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9:46 AM Sun, Oct. 21st

Congressional candidates battle over ‘good American, Mexican-ness’

Incumbent Congressman Raul Grijalva, left, and challenger Nick Pierson, right, face off Tuesday in a televised debate. Hosts Ted Simons and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez questioned the candidates. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Incumbent Congressman Raul Grijalva, left, and challenger Nick Pierson, right, face off Tuesday in a televised debate. Hosts Ted Simons and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez questioned the candidates. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX — Congressional hopeful Nick Pierson lashed out at incumbent Raul Grijalva, charging “he’s not a good example of a Mexican, not a good example of a Mexican-American, and he’s not a good example of an American.’’

And Pierson, whose parents were Mexican citizens, insisted that he is a better one.

“I’m as Mexican as he is,’’ he said during the hour-long debate this week on KAET-TV, the Phoenix PBS affiliate.

Grijalva reacted angrily to the comments.

“My heritage, my Mexican-ness is not something that I put up for sale or barter in any political election,’’ he said. “That’s part of my being.’’

Grijalva also said all the positions he takes in Congress are based on his beliefs. And he derided Pierson for saying that only he knows who is a “good’’ Hispanic, suggesting after the debate that the Republican’s idea of a a good Hispanic “is a docile one.’’

Pierson said his charge is not simply a question of blood or ethnicity.

The Republican challenger said Tuesday he sees the issue as one of being loyal to the community and the district where Hispanics make up close to 62 percent of the population. And Pierson said Grijalva has done little in his time in Congress to help the community.

“During the 16 years he’s been in office, the standard of living in the district has gone down,’’ Pierson said.

“Wages have not kept kept up,’’ he continued. “Our district has high pockets of unemployment and underemployment.’’

Grijalva said the problem has its roots in the failure of both the federal and state governments to invest in the area. And he blames much of that on the policies of the not just the Trump administration but also the Republicans who have run state government and operate from the philosophy that lower taxes and less regulation is the answer rather than investing in things like public education.

But Pierson said Grijalva has to accept some blame for the economic problems of the district which runs from Nogales and Yuma through the western edge of Tucson all the way to the west side of Phoenix.

“The standard of living in the district has gone down,’’ he said. “You have a person who kills jobs, he chases away jobs.’’

Part of the Republican’s proof is that Grijalva, in the wake of legislative approval in 2010 of SB 1070, called for businesses and conventions to avoid Arizona in protest. That measure was designed to give state and local police more power to detain and question people they suspect might be in the country illegally.

While parts of the law were voided by the U.S. Supreme Court, key elements remain in effect.

The result of Grijalva’s anti-business attitudes, said Pierson, is that the economy of Pima County is highly dependent on government jobs.

What’s needed, he said, is someone who will help bring in more private employers. And he derided Grijalva’s contention that much is dependent on government help.

“Mr. Economic Genius over here expects a magic wand,’’ Pierson said.

“It’s not magic,’’ he said. “It’s getting down into the communities, working with the people, working with the financing sector, working with the businesses, working with the educational institutions.’’

The issue of immigration and border enforcement also weighed heavily in the debate.

Grijalva, who at one point said he was in favor of abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Tuesday the key is to finally review the whole Department of Homeland Security, where ICE resides, which was formed in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“It’s the largest law enforcement agency in the country,’’ he said. “It’s time to look at accountability, look at the mission.’’

And that, Grijalva said, includes making sure the agency protects the civil liberties of all.

Pierson said that’s another example of what he called “fear mongering’’ by Grijalva.

“He keeps his community in fear,’’ he said, suggesting that ICE is conducting widespread raids in residential areas when that hasn’t been the case.

But Grijalva said the issues go beyond just ICE.

He lashed out at Trump for dissolving Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, President Obama’s executive order allowing those who arrived illegally in this country as children to stay and work. Trump’s action has for the time being been blocked by federal courts.

“He could have solved the DACA issue,’’ Grijalva said. Pierson said the president did make an offer but it was not one acceptable to Congress.

Pierson’s attacks on the incumbent went beyond his congressional record and even the question of who is a better Hispanic.

“He’s not a role model for our children,’’ Pierson said, referring to the U.S. House paying $48,000 to a House staffer office settle her claim Grijalva was frequently drunk and created a hostile work environment. “And that needs to change.’’

Grijalva did not deny the payment but said it was to settle an “employment matter,’’ with the details sealed because of a nondisclosure agreement. And he said after the debate he has never been drunk while on the job.

The congressman also brushed aside a question of whether he and his views are “too far left’’ for the district.

He said voters believe climate change “is real and something has to be done.’’ And he said the majority also favors more regulation of Wall Street and is coming around on the issue of Medicare for all as a solution -- and possible replacement -- to the Affordable Care Act.

“Those ideas, maybe 10 years ago, were seen as ‘out there,’ ‘’ he said. “Now they’re seen as mainstream.’’

Grijalva said that the November election is, in many ways, going to be a referendum for district voters on both the Trump presidency and the Republican-controlled Congress and the things they have done or tried to do, ranging from trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act to the tax cuts he said largely benefit the rich. And with Trump in office for at least another two years, he said voters need to keep Democrats like him in place as well as elect more of them.

“Congress has abdicated its role for oversight, accountability of this administration,’’ Grijalva said.

Pierson, for his part, took a cautious approach when asked about Trump.

“I don’t take the things that he says seriously in terms of the language,’’ he said. But Pierson said the president’s policies “have been very helpful to the economy.’’

Grijalva said you can’t really separate out the president’s policies from what comes out of his mouth.

“His policies are a reflection of what he said,’’ the congressman said, saying that has been the case since Trump ran for office with a “racially charged’’ campaign against Mexicans and Latinos.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia