Will Obama’s coattails affect local races?

Democrats hope national surge will help Morris oust Herger

CONGRESS COUPLE<br>Democrat Jeff Morris (left) debated 11-term Rep. Wally Herger last week in Chico. It was the first of only two face-offs between the candidates. Morris is mounting a strong challenge in hopes that he can ride Barack Obama’s coattails to victory in the heavily Republican 2nd District.

Democrat Jeff Morris (left) debated 11-term Rep. Wally Herger last week in Chico. It was the first of only two face-offs between the candidates. Morris is mounting a strong challenge in hopes that he can ride Barack Obama’s coattails to victory in the heavily Republican 2nd District.

Photo By Robert Speer

Will Barack Obama’s coattails be long and strong enough to overcome the Republican voter registration advantage in California’s 2nd Congressional District and end Wally Herger’s 22-year career in the House?

That was the big unasked question at a candidates’ forum last Thursday (Oct. 9) in the Chico City Council chambers, when Herger faced off against Democratic challenger Jeff Morris in the first of just two debates they’d scheduled.

Morris, a Trinity County supervisor, is one of the strongest opponents Herger has faced in recent years, and local Democrats are hoping backlash against the Bush administration will give him a boost against longtime Bush loyalist Herger.

Theirs was the second of two forums that evening sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Chico Enterprise-Record. The first featured the two candidates seeking to replace termed-out District 3 Assemblyman Rick Keene (R-Chico), Republican Dan Logue and Democrat Mickey Harrington. Members of the media (CN&R, E-R and KCHO) asked questions of the candidates.

The floundering economy was topic No. 1 at the congressional debate. Like John McCain in the presidential race, Herger presented himself as a born-again regulator, decrying the lax regulations that had fostered subprime loans and easy credit. “We’re seeing a lot of this come back to haunt us,” he said. “The system needs to be brought into the 21st century.”

Rather than attack Herger for his contributions to that regulatory laxity, Morris went after the Bush bailout plan, which he called a “shoot-from-the-hip strategy” that Herger supported, against the wishes of his constituents. “It hasn’t instilled confidence,” he insisted, adding that the country “shouldn’t have been in this place anyway.”

Herger responded that he’d opposed the bill as first proposed. When it was rewritten to include greater security and “the good possibility of returning the money to the taxpayers,” he supported it. The bill was necessary, he said, to prop up a floundering financial system that, had it failed, would have severely damaged businesses and employees in his district.

On health care, too, Herger was a born-again reformer. The system was designed in the mid-20th century, he said, and we “need to completely redesign it so consumers and doctors work together.” It’s “now run almost completely by government, and we need to bring competition back into it” to keep costs down.

Morris also wants to design a new system, one that “focuses on patient care first.” His primary goal is to make sure children and seniors have adequate care, he said.

Morris did get in a couple of digs at Herger.

Once, when Herger referred to the current financial downturn as “a dip” in the economy of a sort that happens periodically, Morris mentioned his grandfather, who he said wouldn’t “characterize the Great Depression as ‘a dip.’ “

And, on another occasion, he chided the congressman for referring to “radical environmentalists,” a term he said he couldn’t believe was said in such a forum. We’re not going to solve our problems by demonizing environmentalists, he insisted.

Asked why voters who think George W. Bush has made a mess of things should vote for him, Herger replied that he’d sometimes disagreed with the president—specifically on Iraq, where he’d agreed with John McCain about increasing troop levels early on.

Morris replied: “I think if a member of Congress was opposed to the war, he should have let his constituents know that. It wasn’t done. Talk is cheap.”

Morris said as county supervisor he’d helped save the local hospital, bring in broadband service, improve the local economy and initiate a sustainable forestry project that creates timber jobs.

Herger, who now lives in Chico, grew up in Rio Oso, where his family was in ranching. He was first elected to Congress in 1986.

If Harrington, a union official from Magalia, is going to get elected to the Assembly, this year probably affords his best opportunity—not only because of the Democratic surge nationally, but also because he doesn’t face an incumbent, as he did in 2006, when he lost handily to Keene.

His opponent, Dan Logue, is a real-estate broker and second-term Yuba County supervisor making his first bid for higher office.

Physically the two candidates are a lot alike—big, raw-boned men with gravelly voices. Ideologically, they couldn’t be less alike.

Harrington is a classic lunch-bucket Democrat, a former PG&E worker and lifelong union man who calls himself a “people person"; puts jobs, education, roads and working conditions at the top of his priority list; and isn’t afraid to talk about raising the sales tax. Logue is a free-market Republican who wants to lower taxes, loosen restrictions on business, cut state spending and add a spending cap, and generally “get government out of the way.”

A good example of the difference is their position on the two-thirds vote needed to pass a state budget, which some blame for the gridlock that characterizes the process. Harrington said he favored a majority vote, while Logue said he supported that idea about as much as “I support putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.”

Logue did say he’d introduce legislation that would deny lawmakers their pay if the budget is late, a position Harrington agreed with.

On prison reform, Harrington said he supported the increased release of nonviolent offenders rather than building new prisons, while Logue bemoaned the cost of inmate health care. “It will bankrupt the system if we don’t reform it,” he said.