
“Congressman, how many times does someone have to call something a lie until you stop telling it?” Bera asked.
Bera mounted a forceful defense of the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 legislation championed by President Barack Obama and upheld by the Supreme Court.
The 49-year-old former county medical director and UC Davis medical school official said the law has provided more than 1 million Californians with health care coverage – challenging Ose on his pledge to repeal the law and replace it with a policy that provides customers with more options and insurance companies with more competition.
“As a doctor, I have taken care of far too many patients who may have lost their job,” he said. “And you can see the fear on their face.”
While the law is not the solution he would have developed, Bera said, he said there was room to make incremental changes.
Ose “wants to take us back to a time when health insurance companies were in charge. When women could be charged more than men. Where if you had a pre-existing illness you could be denied coverage,” Bera added. “That’s not progress. That’s taking us backward.”
Bera repeatedly cited campaign pledges he said he’s fulfilled, including not to take a pay raise and to back legislation that withholds congressional salaries if members don’t pass a budget.
The encounter was at once an opportunity for the candidates to present their respective cases outside the scripted world of television advertising and a rare chance to mount a personal appeal across closely divided Sacramento County.
On the drought and water policy, Ose said while he couldn’t make it rain, he could get federal officials to reduce the outflows from Folsom Dam. But Bera said he worked with officials to curtail releases to the lowest possible levels.
On the economy, Ose accused Bera of failing to appear at a small-business workshop Bera promoted. “You didn’t show up,” Ose said. “Small business is not getting the assistance it needs from Congressman Bera.”
During his opportunity to ask Bera a question, Ose returned to health care, asking why he voted to protect legislation “that strips $716 billion in future funding from Medicare recipients.”
“That’s just bad policy,” Ose added.
“It’s déjà vu all over again in the same debate,” Bera replied wryly, saying he’ll leave it up to media fact-checkers to re-examine the claim. “My parents are on Medicare. We have to do everything we can to not only to protect Medicare, but to strengthen it.”
Both said they would support a federal policy modeled after California legislation Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed requiring California colleges to adopt rape-prevention policies that include an “affirmative consent” standard. It requires someone engaging in sexual activity to obtain an affirmative and voluntary agreement from his or her partner.
On militarization of municipal police departments, Ose said equipping local offices with military-grade weapons was appropriate given that law enforcement is encountering people who are “increasingly well-armed with heavy ballistic equipment.” Bera said he absolutely believes police departments have become over-militarized.
Bera used his question to ask Ose to name specific votes in which Ose stood up to Wall Street bankers.
“You bet,” Ose said. He said he supported legislation to strengthen campaign finance laws.
Bera interrupted, reminding him that he wanted three votes. He said Ose voted to deregulate banks that became “too big to fail” and drove the country into the recession.
Ose went on to describe the parameters of legislation that he said would curb special treatment under tax laws and special provisions for their “unique enterprises,” then pivoted to contend it was Bera who was in the pocket of Wall Street.
“I don’t understand what your loyalty is to Wall Street,” he said. “It’s just totally Kafkaesque that you do this.”
Ose had issued an early challenge to agree to a series of five debates, arguing in a steady stream of news releases that just the one meeting would be a disservice to 7th District voters across Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova and Folsom.
Competition for the seat has been heated, with a TV and Web ads saturating the local media landscape. Outside groups have poured more than $3.5 million into the race, a top target of the GOP. On Wednesday, the American Action Network announced it would spend another $450,000 on top of its commitment of $750,000. The GOP Congressional Leadership Fund said it would drop $1 million into the race.
The debate, which aired live on KVIE-TV and will broadcast nationally on C-SPAN, was jointly produced by The Sacramento Bee, Capitol Public Radio, KVIE-TV, Los Rios Community College District, Folsom Lake College and Sacramento State Center for California Studies.