The leading contenders to fill David Wu's vacant seat in Congress converged Sunday in Forest Grove to give the public their first chance to see the candidates spar over the issues - and some were eager to mix it up.
After Wu, a Democrat, resigned in August amid a sex scandal, 13 candidates filed to replace him. Republicans and Democrats will pick their candidates Nov. 8 in a special primary election leading to the Jan. 31 special election.
In the Democratic primary, three candidates with electoral experience are leading the pack, while on the GOP side, the 2010 nominee is being chased by a pair of dark horse candidates drawing Tea Party support.
All six candidates were present at a Sunday debate in Forest Grove that found the Democrats working to shore up support from their party's base and the Republican frontrunner, Tualatin businessman Rob Cornilles, fending off attacks from the right.
Jim Greenfield, a Tigard real estate investor who has loaned his own campaign $100,000, criticized Cornilles for not signing the no-new-taxes pledge offered by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.
'I have signed the no-new tax pledge. Rob Cornilles has not,' Greenfield said, adding he's also signed a pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which Cornilles won't do. 'Maybe Rob should run in the Democratic primary.'
Lisa Michaels, a Beaverton marketing consultant, piled on with Greenfield.
'I'm a conservative. Jim's a conservative. Rob is not,' Michaels said.
Cornilles defended his stance, saying he would work to reform President Obama's health care bill instead of getting caught up in the 'game' of voting to repeal it in full.
The heat of the Republican debate was a marked contrast to the relative placidity of the exchange between the three Democrats, where Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici and state Rep. Brad Witt hit similar tones.
The debate was sponsored by the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University and Pamplin Media Group, owner of The Spotlight.
Dems share views
All three Democrats offered a similar view on how to repair the economy. Witt said the country faced a 'consumption crisis.'
'Those folks who don't have a job or are underemployed can't be spending in our local businesses, nor are they a source of income for our local governments,' Witt said. 'We need jobs.' He touted his plan to update the country's infrastructure.
Avakian, in turn, said he wants to create a new, 21st Century Works Progress Administration that could put people to work, much like Depression-era WPA. He said President Obama's latest jobs plan wouldn't bring enough to Oregon to make an appreciable difference. Oregon's share of the money, he said, 'is not enough to build one bridge. It is a very, very small step in the right direction.'
Bonamici said any effort to help unemployment needs to go beyond infrastructure.
'What about people who don't work in trades?' Bonamici asked. She said she'd like to expand on programs she pushed in the Oregon Legislature that would free capital for small businesses, offer subsidies for green businesses and update school facilities, using Oregon's 'Cool Schools' effort as a model.
Cornilles plays middle
Avakian was the first Democrat to enter the race, announcing he'd challenge Wu in April. He's used his head start in the race to push an image of him as presumptive frontrunner. And at the debate, he was the only Democrat to take shots across the aisle, criticizing Greenfield on a number of fronts, including the Republican's vociferous defense of corporate earnings.
'Yes, Jim, money is fine thing,' Avakian said. 'I want to see it in the bank accounts of families, not corporations.'
Cornilles, who lost to Wu in the 2010 election by 12 percentage points, has spent the fall fashioning himself as the candidate that can appeal to a broad range of voters in the 1st District, where Democrats held a registration edge of 50,000 votes in 2010.
During the debate, Cornilles sided with Democrats in tacitly supporting the crowds at Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Portland gatherings.
Cornilles said he, too, was upset with 'what Wall St. Bankers got away with.'
Avakian and Witt said they attended Occupy Portland gatherings, Bonamici spoke approvingly of them and Greenfield said the bad economy is breeding unrest, which is understandable, likening it to the Vietnam protest movement, which he participated in.