About 300 people attended the 4th District Congressional Debate in Hampton Monay night at the historic Windsor Theatre, just off the courthouse square. The marquee advertised the political contest between U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, and Ames Democrat Christie Vilsack. Daily Times Herald photo by Douglas Burns
About 300 people attended the 4th District Congressional Debate in Hampton Monay night at the historic Windsor Theatre, just off the courthouse square. The marquee advertised the political contest between U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, and Ames Democrat Christie Vilsack. Daily Times Herald photo by Douglas Burns
Tuesday, September 18, 2012

HAMPTON — In the 1913 Windsor Theatre in Hampton, with much of the set for a re-enactment of the Constitutional Convention as a backdrop, U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, Monday night launched fierce rhetorical fire at President Barack Obama, suggesting the Democrat is at odds with fundamental American institutions.

“Are we going to defend this Constitution that we celebrated here tonight or we going to watch it be ruined by a commander in chief who disrespects this Constitution, doesn’t believe in free enterprise and doesn’t believe in life and families?” King said.

The final words of the statement were somewhat drowned as a crowd of 300 people gathered for the 4th District Congressional Debate in this north-central Iowa county seat obscured King’s closing with boos and cheers — far more of the latter. The debate ended without any elaboration from King on the charges against the president. But the Republican congressman has been a staunch opponent of the Affordable Care Act and the Obama administration’s decision to stop the deportation of young undocumented immigrants in favor of a work-permitting process.

The Greater Franklin County Chamber of Commerce organized the debate — the third between King and Democratic candidate Christie Vilsack of Ames. The hour-long session, preceded by a two-man show on the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, focused largely on economic issues, but also delved into questions about voter ID and immigration reform.

“You don’t send spenders to Congress to solve the problem,” King said.

Vilsack said King, elected to represent a vast swath of western Iowa in 2002, has been part of an ineffective, spendthrift Congress that has not delivered a balanced budget.

“Congressman King has been there for 10 years and he hasn’t balanced this budget,” Vilsack said.

She said the clear path to a balanced budget is bipartisan compromise, getting elected officials into a room where super-charged rhetoric is set aside. A former teacher, Vilsack said she can fill that role in Congress.

“I spent most of my life with eighth-graders so I know how to deal with adolescent behavior,” Vilsack said.

King, who won five elections to the U.S. House with overwhelming numbers in decided Republican territory, played the familiarity card.

“The people that know me best support me the strongest,” King said.

King said he has support from the Iowa Corn Growers and Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

Vilsack repeated her call for King to return recent congressional pay raises, suggesting his $174,000-a-year salary keeps King out of touch with workaday Iowans.

“I want to promote your agenda,” Vilsack said. “He wants to promote his agenda.”

Since Jan. 1, 2009, the compensation for most U.S. representatives and senators has been $174,000, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. In 2003, when King was sworn in as a representative for the current 5th District, members of Congress earned $154,700.

Vilsack pressed her narrative that the 39 counties of the new 4th District deserve a representative who sees the position as intensely local. Vilsack said she would assist communities in attracting value-added agricultural enterprises and specifically mentioned a process for manufacturing asphalt that involves the use of hog manure.

King said he knows business in the way many Iowans do.

“I actually started a small business in 1975,” he said of King Construction, now operated by his family.

King also offered job seekers some advice.

“For those of you out there who don’t have a job, if you can’t find one, start a business,” King said. “You’ll feel good about yourself.”

Some of the more spirited comments of the evening came in response to questions on immigration.

“We need immigrants in this country and this state,” said Vilsack, who advocates what she called comprehensive immigration reform.

Vilsack said King’s rhetoric on immigration is destructive — a charge Vilsack said she hears across western and central Iowa from community leaders.

“They have certainly asked him to tone down his rhetoric,” Vilsack said.

King said the nation is being “fractured” by special interests on immigration, liberals with their sights set on amnesty and elements of  the business class (Republicans and Democrats, King said) looking for cheap labor from the hands of illegal immigrants. King said he has been working on “new IDEA” legislation — the Illegal Deduction Elimination Act — that he says will remove much of employers’ incentive for hiring illegal immigrants.

“Your $10-an-hour illegal now becomes a $16-an-hour illegal,” King said of the legislation crafted to prevent tax dodges on undocumented hires.

King said the United States must take a cold, hard, just-facts look at immigration.

“It isn’t about what your feelings are,” King said.

The candidates differed on proposals to require photo identification for voting.

King said Americans could certainly produce photos of themselves to elect the leader of the free world, considering that airports and car-rental establishment require such proof of ID. Vilsack said there are many situations, particularly with older people, where photo IDs just aren’t part of everyday life. Requiring photo IDs at polling places disenfranchises many Americans, Vilsack said.

“We should do everything we possibly can to encourage every person to vote,” Vilsack said.