United In Opposition

District 5's Democratic Contenders Agree On Most Things, Especially Getting Rid Of Jim Kolbe.

THE LARGEST distinction between the Democratic candidates in the District 5 Congressional primary race is one of style. George Cunningham lays out his political experience in a methodical monotone while frequently referring to statistics and figures. Mary Judge Ryan is a self-proclaimed "uppity little lady" who believes one reason people should vote for her is that she has run two marathons.

While Ryan, as the political newcomer in the race, has sought to very gently point out some differences between her and Cuningham, the two candidates do substantially agree on many issues. Their major disagreement is with current Congressman Jim Kolbe, who Cunningham says votes with the "extreme element of the Republican Party" while "masquerading as a moderate." Ryan characterizes Kolbe as not representing the people of the district on issues such as health care, education, Social Security and immigration policy.

Those four topics are clearly the two Democrats' strategy for trying to defeat the incumbent in November. But first they must face each other in next month's primary, and when talking about issues, Cunningham and Ryan both try to stick very close to their campaign scripts.

As for what each sees as the major differences between them, Ryan says she's not a career politician, but has experience in education and as a lawyer. She also lists her opposition to the death penalty, her stance on gun issues, and her approach to health care reform as her chief disagreements with Cunningham.

Ryan's literature, unlike her opponent's, also mentions preservation of the Sonoran Desert as a campaign theme. "We are at a critical point in protecting our quality of life in southern Arizona," Ryan says, and if we're not careful, we "could soon have just a hot, paved place here. We need to balance protecting the desert with our economic health."

After serving four years in the Arizona State House and another four in the Senate, George Cunningham naturally points to his political experience as a major difference between the two. This background, he says, has given him a proven track record of effectiveness, particularly in achieving tax equity for Pima County and passing legislation that permitted a vote on downtown's Rio Nuevo project.

Cunningham's printed material also lists stimulating the economy as a major issue. Among those who have recognized his service in the legislature are the Arizona Subcontractors Association and the Arizona Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.

When asked about issues not related to the top four of education, Social Security, immigration and health care, both candidates appear somewhat surprised, with Cunningham wondering, "Where did these (other) issues come from?"

Despite that, they agree that the North American Free Trade Agreement should have included protections of human and workers' rights along with environmental safeguards. Neither of them, however, is willing to take a position on whether NAFTA has been beneficial or not for southern Arizona. They both also support reducing trade restrictions against Cuba, with Ryan stating, "The sanctions victimize the people of Cuba, and they don't work."

Cunningham and Ryan also both oppose the recently vetoed legislation ending the estate tax and so-called marriage penalty. Both believe the bills went too far in granting enormous tax cuts for the wealthy, while potentially placing the country's budget surplus at risk. Cunningham remarks, "The marriage penalty should be eliminated, but the Republicans loaded it with other tax cuts for high-end income families."

Concerning the controversial issue of gun legislation, Ryan publicly takes the tougher stand. She lists adopting sensible federal gun safety measures such as load indicators, gun locks and speedy but mandatory background checks at gun shows as one of her priorities and explains, "A toy Uzi has more manufacturing regulations than a real Uzi. Even teddy bears are more heavily regulated than guns."

While Cunnginham does not include gun safety in his campaign material, privately he agrees with Ryan on the need for additional regulations. "It should be illegal to give or sell a semi-automatic weapon to anyone under 18," he says. Then, after citing that 1,300 people were killed and 16,000 more were injured in accidental shootings in 1995, he adds, "If a gun falls on the ground, it shouldn't go off."

Both candidates think more needs to be done to protect personal privacy, which they say is especially vulnerable because of the widespread use of Social Security numbers as identifiers. Cunningham says he backed efforts to limit the Arizona Motor Vehicle Department's use of the SSN as a drivers license number, and would support restrictions on the use of the number by the private sector. Ryan agrees that more legislation might be needed, but thinks an effort to educate people about their rights to withhold their Social Security number should be tried first. But she admits that may not work.

While Cunningham is the one who lists raising the minimum wage as a priority in his campaign literature, it is Ryan who has a more specific stance on the issue. To enable workers to support a family, she would like to see the minimum wage, currently at $5.15, increased gradually to $7.15 an hour. She adds that her opponent voted against increasing the minimum wage a few years ago.

