Ashton: Berryhill flunks debate with rival

08/23/2010 12:27 AM

08/23/2010 3:29 AM

Republican Mike Berryhill has a lot of opinions, but he hasn't found his voice as he tries to unseat Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

That was evident Friday as the two debated for an endorsement from the Latino Community Roundtable in Modesto. Berryhill seemed to campaign against President Barack Obama instead of against the Merced Demo- crat, but was on his heels while Cardoza stood up for his votes.

"I want my 11 grand- children," Berryhill said, pausing to name each one, "to grow up in America, the same America you and I grew up in, not America the socialist state.

"Today we are at a tipping point. It's clear we need a complete change in Congress."

His ideas to boost the economy: Roll back Democratic legislation and cut taxes on capital gains.

That sums up where Berryhill, a farmer and former Turlock Irrigation District director, has been over the past year -- a heavy dose of partisanship mixed with broad ideas from the GOP base. His Web site advertises his views on plans for a mosque near ground zero (opposed), gay marriage (opposed and seeking a constitutional amendment to ban it), and Obama's efforts to cull unneeded nuclear weapons (opposed).

Those are all hot-button issues, but they come off as unfocused given the San Joaquin Valley's sobering unemployment rate and continued housing crisis.

He launched his bid a year ago by declaring, "We cannot have a member of Congress representing the Central Valley who is more concerned with protecting a 3-inch fish and Nancy Pelosi than in protecting the jobs and future of our families and farms."

It's in Berryhill's interest to make this race about Obama and House Speaker Pelosi of San Francisco. He can make that case based on Cardoza's status on the House Rules Committee, an influential post that calls on him to vote with Pelosi when it matters most.

But Cardoza isn't Pelosi, and he drilled home his local credentials at the roundtable.

For starters, Cardoza demonstrated the advantages of incumbency by touting his work to maintain support for the University of California at Merced as a job-generating research school for the San Joaquin Valley. He highlighted federally funded economic stimulus projects, outlined his collaborative work with valley Republicans to open spigots for farms in spite of the environmental regulations Berryhill loathes, and he talked circles around his opponent on the finer points of bills before Congress.

That's to be expected, and if you want the kind of change Berryhill advertises, Cardoza's experience isn't going to help him get your vote.

But Berryhill dropped the ball on a question about which bills in Congress would help reform immigration. Given the audience, this question was one he knew was coming.

Instead of saying how he'd reform immigration, he vented about Mexico's drug war. That let Cardoza jab, "How can you say you want to represent the people in Congress if you don't know where you stand on the immigration bills in Congress?"

Cardoza laid out his priorities -- border enforcement, guest workers and a path to citizenship that keeps families together. Berryhill then said he agreed with Cardoza

on an immigra- tion platform that generally lines up with San Joaquin Valley needs.

Cardoza also took an opportunity to punch back at Berryhill's attempts to lump him with far left Democrats. He cited a Modesto Bee report that showed high salaries at the Turlock Irrigation District and dissed Berryhill for awarding them while approving rate increases.

Berryhill said the TID salaries are based on performance, and he highlighted the utility's comparably low electricity rates.

But, as Cardoza said, "People who live in glass houses shouldn't be casting stones about mismanagement."

Here's the nonpartisan good news about their sparring: We're fortunate to see Cardoza explain what's been happening in Washington while Berryhill holds his feet to the fire. Cardoza was unopposed two years ago and had a relatively unknown opponent in 2006.

Today's challenges, from war to water to deficits, are too serious for him to get another free pass.

Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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