Now that the presidential debates have turned increasingly acrimonius,

the 150 Eastern Oregon residents who trudged through the snow to the

Pendleton Convention Tuesday night may have come anticipating fireworks.

What they got instead was a surprisingly civil presentation from the

four Democratic candidates seeking to unseat U. S. Senator Gordon Smith.

Any frustration they may have wanted to share was collectively aimed at

the incumbent Republican senator from Pendleton - and even those shots

were fairly muffled.

The first Democratic debate, which was sponsored by the East Oregonian

and included a panel of reporters and editors asking the questions,

exposed U.S. Senate candidates' views on Eastern Oregon as well as

national issues.

The debate brought a strong response from the community. As 5:30 p.m. -

the start time for the forum - neared, convention center personnel had

to remove the back wall and double the available seating to around 150

chairs. The room was packed to the brim with people of all ages ready

to hear what candidates had to say.

Four candidates appeared for the hour-long forum at the Pendleton

Convention Center Tuesday evening. Each, it seemed, had aspects he or

she wanted to be sure voters heard.

Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley emphasized his working family

background from his upbringing in Myrtle Creek, while also hitting on

topics such as health care, veterans and keeping working-wage jobs in

Oregon.

"We need a senator who looks at the world the way you and I do,"

Merkley said. "Not through the lens of the boardroom but through the

lens of the working family. ... The issues I want to fight for are the

issues ordinary families discuss around the kitchen table."

David Loera, a naturalized American who was born in Mexico, spoke from

his background, citing his time living in Nyssa - where he graduated

from high school - as his introduction to Eastern Oregon.

Cindy Neville of Eugene spoke strongly against the War in Iraq.

"It is the one issue that is an absolute log jam," she said in her

introductory statement.

Steve Novick, a Portland lawyer, seemed to show himself as opposing

many of the policies he saw Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., standing for.

Smith was a major issue for all four Democrats.

Though the Pendleton native wasn't at the forum, his issues were front

and center in the candidates' answers.

"Sen. Smith is a good man, but I have problems with his voting record

and I don't think his votes have helped Eastern Oregon," Novick said.

He chastised Smith for not backing health care plans, for increasing

the national debt and ignoring global warming.

"I believe that Sen. Smith is connected to the real daily needs of the

people," Neville said. "But I do not think he has been open to putting

his strong effort into making sure Oregon is getting what it needs."

"We need to have somebody that will speak for children as well as the

migrant population," Loera said.

Some questions posed by the EO panel were specific to the region, such

as those addressing drawing water from the Columbia and working with

American Indian tribes.

Columbia River water

"I do think that we have to investigate the possibility of withdrawing

water from the Columbia in the winter ... and find ways to do

underground storage to help agriculture," Novick said. "We especially

have to start thinking about that given global warming."

Merkley cited the need for a "win-win" proposal to support both salmon

and farming. He suggested drawing water during high-flow times and

storing it or recharging aquifers. He also suggested getting federal

funding to repair pipes rather than using ditches.

Tribal support

All acknowledged the need to include the tribes as a support base and

consideration in policies. They also commended Smith for his work with

the tribes.

Merkley noted issues important to tribes - sovereignty, health care and

the health of streams and salmon.

"But many of the issues on reservations are, in fact, the same issues

we face in all of our communities," he said. "A family's aspiring to

have good family wage jobs, a family's aspiring to have health care, of

being able to set a foundation for children that will carry on to the

next generation."

Novick made special mention of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla

Indian Reservation and its efforts to bring salmon back to the Umatilla

River.

"Preserving the culture of the tribes is like the importance of

preserving the culture of rural Oregon, which is different from urban

Oregon," he said.

Among other major national issues were health care, education and the

Iraq war.

Health care

When it came to Medicare, candidates agreed more funding was needed to

keep doctors with patients.

"We absolutely need to raise reimbursement rates so doctors do not fire

their patients," Merkley said. "It doesn't matter what your plan says

on paper if you can't get the services available."

Novick suggested cutting costs elsewhere.

Neville suggested better funding.

"Raise the amount of money Medicare does pay so people who have been

working hard and diligently all their lifecontinue to get the kind of

respect when they go to the doctor that they've always had and

certainly deserve," Neville said.

Education

The EO panel asked candidates for their take on the No Child Left

Behind policy.

Neville said she believed the program was a good idea, but it was just

wired wrong. She wanted to see support for struggling schools rather

than sanctions.

Loera said teachers need to be paid more to keep them teaching rather

than pursuing other careers.

"Being a Latino from Mexican descent I see the difference in the

attitude children have toward teachers," he said. "They consider them

as people who are wise."

"It's causing our teachers to have to teach to the test rather than

providing a well-rounded program that stimulates the imagination and

creativity of our children," Merkley said. "And it's taking money away

from schools that most need the money to succeed. In that sense its a

perverse attack on the success of our schools."

Novick said he believed No Child Left Behind was a scheme to cause

privatization of schools, saying when public schools failed, there

would be a call for private vouchers.

"They never thought this was going to work," he said. "The idea was to

privatize education like they've privatized much of the Iraq war."

Iraq

When asked what policy they support in Iraq, all candidates said they

want to get troops out.

"We need to end the war in Iraq and we need to end it immediately,"

Merkley said.

Novick said the U.S. needs to get out but be ready for the consequences.

"We need to get out even knowing when we get out the civil war is

likely continue," he said. He also said the U.S. needed to make sure it

worked with other countries in the region to achieve stability.

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