By Michele Clock
Democrat Francine Busby questioned Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray's integrity and leadership during a raucous debate Monday night while the incumbent rejected such talk and said he was focused on improving the economy and creating jobs.
Busby attacked Bilbray right at the start of the forum, suggesting he was ethically challenged and citing a Capitol Hill cigar club he sponsored that may have been led in part by lobbyists.
"I think he's been there for 15 years, I think a lot of things have changed," she said. "I think the fact that he founded this cigar association that is letting lobbyists come in and spend thousands, tens of thousands of dollars on lavish parties, and let them in with the backdoor to influence members of Congress is a betrayal of the trust of the integrity of the people here."
Bilbray said he is running to continue to tackle problems such as high unemployment and what he said was excessive government spending. He dismissed what he called "politicians wanting to take cheap shots."
"If you think you've got enough jobs in San Diego, if you think we're not taxed enough, vote Busby," Bilbray said.
The Carlsbad Republican first came under fire for sponsoring the cigar club this summer, but has said his involvement in the group was minimal and that the club was to be run by congressional staffers.
He said that he had been unaware of any lobbying efforts and that he had taken steps to end any.
Busby said Monday the 50th Congressional District deserved a representative who was "honest" and worked hard, saying she did not want a repeat of the bribery scandal with former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who was forced out of office and is now in federal prison.
This is the third time Bilbray and Busby have faced each other in this district, including the 2006 special election won by Bilbray to replace Cunningham. Bilbray had served in Congress earlier.
About 400 people packed into a theater at Del Norte High School in San Diego's 4S Ranch for the debate Monday, which was hosted by the San Diego North Chamber of Commerce.
The crowd cheered and jeered at times as Busby and Bilbray locked horns.
Libertarian candidate Lars Grossmith, a mortgage finance advisor, and Miriam Clark, a Peace & Freedom candidate and retired juvenile officer, also participated.
Among the broad range of topics discussed during the debate was gun control, which was an especially sensitive topic following the recent school shooting in Carlsbad. Busby said that she respects the Second Amendment of the Constitution but didn't approve of taking concealed weapons into schools.
She said didn't believe "we need assault weapons in a civilized society" and is in favor of "reasonable restrictions" on firearms.
Bilbray said he thought all amendments to the Constitution should be recognized, including the Second. He said they all amendments should have "the same amount of respect and the same amount of weight."
Grossmith, meanwhile, was the most forceful in his support for the right to bear arms, claiming that higher rates of gun ownership could even lead to reduced rates of crime.
Clark said she objected to the idea of personal ownership of such weapons as machine guns.
The four candidates are vying to represent a district that stretches north and east from northern San Diego to include Carlsbad, Vista and Escondido. Bilbray has an advantage when it comes to voter registration. About 41 percent of voters are registered Republican, while nearly 31 percent are registered Democrat, according to the latest data from the county registrar's office. Another nearly 24 percent are independents.