Cunningham says he would support any small increase in the wage, but thinks that phasing in a $1-an-hour increase is the way to go. As for Ryan's claim that he voted against a raise in the wage, he explains that his opposition was to the 1997 voter initiative in Tucson, which would have imposed a $7-an-hour minimum wage in the city. In Cunningham's opinion, that would have created a competitive disadvantage for businesses located inside the city limits.

On the four issues identified by both candidates as important--health care, education, Social Security and immigration policy--the differences between them are small, but meaningful. These differences reflect both their experience as well as their approaches to achieving results.

Cunningham and Ryan both support higher pay for public-school teachers. He also endorses smaller classroom sizes, more funding for Head Start, and increased financial assistance for post-high school education. She wants to see "educators create and institute performance-based programs," and points to her classroom experience as one reason that she knows what it takes to solve educational problems.

While both candidates oppose school vouchers, when Cunningham discusses them, he becomes uncharacteristically impassioned. School vouchers, he says, "would divide the country and sow the seeds of social discord."

Both Ryan and Cunningham also share similar views on ensuring the future of the Social Security program, with Cunningham proposing that part of the enormous federal surplus be used to make the program solvent for generations to come. He would also like to use part of the surplus to pay off the federal debt in the next two decades, while at the same time gradually offering universal health care coverage.

The two candidates diverge somewhat when they discuss illegal immigration along the border. She thinks the present policy is a failure and proposes to solve the problem by having the District 5 Congressional representative bring together the various interests involved with the issue--residents, business people, ranchers--from both sides of the border to discuss solutions. She believes that answers at the local level will emerge from these meetings, the solutions also possibly requiring new federal legislation.

Ryan is cautious in her opinion toward expanding a guest-worker program for immigrants. She raises several questions: Who would be allowed in, an individual or an entire family? Would these people be provided with social services in this country? How would it be ensured that they leave? Plus, Ryan insists, these guest workers must not be allowed to become second-class citizens in the United States.

Cunningham agrees that these workers should not be exploited, but supports the idea of expanding the guest-worker program. Pointing out that many illegal immigrants are just doing what Irish and other European people did 150 years ago when they came to this country looking for a better life, he says the current enforcement policy of agents and walls is devoid of compassion.

Cunningham also supports trying to persuade the Mexican government "to encourage more private investment and to invest more of its own resources in northern Mexico." In addition, Cunningham wants to direct additional efforts toward catching the smugglers of illegal immigrants.

While the two candidates express many of the same sentiments about health-care reform, this is the issue where Ryan is most critical of Cunningham. She says that people need a "meaningful" right to sue their HMO if real change in medical service delivery is to occur. "The threat," she says, "of potential lawsuits ensures that health-care companies will consider the economic cost of denying health care rather than the benefits of denying it as they do now."

For his part, Cunningham believes this is actually what was accomplished in recent state legislation that he supported. While Ryan calls the right-to-sue standard contained in this bill "impossible to meet," Cunningham argues that it was written with the approval of trial lawyers, who proposed the bill's "reasonable basis" for suing. If this provision is so weak, he asks, why did most of the HMOs oppose the legislation?

While this difference of opinion may balance on political minutia, the two candidates do have some other significant distinctions. At public events, after eight years in the Arizona State Legislature, Cunningham is introduced as "well-known and hardly needing an introduction"; "We've all known George for years," the emcees say.

Ryan is clearly the newcomer to politics, but she talks with enthusiasm about her willingness to take on Jim Kolbe, and how she has called him on his positions on issues such as education and gun control. She says emphatically, "I can beat the incumbent."

Money is another difference between the two campaigns. Cunningham has considerably more available, and plans to spend $150,000 on the primary. His expenses include two full-time paid staff people, an aggressive attempt at getting people to vote early in the election, and glossy, colorful campaign literature.

Ryan plans to spend at least $110,000 on the race and has a much more subdued-looking campaign flyer. But what she lacks in cash she makes up for in spunk, claiming, "Many Republicans are switching their registrations in order to vote for me in the primary."

Whichever Democratic candidate emerges victorious on September 12 will face the formidable task of trying to unseat the eight-term incumbent, Jim Kolbe. But, as Cunningham points out, in presidential election years Democrats tend to vote in large numbers.