By J.N. Sbranti
The five men who want to represent Stanislaus County in Congress sparred Wednesday in the region's first -- and perhaps only -- public forum before the June 5 primary election.
Immigration, unemployment, military spending and health care issues dominated the 90-minute event sponsored by the Latino Community Roundtable.
Some of the people attending the candidates forum. The Latino Community Roundtable and King Kennedy Memorial Board of Directors hosted a congressional candidates forum, April 11, 2012 held at the King Kennedy Memorial Center.
Thanks to the once-a-decade redrawing of political boundaries, the newly created 10th District contains all of Stanislaus County plus Escalon, Ripon, Manteca and Tracy.
The major political parties consider it a seat they can win and are backing the two front runners -- Republican Jeff Denham and Democrat Jose Hernandez.
But three other independent-minded candidates are vying for support, including Chad Condit, the 44-year-old son of the region's former representative, Gary Condit.
Chad Condit's message Wednesday was the most clear and consistent: Partisan politics are crippling Congress.
"We need to elect a true independent, not someone who checks with their political parties on how to vote," stressed Condit, insisting Denham and Hernandez are tethered to the party line. "That's how it works. Things are broken in D.C."
Denham and Hernandez, in fact, did voice their party's opposing opinions during the forum on topics such as abortion, immigration policies and the proposed Dream Act for children of undocumented immigrants.
There are 11 million immigrants working illegally in America, said Hernandez, whose Mexican parents were migrant San Joaquin Valley farmworkers during his childhood.
"One has to come to grips with the fact there's an immigration problem," Hernandez said, "and we have to do it in a fair and humane way."
Hernandez, 49, said it's not right that many children who grew up in the United States are unable to get jobs here because they don't have legal immigration documents. He supports the proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which would provide ways for such youngsters to earn permanent residency status.
Denham, by contrast, said he backs comprehensive immigration reform and a guest worker program, particularly for farmworkers. Before providing more opportunities for undocumented immigrants, Denham said, the country should expand education opportunities for veterans who "put their lives on the line" for America.
The candidates also disagreed about who should be enforcing immigration laws.
"I don't think local law enforcement should be doing the job of federal authorities in regards to immigration," Hernandez said.
But Denham, 44, said inter-agency collaboration is needed to stop people who are breaking the law.
"We absolutely need to have a secure border," Denham added.
Condit agreed, saying, "We need a military presence on the northern and southern borders to make our country secure against terrorism, drugs and human trafficking."
Rather than have U.S. troops spread across 130 countries around the world, Condit said, they should be protecting America's borders.
The other two candidates -- Michael Barkley, who calls himself a progressive, and Troy McComak, an independent -- also said they want America's troops to return.
"We've won the wars. Let's bring them home," said McComak, 27, who describes himself as a paintball enthusiast from Patterson.
Split on abortion
Barkley, 66, said he has a plan to balance the federal budget by "knocking a big hole in the department of war." The Manteca resident said he would use his experience as a lawyer, accountant and computer programmer to craft solutions to the nation's problems.
McComak and Barkley opted not to answer some of the questions asked during the forum, admitting they weren't familiar with specific issues.
"Affordable Care Act? I don't know what that is," McComak said about the controversial 2010 health care law, which opponents call Obamacare.
Denham, like almost all Republicans, said he opposes that health care legislation: "I don't want an un-elected board of bureaucrats deciding what kind of surgery my child can have."
Hernandez and Barkley support the Affordable Care Act, but Condit said he doesn't like the new mandates it imposes on small businesses.
The candidates were also split regarding abortion. Hernandez couched it in terms of treating women equally, while Denham said he believes in the sanctity of life.
"I think women should choose not to have abortions," McComak said simply.
This year's primary will be different than previous elections because all registered voters will be able to vote for candidates from any party. The top two vote getters will face off in the November election.