RENO -- Democrat Kate Marshall on Wednesday continued to hammer Republican Mark Amodei as someone who killed jobs as a legislator and who would reduce Social Security and Medicare benefits should he win Sept. 13's special election for Congressional District 2.
Marshall went on the offensive in the first of three debates between the leading contenders in the race to fill former Rep. Dean Heller's seat in the sprawling, predominately Republican district.
Independent Helmuth Lehmann and Independent American Tim Fasano also were participants in what was an hourlong, largely lackluster debate sponsored by a Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
That the race hasn't engaged large numbers of voters was evident by the empty seats at the debate. About 30 of the 180 seats were unoccupied. All four campaigns had been given tickets to distribute to boosters.
But Marshall, a decided underdog in a race where there are 30,000 more Republicans than Democrats, tried to generate more enthusiasm.
"Mark Amodei sponsored the largest tax increase in Nevada history," Marshall, the current state treasurer, told the crowd. "Every time you hire someone, you have to pay more taxes. It is no wonder we have the highest unemployment in the country."
Marshall was referring to how Amodei as a Republican state senator supported a $833 million tax increase that includes Nevada's business payroll tax, now 1.17 percent of each worker's wages. Every Democrat in the Legislature and most Republicans in the Senate also voted for the tax increase.
Amodei shot back that Marshall served as a lobbyist during that session and campaigned for some of the same tax proposals that he supported.
He added he backed the tax plan because it offered an alternative to a business income tax that would have destroyed businesses.
Amodei said he opposed the $800 million tax increase the Legislature approved in 2009. He said that in 2003 the economy in Nevada was booming. In 2009 the state was buried in a recession.
Amodei was named the best senator in a poll conducted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal after that session.
He added it would be "phenomenal bad policy" for the federal government to raise taxes now in the midst of a recession.
"Drive down Virginia Street (the main Reno street)," he added. "See if it is ready for a tax increase."
In an interview earlier Tuesday, Marshall said she lobbied solely on behalf of telecommunications bills in 2003 and never spoke on taxes. She served on the staff of veteran lobbyist Sam McMullen, who was quoted in news stories as supporting some of the tax ideas advocated by Amodei and Democratic state Sen. Terry Care.
As in her campaign ads, Marshall maintained she is the only candidate in the race who would protect Social Security and Medicare. Marshall contended that Social Security now has a $2.2 trillion surplus and that Congress should take steps to prevent the funds from being spent on other parts of the federal budget.
"I stand firm to keep Social Security and Medicare," she said. "Mr. Amodei doesn't agree with me."
Because of the debate format, Amodei could not immediately respond to Marshall's attack.
In his final summation, he said he "would not pull the rug out from under those people," referring to Medicare and Social Security recipients.
Amodei also told reporters in the past week that he would not reduce benefits for those within 10 years of retirement. He also called for increased payments to physicians who accept Medicare in rural areas.
After the debate, former U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, who sat in the front row, said it was "disgraceful" how the major candidates run television ads that distort the real views of their opponents.
But Vucanovich, 90, quickly added, "Mark is my guy."
The 2nd Congressional District seat became vacant in May when Heller was appointed to the U.S. Senate. The term of office is about a year, the length of the time remaining in Heller's old post.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.