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Lungren-Bera Debate Gets Personal

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(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
It's one of the tightest and most closely-watched House races in the entire nation: Republican Dan Lungren fighting for re-election against Democrat Ami Bera.  Both hope to represent California's newly-redrawn 7th congressional district.  It now covers several eastern and southern Sacramento suburbs including Folsom, Citrus Heights and Elk Grove.  The first - and perhaps only - debate in that race took place Tuesday.
(Listen to the debate and view pictures here )
This is the second straight election where Lungren and Bera have squared off - and from their frequent jabs during the debate, you can tell they're not exactly best friends.  Take, for example, this exchange about Medicare, where each accused the other of having the wrong position.  Republicans have run TV ads criticizing Bera for supporting a $700 billion reduction to Medicare.  The website Politifact rates that claim "mostly false."   Here's the response from Bera, who's a doctor at UC Davis:
Bera: "Now, Congressman, you know that's not true. In fact, you voted for that same thing yourself - twice.  That $700 billion never leaves Medicare.  It stays there in the trust fund and it extends to the life of Medicare."
Lungren jabbed back:
Lungren: "Dr. Bera, just because you say something is true doesn't make it true."
He went on to say:
Lungren: "The fact of the matter is, it takes it out of Medicare.  It specifically takes it out of Medicare Advantage.  And in this district, the 7th district, we have one of the highest percentages of senior citizens who have opted in for Medicare Advantage in the entire country."
Bera then accused Lungren of wanting to privatize Medicare - with vouchers.  Lungren said that's not what he's proposing.
The candidates also compared their very different views on taxes, spending and job creation.  But the most heated moments came about halfway through the debate when each candidate got to ask the other a question.  Bera went first:
Bera: "Which one of your two taxpayer-funded pensions would you be willing to give up to help us pay off the debt?
Lungren: "Well, I would have expected a question like that from you!"
Lungren went on to say that as chair of the House Administration Committee, he's slashed the budgets of House leadership, policy committees and each member's office.  Bera kept pushing:
Bera: "Congressman, your actions - you're currently taking a full pension from the state of California of over $50,000 a year at a time when you're taking a full salary in Congress of over $175,000.   We're going broke in this state.  That is double-dipping.  You spiked your pension on your way out."
Actually, Lungren didn't spike his pension.  The Citizens Commission that sets the salaries for California elected officials raised Lungren's pay shortly before his term as Attorney General was up.  Then, the congressman got his turn to ask a question.  He recalled how Bera had once promised to run a campaign without personal attacks.
Lungren: "Were you telling the truth at that time?  Or was it a cynical political ploy?  Or as some of your friends have told me, it was that you couldn't hold up under the pressure you received from the Washington establishment to run a campaign against someone personally instead of the issues."
Despite all that, the candidates agreed on a number of issues.  Republican Lungren said there's no doubt climate change exists.  Democrat Bera made clear he stands with Israel when it comes to the potential of Iran getting nuclear weapons.  Bera also said he opposes spending federal tax dollars on California's high-speed rail project - though he supported it in his 2010 campaign.
Sacramento State Political Science Professor Kim Nalder was at the debate and says that common ground probably isn't an accident.
Nalder: "It's one of the closest races in the country and you have an evenly-divided district.  So both of them are clearly hoping that at least some of their constituents who are independents are tuning into this debate and hearing something they want to hear.  And that's why we didn't hear as much contrast as their previous records would indicate."
Outside the debate, backers of each candidate stood on opposite sides of a driveway trying to out-chant each other.  Lungren beat Bera two years ago, 50 percent to 43 percent.  But in a new year - and, more importantly, a new district - most political analysts call this race a toss-up.
The 7th Congressional District debate was sponsored by Capital Public Radio, the Sacramento Bee and News10.
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