The two candidates for Colorado's massive 3rd Congressional District sparred over water issues, taxes, immigration policies and campaign donors during a Club 20-sponsored debate Saturday.
The debate between Democratic state Rep. John Salazar and Republican Greg Walcher was the first of several scheduled debates leading up to the November election in what many view as a race with significant implications for both parties.
Salazar, a San Luis Valley potato farmer, continued his campaign practice of using his agricultural roots to identify himself as the candidate in touch with rural Colorado.
"Being a farmer, I've learned that if you want to improve your harvest, you must rotate your crops from time to time," Salazar told the crowd of more than 1,000 people. "It's time to rotate the legislative crop to ensure that all of us have a better harvest. It's time to send a real farmer to Congress."
Salazar said he was compelled to run for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis because of policies that have left 43 million Americans without health insurance and cost three million people their jobs during the past four years.
"In Congress we need more middle-income people who know how hard it is to make ends meet," Salazar said.
Walcher, former director of the state's Department of Natural Resources, said residents of the 3rd Congressional District need a congressman who will fix a federal government that's too big and intrusive.
"This may very well be the most diverse district in America," Walcher said, "and yet everywhere we go, people talk about the same issues. Everybody knows that our federal system has run off the rails, and they want someone who will do something about it."
The federal government taxes too much and has failed to properly and effectively manage its resources, Walcher said.
He emphasized his support for making President Bush's tax cuts permanent, continuing to fight the war on terrorism and defining marriage as a union between a man and woman.
"This race is a part of a historic national struggle, and we all know what's at stake," Walcher said. "We're dealing with a federal system that's steadily locking the public out of public lands, using the Endangered Species Act as a tool not to recover endangered species but to stop human activity, letting our national forests die, burn and fall down and destroy wildlife habitat and threaten our watersheds, and choking our economy with taxes and regulations and bureaucracy.
"In this time and place, in this generation, we can make a difference in things that matter to us."
Walcher, who has been heavily criticized for his support of Referendum A, a 2003 water initiative that failed badly on the Western Slope, sought to use the debate as an opportunity to attack Salazar on a water program he recently endorsed.
Walcher said the federal government should have a very limited role in anything that has to do with the state's water. He questioned Salazar's proposal for federal funding for water conservation easement programs and described it as selling state water to the federal government.
"Anyone who doesn't understand that with federal money comes federal strings and federal control doesn't belong in Congress," Walcher said.
Salazar said his proposal has nothing to do with selling state water to the federal government and said the biggest threat to Western Slope water is the Front Range, reminding the listeners that Walcher supported Referendum A.
On the issues of taxes, Salazar proposed tax cuts for people who earn less than $200,000 a year and businesses that provide health insurance to their employees.
"Trickle down economics don't work," Salazar said of Bush's tax cuts. "You must put money back into the pockets of the middle class."
Walcher, who supports making Bush's tax cuts permanent in addition to cutting other taxes, accused Salazar of having a long record of voting for tax hikes.
"We are a badly overtaxed people, and it's time we did something about it," Walcher said.
Walcher also said America needs to regain control of its borders.
"I don't think it's safe or smart to have 12 million people, in this day and age, running around our country," he said, referring to the estimated number of illegal immigrants in America. He called a legislative vote by Salazar that proposed tuition benefits for illegal immigrants an insult to taxpayers.
Salazar agreed with Walcher that illegal immigrants threaten homeland security, and he said he supports proposals from Bush to document and track illegal immigrants. But he also said illegal immigrants provide a great economic role in the country, prompting Walcher to question which side of the issue he was on.
The debate became more heated during time allotted for the candidates to cross examine each another. Walcher questioned Salazar on campaign contributions he's received from California lawmakers and Salazar deflected a question about the water program proposals he made to the Colorado Water Congress last month by reminding Walcher it was a meeting "you decided not to attend."
The candidates agreed on several issues, including that the Endangered Species Act needs revisions such as a strong recovery program for endangered animals and that a wolf reintroduction program doesn't belong in Colorado.
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