Congressional candidates Bill Sali and Larry Grant clashed on everything from wages to health care to terrorism, as each sought to define himself in their first head-to-head debate Friday night in Coeur d’Alene.
“If Mr. Sali goes to Congress, he moves his party to the right,” said Grant, a Democrat who called himself a “fiscal conservative and a social moderate.” “If I go to Congress, I move my party closer to the middle,” he said.
Sali said, “I am a free-market, pro-growth, social conservative.” He decried government growth, “the breakup of the family” and “moral decline.”
The two sparred before a full house of more than 200 at North Idaho College.
“For those who want politics as usual, I’m not going to get along with them,” Sali declared.
Grant said national political pundits are now saying it’s a “foregone conclusion” that Democrats will retake the majority in the House. “If that’s the case, then it might be very important for Idaho to have at least one member in the majority party,” he said.
Sali is a longtime state representative from Kuna, while Grant, of Fruitland, is a former vice president of Micron Technology. Both men are attorneys. Also running for the seat are independent Dave Olson, United Party candidate Andy Hedden-Nicely and Constitution Party candidate Paul Smith.
All are seeking a rare prize: an open congressional seat. Idaho’s 1st District seat in Congress is open because its current occupant, three-term Rep. Butch Otter, decided to run for governor rather than seek re-election.
The Sali-Grant debate was co-sponsored by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the North Idaho College Popcorn Forum, and the audience included everyone from members of a tribal youth group to local legislators to students.
John Schwandt, of Coeur d’Alene, and his wife, Donna, came to watch. “I just wanted to hear what each of them had to say,” said Schwandt, a forester and 30-year local resident. “You see the brochures, but that doesn’t really tell you anything.”
The two candidates were questioned by a panel that included an NIC student journalist, a Coeur d’Alene tribal council member, a Spokesman-Review editorial writer and a Coeur d’Alene press editor. Student journalist Noah Buntain asked both candidates how they’d ensure every American can get a job and earn a living wage.
Sali said, “I don’t think it’s government’s job to ensure that people have a job at all.” Instead, he said, government should ensure a healthy economy so businesses can thrive. “Businesses should be in the business of providing jobs,” Sali said.
He asserted that the only reason people want higher wages is because the cost of government is rising. “That cost of government is getting built into everything – it’s built into this table,” he said. “We ought to keep the government out of the business of establishing what your wage should be.”
Grant said, “Businesses are not in the business of creating jobs – they’re in the business of making money.” Government, he said, can use tax policy and regulation to “shape corporate behavior.”
“I disagree that wages are low because of the cost of government,” Grant said. “Wages are low because employers will pay you as little as they have to.”
Sali came out against allowing prescription drugs to be reimported from Canada, noting a recent case that turned up fake drugs. He said the way to lower prescription drug costs is to choose generic, rather than name-brand drugs. “If you’re going to buy name-brand drugs … you’re going to pay more money. That’s the long and short of it,” he said.
Grant called for allowing groups of insurers, unions, health care consortiums and others to negotiate for better prices with drug companies, and said that model has worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs. He also backed allowing imports from Canada.
“The fact is, prescription drugs are not a free market,” Grant said. “There really isn’t any competition with prescription drugs.”
Asked about the war on terror, Grant called the current strategy “flawed.” He said, “Here we are fighting a conventional war in Iraq under the guise of fighting terrorism.” That won’t work, he said, “unless you are prepared to put a lot of people on the ground and leave them there forever.”
Sali said the war on terror won’t end until “there are no more Islamic fundamentalists who believe that they need to kill everyone who is a Christian or an infidel – it’s going to last that long.”
Sali said he supported Otter’s initial vote against the Patriot Act but said: “The question is, does our Constitution work for terrorists? I don’t believe it does.”
Grant warned against targeting people over beliefs. “People have the right to believe whatever they want,” he said. “The war on terror will end when those folks stop acting on those beliefs. That’s a very important distinction to make.”
Sali responded by asking the audience how they liked having the Aryan Nations compound “right in your backyard.” “There’s danger with thoughts,” Sali said. “Ideas have consequences, and until those ideas change, we’ll have a war on terrorism.”
The election is Nov. 7.