The four main candidates in the 52nd Congressional District race talked gas prices, illegal immigration, small business and bailouts during a debate at the Country Club of Rancho Bernardo on Tuesday.
The debate, hosted by the Conservative Order of Good Government, brought together three challengers—Scott Peters, Lori Saldaña and John Stahl—and the incumbent, Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Solana Beach), who is fighting to retain a seat after redistricting shifted him out of his current District 50.
The new 52nd covers several communities. In addition to Rancho Bernardo and nearby Poway, it reaches west to include La Jolla and Coronado.
Bilbray was at the center of several barbs against Washington, with all of the challengers arguing it is time for someone different to head to the nation's capital.
"We need a new approach in Washington," said Democratic candidate Scott Peters, a former city councilman who represents San Diego on the Board of Port Commissioners. "Let's get the right person and stop worrying so much about the party."
The candidates answered a series of questions on a variety of topics, with one-minute each to respond. A couple of questions were targeted for specific candidates, with one providing Peters the chance to respond to Bilbray's characterization of him as the "father of San Diego's pension mess."
Peters, who admitted he made mistakes as a councilman, said the pension problems didn't begin with him but rather in the 1980s. Since then, he has worked to end pension underfunding and make city employees pay more for their benefits, he said.
Saldaña, a former Democratic state assemblywoman, focused on education and green energy during the debate, arguing that investing in education and reducing costs for small businesses by better energy efficiency are the keys to protecting the American Dream and turning the economy around.
Stahl, a Republican who served in the U.S. Navy and worked in the semiconductor industry, said he will work to balance the federal budget within the next three to five years and reduce the nation's dependency on foreign oil by the end of the decade.
"I have lived the American Dream and I'm not going to watch it die," Stahl said.
On illegal immigration, the candidates agreed that something must be done.
"If we do not have the rule of law in this country, we have nothing," said Stahl, who said benefits should not be provided to people who are not citizens.
Bilbray said while many focus on border security in illegal immigration talks, it is not the problem; it's just a symptom of the real problem which is people hiring illegal immigrants and the government providing benefits for them.
Peters said the U.S. needs to be "tough, fair and practical" with its illegal immigration and border policies, making legal crossings more efficient and looking at the income disparity between this country and Mexico which entices people to come here.
Saldaña said there needs to be an improved path to citizenship, with deportation for those who break the law, as a way to bring in the high-tech expertise this country does not have because of a subpar education system.
On gas prices, which recently climbed above an average of $4 per gallon locally, Peters said anyone who claims an ability to lower prices quickly isn't being honest. It's going to take a while, he said, so the focus should be on developing an alternative energy plan and creating incentives for conservation.
To raucous applause, Bilbray said the government needs to permit a pipeline between Canada and the U.S. to bring in oil, a nod to the stalled Keystone Pipeline project recently delayed by President Barack Obama.
As for the 2008 bailout of the financial industry, Bilbray proudly said he did not vote for it because of the financial burden it would place on his grandchildren.
While Saldaña argued that she didn't like the rushed process to create the bailout plan, most of the money has been paid back, she said.
"The process was flawed, but the outcome remains to be seen," she said.
Peters said he was surprised no one has gone to jail in connection with the fiscal crisis, and the government needs to regulate banks in a new way.
"No more bailouts," Peters said.
Stahl, who said he would not have voted for the bailout, said it wasn't right that banks made bad bets but still got their money back.