Democratic congressional candidates Anita Perez Ferguson and Kevin Sweeney did not waste much time before going on the attack in their first campaign debate Thursday at Moorpark College.
Perez Ferguson, 43, of Oxnard, and Sweeney, 33, of Ventura, are competing in the June 2 Democratic primary in the new 23rd Congressional District, which includes Carpinteria and all of Ventura County except Thousand Oaks.
Speaking before more than 100 students in a contemporary urban affairs class, Perez Ferguson challenged Sweeney to explain to the students "why you fought against the opportunity for them to get their education at a four-year college."
Sweeney, an environmental activist, helped lead a successful effort against building a state university on Taylor Ranch, an ocean-view bluff west of the city of Ventura. Moorpark College is a two-year school.
Sweeney said he is not against a four-year college in Ventura County. He said he opposed taking "a beautiful hillside and putting a university next to it. . . . We should save it for future generations of Americans." Cal State University trustees are now focusing on a campus site between Camarillo and Oxnard.
Sweeney fired back, declaring that, as of March 31, more than half of Perez Ferguson's campaign contributions--$12,900--was generated by special-interest political action committees. He asked her if she saw anything wrong with accepting special-interest donations and if she thought there should be stricter limits on PAC contributions.
Perez Ferguson, an education consultant, said she did not "have a lot of political consultants like yourself to run my campaign," and therefore had to rely on grass-roots financial support.
"Working men and women have contributed through their PACs," she said. Perez Ferguson calculated that PAC money coming from unions and the National Women's Political Caucus, of which she is an official, averaged $2.50 per person. "I don't think $2.50 is too much for a working man or woman to give to my campaign."
Perez Ferguson's barb about Sweeney's experience as a "political consultant" brought a swift reaction.
"I'm not a political consultant," Sweeney said. "It's just not who I am. I'm all about leveling the playing field in politics. . . . I'm a political activist. I don't get paid for it."
Sweeney was press secretary during former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's second presidential campaign. While living in Ventura, he also helped pro-environmental candidates, such as Ventura County Supervisor Maria VanderKolk and three Ventura City Council candidates, to win their races.
As for the winner of the debate, moderator Jerry Straughan, an urban studies professor, said: "I don't know. It flowed well. They both thought well on their feet."