Points made, few scored in debate

LACEY - Democrat Denny Heck and Republican Jaime Herrera sparred here Wednesday over the best way to revive the nation's economy in a well-attended forum devoted to their 3rd Congressional District race.

Neither covered new ground, and many who showed up for the Thurston County Chamber-sponsored event did not seem swayed. But the candidates did have a lively discussion – on everything from the economic stimulus passed by Congress to each candidate’s biggest mistake in life.

Herrera said her error was use of credit cards as a young adult, and Heck had second thoughts about how well he’d parented his two adult sons. On the large campaign issues, the candidates were just as clear.

Heck pounded home the message that his top priority is jobs – including changes to the tax code to remove a tax deduction that, he says, businesses can get for the expense of relocating U.S. manufacturing plants overseas. The politician-turned-entrepreneur said he wants “to get credit flowing, fix the tax code, invest in energy and move toward a clean energy economy.”

Herrera, who has taken positions against all major policy initiatives Democrats have adopted in the past 18 months in Congress, said her top priorities are “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

But she said: “The first thing this Congress needs to do is stop digging into your back pocket and taking out your credit card.”

The Worthington Center was filled to overflowing for the event sponsored by the Thurston Chamber of Commerce, and a chamber spokeswoman said more than 250 people attended. Olympian editorial page editor Mike Oakland moderated and relayed questions from the chamber members.

Heck and Herrera are in a tight race to replace retiring Democratic U.S. Rep. Brian Baird in the sprawling 3rd, which covers parts or all of seven Southwest Washington counties from Olympia to Vancouver and from the Cascades to the Pacific Ocean.

The economic base ranges from Olympia’s government orientation to logging, fishing, manufacturing and even high-tech firms. Several polls show Herrera leading, and the race is closely watched nationally as a swing district that the Republicans might capture in their bid to regain the House majority.

Herrera is appealing to a rural base and would repeal the national health care reforms – even though they offer tax credits to small businesses and give other aid to individuals.

She argued that free-market reforms can do the job better at lower costs – and she said her own Republican Party “blew it” by wasting a chance in the past decade to enact congressional changes that would have let small groups buy insurance plans from other states and make other market changes.

Herrera, who is a third-year state representative from Camas and former congressional aide to U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, said Heck supported the $800 billion federal economic stimulus. She argued the stimulus and other Democratic spending are creating uncertainty for businesses because they know a bill for Democrats’ spending will land on their door step.

But Herrera did not claim – as some Republican groups continue to assert – that the stimulus failed to make the jobless situation less dire than it might have been.

“We just need to get the government out of the way and let those who create jobs do what they do best,” Herrera said.

Heck, a former state representative from Vancouver who later served as chief of staff for a governor and founded TVW’s public-affairs network, said the differences between him and Herrera are great, and he noted that he spent the last decade creating jobs.

He said tax incentives are needed to reward companies that hire. He also wants tax code changes to encourage manufacturers to buy U.S.-made equipment and to bring foreign manufacturers into the U.S. He said a China-based maker of LED light bulbs may open a plant near Vancouver if it can get a contract for vending machines with a major U.S. soda pop maker.

Heck also pounced on Herrera’s opposition to Wall Street financial reforms and her wish to overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling. He said she favors tax breaks that let companies deduct expenses for moving factories overseas.

Herrera said after the debate that she didn’t oppose all Wall Street reforms. But she thinks the bill that Democrats did pass creates 200 to 500 new rules that big businesses can navigate but that will “crush” small firms. She said the real problem behind the financial crisis was the handling of mortgages by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the national mortgage lenders.

She also defended her views on abortion, which the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is highlighting in fliers sent to voters in Thurston County and other parts of the 3rd district. The brochures say that Herrera would overturn abortion rights and not make exceptions for rape, incest or to save a mother’s life – a position Herrera refused to clarify in an interview with reporters after the forum.

Herrera said her views have been well reported and that Heck’s campaign is trying to move the campaign off the central focus: government spending and the economy. One account in The Columbian of Vancouver quoted Herrera as saying she favored some of the exceptions cited in the campaign fliers, but she was not specific about which ones and she claimed her views were already well reported.

National Democrats are flooding some key districts around the country with ads or messages that warn of Republican candidates’ views on abortion, suggesting that a vote for Republicans could usher another era of social conservatism into Congress.

Pat Rants, an Olympia manager of commercial properties, said he favors Herrera and didn’t hear anything new at the forum that changes his thinking about the race.

Rants said he knows of Heck and respects him, “but I agree with Jaime’s positions to a much greater degree.” What resonated most for Rants was Herrera’s statement that citizens and businesses know better than government where to spend money in the community.

But Jim Cooper, a Thurston County Democrat, said Heck clearly would represent Thurston County better than Herrera.

And Beth Doglio, a leader with Climate Solutions’ project to lower greenhouse emissions in the Northwest, said it was clear Heck is thinking a lot about how to create clean energy-related jobs. She said there is great potential for alternative energy in the 3rd district that could provide employment.

One undecided voter, Keilli Hegsted, held a campaign sign for Republican Auditor Kim Wyman’s re-election campaign. But she said she found something to like in both Herrera’s and Heck’s positions and said she is truly an independent.

As a small-business owner in rural Thurston County, Hegsted said she liked Herrera’s message on job creation. But she also liked Heck’s message about keeping jobs in the U.S. or even bringing some back using the tax code.

But Hegsted said she wanted to find out if Herrera really wants – as Heck alleged – to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling.

As an abortion-rights supporter, Hegsted said: “If that is true, that would do it for me.”

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com www.theolympian.com/politicsblog