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Immigration adds spark to U.S. Senate debate

Live on KATU - Dems vying for the nomination mostly agree during their Forest Grove forum
by: Chase Allgood, All eyes, including those of moderator Steve Dunn (with back to the camera) were on Jeff Merkley during Sunday’s debate between Democratic Senate candidates at Pacific University. From left: David Loera, Steve Novick, Merkley and Candy Neville.

Sunday's debate between Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate was mainly a 'me too' affair, with the four political hopefuls agreeing on the need to end the war in Iraq, overhaul federal health-care policies and promote alternative fuels.

But one candidate, David Loera, introduced a bit of tension to the televised debate at Pacific University by chiding two of his rivals for their stands on immigration.

Loera, a mental health counselor from Salem, favors allowing all immigrants currently in the country to stay here legally.

'We can absorb them into our economy,' said Loera, who recalled his father's journey to this country as a migrant worker from Mexico.

He lashed out at two of his opponents, Jeff Merkley and Steve Novick, saying their proposals to force illegal immigrants to pay fines before applying for legal status amounted to 'scapegoating' minorities for the nation's economic ills and security concerns.

'We don't need to punish people,' he said. 'We need to make them part of the system.'

Loera was particularly upset that Merkley, as Oregon's Speaker of the House, supported a bill that requires proof of legal residency to obtain an Oregon driver's license. And, he said, he's never heard Novick speak out against the new law.

Other than the immigration issue, the hour-long debate featured little new information from the candidates.

Merkley was supposed to be the front-runner in this race but a KATU poll conducted earlier this month showed him in third place, behind Novick and Candy Neville.

Merkley seemed eager to make some news and used Sunday's forum to announce his support for a federal initiative to provide free college or trade-school tuition to the dependents of any soldier killed in war.

Novick, who in an earlier Forest Grove forum was animated and outspoken, seemed all business Sunday.

Novick, a former federal prosecutor and political strategist, said he'd steal an idea from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took on the 1930s Depression with a massive public works initiative.

He said the government could put people to work developing alternative energy and fixing roads and bridges.

The war in Iraq was a recurring topic throughout the afternoon, as the Democrats said the conflict was draining the national treasury, straining our military and showing the dangers of our dependence on foreign oil.

The war talk was fine with Candy Neville, a real estate broker from Eugene, who said it was the issue that prompted her to join the race.

'It's not the economy, stupid,' she said, paraphrasing a famous line attributed to Bill Clinton's campaign manager. 'It's the war that drains the economy.'