Any political consultant will tell you there is little reason for an incumbent to debate a challenger. In a live forum, there is the remote chance an incumbent will say something that backfires, which is why some politicians won't debate unless they are in a competitive race and fear losing office. In 2004, Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., beat GOP challenger George Bruno with 72 percent of the vote to Bruno's 24 percent -- so you have to credit Stark for appearing at a League of Women Voters debate at Fremont's Comcast studios Thursday.
I showed up to see if Stark's infamous big mouth would run wild during the debate, which Comcast plans to air sometime after Labor Day.
Allow me to report that viewers who tune into the debate will not see Stark unhinged. They will not see the congressman who in 1995 called moderate GOP Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut "a whore for the insurance industry."
Viewers will not see the congressman who in 1990 called Health and Human Services Director Louis Sullivan, who is black, a "disgrace to his race." They also will not see the congressman who incorrectly asserted that the children of another African-American, then-GOP Rep. J.C. Watts, were all "born out of wedlock."
Viewers also will not see that model of decorum who, during a 2003 Ways and Means Committee debate, denounced the committee chairman as a "fascist" and called a fellow lawmaker "a fruitcake" as he challenged him to a fight.
They also won't see the man who greeted the news about the death of terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi by telling The Washington Times it was a stunt "to cover Bush's (rear) so he doesn't have to answer" for Iraqi civilians being killed.
I saw a civil exchange between two men with different beliefs. Stark opposes the war in Iraq and wants to bring U.S. troops home immediately. He believes the Patriot Act "trashed the Constitution." Last month, he proudly introduced a universal health care plan.
Bruno can't imagine Stark's health plan working. Although the district is heavily Democratic, Bruno defended Iraq war spending. He also highlighted good-government issues, such as his desire to fight eminent-domain abuses and his disappointment in President Bush's failure to veto wanton Washington spending bills.
Bruno did hit Stark for being out of touch with the 13th district. Few would accuse Stark of overworking his constituency. Or, as KTVU's Ross McGowan told Stark Friday, it was nice to see Stark "in person once in a while."
To recap: Stark is rude and remote. But wait, there's more, he's irrelevant. "Other than criticism from the sidelines," reads The Almanac of American Politics 2006, "he played little role in the debate on the Medicare/prescription drug bill in 2003" -- and health care is supposed to be Stark's signature issue.
Stark, who was first elected in 1972, has to work at being irrelevant in an institution built on seniority. Then again, how can Stark tout his seniority when he is busy bashing Republicans for being "elderly white males"? (Yes, the congressman needs a mirror.)
GOP analyst Allan Hoffenblum told me that because Democrats are unhappy with Stark, there was talk last year of finding a name primary challenger. Didn't happen. Noting that Stark first won office by beating an 81-year-old incumbent, Hoffenblum mused, "Maybe when (Stark) turns 81, some upstart will defeat him."
Why not mention Stark's puerile vocabulary? I asked Bruno Monday. He answered that he didn't want to turn off voters by being "too negative." I wonder: After you've lost by 48 points, why not take the risk?
On the other hand, maybe Bruno is onto something. He could try this for a slogan: Behaves in public.
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