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ELECTION 2012:

Horsford-Tarkanian bout for Congress dominated by debt issues — but not the country’s

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Steve Marcus

Candidates for the state’s 4th Congressional District Steven Horsford, left, and Danny Tarkanian debate at Temple Sinai of Las Vegas in Summerlin Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012. The temple’s Men’s Club sponsored the debate.

It might seem appropriate that at a time when Congress’ chief task is to figure out how to pull the country back from the edge of the fiscal cliff, the race in Nevada’s newest congressional district is coming down to a difference over financial matters.

Except they’re not the type of financial matters that become policy in Washington.

In the past several weeks, the race between Republican Danny Tarkanian and Democrat Steven Horsford has been dominated by headlines about the Tarkanian family’s $17 million legal troubles over old land holdings. And as the court documents keep coming, Tarkanian has been pointing an increasingly accusing finger at Horsford for unpaid debts he incurred while in his 20s.

"My opponent failed to pay his (bills) 15 times during his adult life, has failed to pay bills that he had and he was sued on, and went to collections," Tarkanian said in the most recent debate between the two candidates.

In an interview, he described his own family as being a victim of “unfortunate circumstances” because of the downturn in the economy while classifying Horsford’s financial troubles as “intentional ethical lapses.”

“Let's be clear. My challenges were a result of a car accident in my 20s when I was working my way through college,” Horsford countered in a later interview. “My opponent is a 50-year-old attorney who defaulted on a $17 million loan because of a lack of due diligence on his part and a pattern of shady business dealing.”

“The question I have and that voters will ask is: Can they trust Danny Tarkanian to look out for them, or will he be more focused on his bankruptcy?”

Tarkanian has not yet said whether he would file for bankruptcy, though his seriously ill brother, George Tarkanian, did earlier this summer, listing the $17 million judgement as his largest liability. The family’s lawyers also have indicated that at least some members of the Tarkanian family might face a similar fate should they ultimately lose a court battle to save family assets in Nevada.

The passionate dialogue over the difference in their personal accounting has largely obfuscated some significant differences between the candidates elsewhere in their campaign platform.

Tarkanian and Horsford are vying to represent what is arguably one of the most socioeconomically, racially and demographically diverse districts in the country. The 4th Congressional District encompasses the poor, urban neighborhoods of North Las Vegas as well as the well-heeled suburbs like Sun City Summerlin. The district’s rural counties are home to the copper mines of Yerington, the solar energy corridor around Pahrump and Nevada’s third rail of politics: Yucca Mountain.

So it’s not surprising that the issues in this election are just as plentiful and far-flung — or that Tarkanian and Horsford are having one of the livelier and more off-the-wall debates about how to fix the country’s problems than in any other congressional district.

Horsford and Tarkanian both have come to the table hawking solutions for creating jobs, improving the housing market, saving the education system, and immigration. And they each take vastly different approaches to solving those issues.

Take education, for instance — an issue both said would be a priority for them if sent to Washington. When asked what they would do to improve Nevada’s lagging education system, Tarkanian laid out a detailed proposal to significantly pare back the Department of Education.

“We should preserve certain portions like Head Start and financial aid ... but with the rest of the money, give it back to the states in proportion to how they’re paying their taxes,” Tarkanian said. “There’s more money that could be brought to the state — Nevada gets 70 cents on every dollar (paid in taxes) back. It would be an increase on education funding for the state, which is what we need.”

Horsford charged Tarkanian’s plan is simply a way to do away the Department of Education (a charge Tarkanian denies, which in turn, led Horsford to call him “a liar.”)

“We need to invest more in early childhood education, in our K through 12 schools, and providing funding for our state colleges and universities. My opponent wants to abolish the Department of Education,” Horsford said. “When you talk about granting money to the states, it typically means less money. As a person who actually has worked as a chairman of the finance committee, I understand how many dollars at the Department of Education support our schools and how vital those dollars are. My opponent doesn’t because he’s never had to balance a budget.”

Tarkanian called Horsford’s proposal “crazy” after summarizing it as “more of the same.”

The two candidates also have divergent approaches on immigration, particularly the Dream Act, which would give young undocumented immigrants who entered the United States before age 16 and since enrolled in college or the military a chance at citizenship. It also is the only piece of immigration reform that has come close to passing Congress, in late 2010.

“This is the human rights issue of our time; this is the civil rights issue of our time,” Horsford said. “I support the Dream Act because it's the right thing to do. I don't need a poll, and I don't need a pulse. ... It's like women's rights; it's like civil rights during the '60s. These kids, they graduate from high school and they want to do what — go to college and work ... we should help them.”

In his 2010 Republican primary campaign for the U.S. Senate, Tarkanian aired radio ads praising a controversial Arizona immigration enforcement law partially neutered in a recent Supreme Court decision. This year, he has somewhat backed off his praise of that law. And he said he would support a pathway to citizenship for some, not all, Dream Act kids.

“Anybody who comes in and wants to provide military service should have a path to citizenship,” Tarkanian said. “But the college students — I don’t believe I would extend it that far. But I would be open to more dialogue of other types of services.”

Tarkanian added that he was “looking forward” to hearing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s proposal for a scaled-back Dream Act.

After President Barack Obama implemented a two-year deferred deportment program for Dream Act kids, Rubio never unveiled his widely hyped bill.

There’s a similar difference between Horsford and Tarkanian when it comes to housing, an issue for which each laid out a three-point plan.

