By José A. Álvarez
Congressman Bob Filner has amassed nearly double the campaign funds and dozens more endorsements than Assemblyman Juan Vargas. However, last Saturday evening, the two long-time rivals went head-to-head with their attacks and accusations in front of a crowd of about 400 at Southwestern College.
Dubbed as “The Great Debate,” the two-hour exchange got so heated and the cheering and booing from the audience so loud that it was often difficult to hear what the Democratic candidates to the 51st Congressional District were saying.
“We were made to be great things, to make our community a better place,” said Vargas in his opening statement. “And that’s why I am running,” added the termed-out Assemblymember, indicating that he expected “a contested and tough race.”
For his part, Filner thanked his supporters and said that during his 14 years as Congressman “we’ve had a lot of successes” and had to fight a lot of battles, confrontations that “show what kind of leader you are.”
On the major issues, the two candidates, who are running against each other for the third time, hold similar positions. Both believe the U.S. should have never gone to war with Iraq and that the federal government, instead, should be spending those billions of dollars in education, healthcare, and the creation of jobs. Both support the creation of a guest worker program and immigration reform that would eventually grant undocumented immigrants legal residency.
Filner and Vargas are against President Bush’s tax breaks, with Varga’s supporting a tax break for middle-class Americans.
On gay marriage, which was the first question of the evening posed to Vargas, he said he believes in rights for gays and lesbians but “do not support gay marriage.” Filner voted against a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman.
The first question for Filner had to do with legislation he co-sponsored which gave the Bajagua Project a sole-source contract to build a sewage treatment plant in Mexico.
Filner responded that the millions of raw sewage flowing into the district represented a “danger to our health and environment and it had to be stopped…It’s a shame that Mr. Vargas does not support it.”
“What’s stinky is not the sewer water. It’s the money in your pocket and it’s not right,” said Vargas, referring to the $66,000 Filner has received in campaign contributions from the project’s investors and their relatives.
This was not the only accusation or attack of the evening with both candidates not wasting any opportunity to accuse each other of breaches of ethics and question their affiliations.
Filner repeatedly accused Vargas of taking money from the insurance industry while chairing a committee that oversees legislation benefiting insurance companies.
“Juan, listen please,” Filner told Vargas, adding that one of the most important things for voters is “honesty…They want clear talk.”
Vargas defended himself by saying that he has always put the needs of consumers first.
“I have fought very hard to make sure the consumers are protected,” said Vargas, who was booed for not answering questions instead launching more accusations at his opponent, especially Filner paying his wife more than $500,000 to be his campaign fundraiser.
“I hope you’re listening Bob. Nobody knew you were doing these things,” said Vargas, accusing Filner of money laundering because the funds ended in his own pocket.
Filner denied any wrongdoing and instead lambasted Vargas for his connection to the Inzunza family, especially Ralph Inzunza, Jr. who was convicted of bribery.
“You are the one that has been surrounded by bribery,” said Filner. “I’ll take my wife over those people any day,” added Filner, asking his wife to stand up in the audience. Vargas attempted to respond but the audience booed him so loud much of what he said was not heard.
Another recurring issue throughout the night was who would better serve the interest of Latinos in the district, which is nearly 50 percent Hispanic.
Filner responded by saying that Hispanic families want good jobs, access to healthcare and education and a decent place to live.
“That’s what defines the Democratic Party and that is what defines Bob Filner,” he said, adding that “every Latino organization has endorsed my candidacy,” and that “they know I am on the front lines fighting racism and discrimination.”
Vargas, who said he has had a falling out with the Inzunzas, retorted by mocking Filner’s slogan.
“He says he’s fighting, fighting, fighting and achieving nothing, nothing, nothing,” said Vargas, who also joked about supporting the redrawing of the district in 2001 because “I wanted Bob to get a tan.”
On the issue of representing Hispanic, Vargas said he represents everyone but that it’s difficult to miss the fact that his name is Juan.
“I am very proud of my roots. The people have always supported me and I know they are going to support me again,” Vargas said in Spanish, generating the loudest applause of the evening.
A third candidate, Calexico businessman Danny Ramirez, did not participate in the debate. The primary election is June 6.
Juan Vargas, a former attorney, was elected to the San Diego City Council in 1993, where he represented the 8th District for eight years. He ran and was elected to represent the 79th District in the California Assembly. He was reelected in 2002 and will now have to leave his seat because of term limits.
In 1987, Filner, a former history professor, was elected to the San Diego City Council. Four years later, he was voted to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the 51st Congressional District, a seat he’s held for seven two-year terms.