TURLOCK -- They swapped accusations about tax liens and voting records, they criticized each other's partisan politics, and each assured he would be the best choice to represent the 10th Congressional District in Washington.
Monday night's face-off between Republican Jeff Denham and Democrat Jose Hernandez was a spirited forum that clearly demonstrated their divergent views on government.
The League of Women Voters of Stanislaus County tried to keep the evening civil, but the crowd and the candidates repeatedly broke the format's rules.
The contenders dodged several questions in favor of taking pot shots at each other. And the 140-member audience, which seemed to be equally divided politically, kept interrupting with cheers, applause and grumbling dissent despite being warned to stay silent.
Without giving any details, Hernandez accused Denham of owing tax liens. After the debate, Hernandez's staff provided details about a $31,982 IRS lien imposed in 2003 on Bin Doctor LLC, plus liens imposed by Monterey County's tax collector in 1997 for $62 and in 2003 for $1,061.
Denham's campaign staff members said Hernandez is mistaken. They said Bin Doctor is owned by Thomas Denham, Jeff's brother, and the congressman has never been one of the company's owners or officers. The $62 tax reportedly was for a jet ski that Denham no longer owned, so he did not owe the tax and the lien was cleared long ago. The staff said the $1,061 lien was for a company, 1 Planet Recycling, that closed years ago, and Denham "does not believe any taxes were owed."
Hernandez has had more recent tax lien problems, and Denham charged Monday night that his opponent didn't pay unemployment taxes for two years. In 2010, the IRS imposed a $10,813 federal tax lien on the Mexican restaurant Hernandez and his wife owned in Texas. Those taxes were paid and the lien lifted in August 2011, a month before Hernandez announced his run for Congress.
The two men also traded accusations about voting records and questionable spending. Hernandez said Denham charged taxpayers "over $1,000 in hotel bills to go on TV to talk about government waste." Overnight stays in San Francisco and Sacramento in the spring reportedly enabled Denham to participate in early-morning TV shows about controversial spending by the federal Government Services Agency.
Denham, in turn, blasted Hernandez for having skipped voting in 13 elections during his last decade in Texas. One of those missed elections in 2005 included a proposition to ban same-sex marriage.
In response to a question Monday about gay marriage, Hernandez said: "When there are two people who love each other, I think they should have the same rights as a married couple."
Denham, by contrast, said he voted for California's Proposition 22 in 2000, which "defined a marriage as between a man and a woman."
The candidates sparred over whether government should be managed like a business.
"A business only worries about one thing: the bottom line," said Hernandez, adding that the government needs to be more compassionate.
Denham jumped on Hernandez's contention that businesses focus only on money. "I care about my employees," insisted Denham, who owns a small agricultural plastics company in Salinas.
A question about raising taxes sparked more dissent. Both men said all should pay their fair share, but their opinions about what is fair apparently differ.
It's wrong for millionaires to pay a lower tax rate than middle-class families, Hernandez insisted. "We've got to find a way to bring in more money."
Rather than raising taxes, Denham proposed getting rid of tax loopholes. He noted that taxes next year could soar if an agreement isn't reached.
"The estate tax would destroy every farm here in the valley if it goes up to 55 percent," Denham warned. He said raising taxes on farms and small businesses would reduce jobs. "Not even Nancy Pelosi, your biggest supporter, wants that."
But Hernandez questioned Denham's commitment to helping farmers: "He's done a lot of talking, but we haven't seen any results. They can't even get a farm bill passed."
Monday's event on the California State University, Stanislaus, campus was the first public debate between the candidates. No other forums have been announced.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2196.