Tarkanian’s three points: Make streamlined refinancing available to all loan holders in good standing; eliminate the FICO score as a judge of creditworthiness, and rely on a wage-to-mortgage calculation; and allow nonprofits to buy underwater homes and lease them to the residents for a few years until they’re able to buy the homes back.

Horsford’s are: Write down principal balances on mortgages to reflect today’s reality; extend the Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction; and send anyone from the banking industry directly involved in spreading the gospel of the subprime mortgages that led to the housing crisis to jail.

Each plan has its weaknesses. Tarkanian’s reliance on nonprofits leaves the underwater homeowner wondering where all the money for such purchases might come from, and he hasn’t yet hammered out exactly what his proof-of-wage requirements would be in a FICO-less credit review.

Meanwhile, Horsford’s mortgage interest tax deduction extension, while important, is not new, and it’s not clear exactly what effect imprisonment of subprime mortgage operators will have on still-sunken home values in Nevada.

Horsford and Tarkanian are at opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to health care, with the Democrat supporting the new law often referred to as "Obamacare" and Tarkanian promising to be a vote for repeal.

They’re divided on tax cuts, with Horsford favoring the president’s plan to extend low rates only for those at income levels defined as “middle class” and below; Tarkanian, who signed Grover Norquist’s no-new-tax pledge over the summer, favors extending them for everybody.

They’re split on energy — both say they love the idea of Nevada developing an in-house renewables industry, but they diverge on just how to do it.

Horsford has supported a full complement of assistance from Washington, including monetizable tax credits and loan guarantees. Tarkanian accepts tax credits but “absolutely not” any more of the loan guarantees Republicans have associated with Solyndra this election cycle. (The numbers on that: Three renewable energy, loan guarantee-backed programs have failed; 23 have succeeded.)

And then there’s the oil companies. In Tarkanian’s world, they’re part of the solution. In Horsford’s, they’re part of the problem.

The candidates also have adopted different strategies for selling themselves to the public in commercials, on the web and in their election materials.

Horsford has taken a kitchen-sink approach, pushing himself as the candidate of investments for the full array of government services: education, veterans support, housing, energy, Medicare, Social Security, small businesses and jobs. Interestingly, despite all his passion for immigration reform when asked, Horsford doesn’t push that issue, at least not on his website.

But Tarkanian does. He lists “illegal immigration” as one of just four issues he’s claimed as his raison d’etre in this election. Asked about it, however, Tarkanian denies immigration is a focal point.

He rounds out his shorter list with a nod to the economy (inclusive of housing, jobs and small business), veterans and guns.

Given those pitches, it’s not hard to see why each has pointed an angry finger across the proverbial aisle, to accuse the other of being a rubber-stamp vote for their party, even if the distinction may not always apply.

“I just watched three Joe Heck ads that are on right now by the Democratic party; they're calling Joe Heck extreme. I watched one on Dean Heller; they’re calling Heller extreme. The game plan for the national Democratic Party is try to paint Republicans in swing states as extreme. They even tried to describe the guy in Massachusetts who's openly gay and pro-choice, they tried to paint him as extreme,” Tarkanian said.

“They’re trying to divert attention to scare people off. ... Yeah, I'm a crazy radical because I believe in common-sense solutions.”

Horsford also shrugged off the “rubber stamp” label.

“My priority if elected to Congress will be to represent the interest of people in Congressional District 4 first and foremost,” Horsford said in his defense. “I know how to be independent. I've worked over the last eight years doing things that are not always in line with the party view or even what others in my party would support. I will continue to do that in Congress.”

Both candidates also performed a bit of a partisan do-si-do on the issue of confronting foreign policy threats.

Horsford and Tarkanian — like pretty much everybody in Washington — say that Iran needs to be kept from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Both support the idea of exhausting diplomatic efforts and sanctions before having any discussions about a military response and say that down the line, they would support Israel.

But when it came down to that military threat, it’s Horsford who’s the apparent hawk and Tarkanian the dove.

“The military option is never off the table,” Horsford said about whether he would support a full-fledged intervention in Iran involving U.S. forces.

“Not more soldiers, absolutely not,” Tarkanian said, explaining that he was opposed to involving either ground troops or forces in an air war. “Israel is our closest ally, we need to support them with resources — but absolutely no troops.”

Perhaps one of the most pertinent questions in this race is not how much of their platforms they would be able to accomplish but how closely the voters of the 4th District are listening to them.

Based squarely on numbers, Horsford should be leading in a landslide right now. In terms of voter registration, the 4th District is skewed heavily toward Democrats: 131,173 Democrats to 96,716 Republicans, with 47,245 non-partisan registered voters.

But Horsford isn’t leading. Polls in the 4th District have consistently shown Tarkanian ahead.

It’s not that Tarkanian has been out there selling himself to the 4th District more than Horsford. The task of campaigning on the airwaves mostly has been assumed by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which this summer named Tarkanian to its elite squad of Young Guns, the party’s top seven picks for a potential win in 2012. The Democratic National Campaign Committee also has made Horsford one of its top six “featured candidates.”

Horsford’s television strategy has included promoting his own candidacy while knocking Tarkanian for being a Tea Party apologist and not living in the district he’s running to represent.

It’s only in the last week that Tarkanian even put up his first television ad. Instead, he’s been relying on his popular name recognition to carry him over the hump of bad press about his personal finances and a pretty serious Republican voter registration disadvantage.

So far, it seems to be working.

CORRECTION: The story has been updated to reflect that Tarkanian's radio ads about Arizona's immigration enforcement law aired in 2010. | (October 19, 2012)

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