FAIRBANKS - Democratic candidates for Congress stuck largely to energy issues - and, when the chance arose, blasted incumbent Republican Rep. Don Young - at a Sunday night debate in Fairbanks.
The candidates, Diane Benson and Ethan Berkowitz, avoided attacks on each other and instead stuck the target on Washington politics and Young, whose 35 years in the U.S. House of Representatives have collected mounting political baggage.
"The whole system needs a thorough cleaning," Benson told the crowd of approximately 60 people at Pioneer Park.
Both candidates also said the state and country should increase energy production and invest in renewable projects to insulate their respective economies. Berkowitz said lower energy costs would leave people with more money to invest, spend and put their kids through school.
"It doesn't matter to me if it's gas coming down from the North Slope or renewables or maybe some kind of technology that we're just learning about today," he said. "Let's start doing it for ourselves."
Berkowitz spent a decade in the state Legislature until 2006, and Benson occasionally used the 90-minute debate to paint herself as an alternative to the "career politician," who, she suggested, gives too much consideration to big business and forgets to connect with constituents.
At one point, Benson implied Berkowitz has taken more contributions from big business, a statement that prompted Berkowitz to respond that almost 70 percent of his campaign's 2,000-plus contributions have come from Alaskans.
"I challenge anybody running to do what I've done," he said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has listed Berkowitz as one of the candidates it expects to capture a House seat currently held by a Republican. He also recently earned the endorsement of the state's AFL-CIO.
Benson, a onetime truck driver and the mother of a soldier severely injured in Iraq, earned more than 40 percent of the vote in the 2006 race against Young. She referred to herself Sunday as a valedictorian from the school of hard knocks.
The two candidates stopped short of criticizing candidates other than Young, who is being challenged in the Republican primary by Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell and state Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux.
The debate wound through topics including foreign policy, education and health care. It seemed to return time and again, however, to energy - the price of fuel, heating oil and other petroleum products, and available options such as geothermal and tidal power.
Berkowitz said he wants to be part of a coalition looking to help deliver a long-discussed natural gas pipeline to North American energy markets.
"Energy is going to be the answer for Fairbanks and for Alaska," he said.
Benson said Gov. Sarah Palin's proposed cash payout to help state residents cover energy bills this winter is "probably necessary" but acknowledged a long-term plan is needed.
Berkowitz questioned whether a one-time cash assistance would set up problematic expectations for future years and, as had Benson, said renewables have untapped potential for a state that can establish itself as a model of energy independence. He pointed to agencies including the Fairbanks-based nonprofit Cold Climate Housing Research Center as groups developing ground-level conservation plans.
"We just need to be more aggressive and smart," he said. "That's the Alaska way. That's the American way."
Benson said she'd like to see Congress focus on the use of tax credits to promote alternative energy. When asked how Congress can help strengthen a cloudy economy, she said there were "so many directions to take," eventually citing increased domestic energy production and reducing costs associated with the Iraq war.
"By the one action of refocusing ourselves with regard to the war ... we'll do better," she said.
Both Democrats used a moderator's question about Congressional earmarks to criticize Young, who has held Alaska's lone House seat since 1973. Each said they're not opposed to earmarks - if lawmakers start following a more transparent earmark process - and Berkowitz noted earmarks have helped fund the state's federally supported Denali KidCare health care program.
Benson cited the unwanted attention Young's role in securing earmarks for the so-called "bridges to nowhere" and a highway interchange study in Florida have brought to Alaska. She also pointed to his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others who have been indicted on corruption charges.
"I think that says a lot about the individual and the ethics," Benson said.
The candidates both characterized the president's decision to send troops to Iraq as a mistake. Berkowitz said the country should re-engage in Afghanistan, withdraw from Iraq and remain prepared to act if the country is threatened or attacked again.
"America's continued presence in Iraq is not making us safer," he said, adding that the Iraq war is also draining the United States' ability to compete in tough economic times.
Benson said Congress failed in its duty to oversee war contractors and the Bush administration failed to listen to generals who sounded warning bells about the war.
"The question is how are we going to get out of it," she said. "Are we going to pick a war with Iran? I hope not."
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