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1st District debate: Setting markers

Debate at Forest Grove
Debate in Forest Grove: from left, Lisa Michaels, Jim Greenfield (behind Michaels), Rob Cornilles, Brad Avakian, Suzanne Bonamici and Brad Witt (photo/Randy Stapilus)

If you’re a candidate, and in a crowd, you want to stand out. Preferably in a good way. The five candidates in the special election for Oregon’s 1st district U.S. House seat at Sunday’s debate in Forest Grove all stood out, in their various ways.

The debate at Pacific University was not the first of the campaign, but it was one of the first (maybe the first) to feature candidates from both major parties – three each, Democrats (Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, state Senator Suzanne Bonamici and state Representative Brad Witt) and Republicans (businessman and 2010 nominee Rob Cornilles, Jim Greenfield and Lisa Michaels). The crowd numbered about 60, was well split between partisan supporters, and had lots of patience: The 90-minute forum for public questions followed a nearly 90-minute endorsement interview session for the Forest Grove paper (a Pamplin newspaper; that chain is substantial in Washington County).

In style, Cornilles and Avakian seemed most polished, organized and confident.

The three Democrats differed by degrees on several issues, but not dramatically. Witt was a little stiff and programmatic at first, but settled into a solid comfort level as the debate went on. Bonamici wasn’t far off the mark but by comparison seemed to have a soft night in several places. Top issue for all three was employment and the economy, and all favored federal infrastructure spending as a key in the solution. (Bonamici ran through a string of ideas, but didn’t put the pieces together.) The Democrats got into no scrapes.

The three Republicans were another story.

Cornilles sounded in several places (not all) just a few degrees away from Democratic. (His major specific shot at the Democrats was that “I’m not a lawyer turned politician turned congressional candidate,” a description that does cover Avakian and Bonamici.) He took a number of shots at Republicans in Congress, and described the state of jobs and the economy in terms that weren’t far from the Democrats. As for the Occupy Wall Street (and Portland) demonstrations, he said that to the extent the protesters were blasting bank bailouts, undue benefits to corporations and the shipping of jobs overseas, “If that’s what they’re protesting, I join them.” (Avakian and Witt said they attended Portland Occupy events, and Bonamici spoke approvingly.)

[ADDENDUM: A Bonamici staffer did call to point that Bonamici, who was in Portland as the Occupy events unfolded, walked and talked with some of the demonstrators as well, also attending part of the event.]

The other two Republicans gave no quarter from a hard-line viewpoint, regularly referencing the Constitution and founder fathers. Greenfield suggested that Cornilles was a Democratic-style tax and borrower and even that he ought to run in the Democratic primary. Greenfield and Michaels said they would sign anti-tax pledges; Cornilles said he would not. Michaels said that “I’m a conservative. Jim’s a conservative” – but she declined to say so of Cornilles, a sharp blast in a Republican constituency.

The most striking distinction between the parties as a whole had to do with Israel. The Democrats called, in slightly different terms, for a two-state solution. The Republicans said they stood with Israel and made clear that, at best, they didn’t trust the Palestinians. Michaels made maybe the hardest-edged statement of the evening on that subject, saying “a lot of what the Islamic religion teaches is murdering people.”

Many more debates ahead.

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