EDINBURG, Tex. — People are suffering in the Rio Grande Valley, where unemployment is approaching 20% in some counties, so six Democratic candidates found a sympathetic audience Tuesday night for their programmatic approaches to economic problems.
And what was expected to be a major distraction at the debate here at Pan American University--the re-entry of Gary Hart into the Democratic race--never developed, because the debate's sponsors decided that Hart's announcement was irrelevant.
That allowed the other candidates to explain what they would do to bring more jobs to economically depressed areas, to handle immigration problems and to improve U.S. relations with Mexico.
Large Latino Population
Luring the candidates to this remote outpost was the area's large Latino population, potentially a swing vote in what is regarded as a swing state in both the primary and general elections.
Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt showed off his command of Spanish both in the debate and later in interviews with Spanish-language radio stations, and reiterated his impatience with the Reagan Administration's "obsession with Nicaragua, a country of 3 million people, while it ignores Mexico, a country of 83 million people."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson was the most specific about the problems of poor housing and joblessness in the Rio Grande Valley, and he brought a prop to illustrate a point--a stalk of broccoli that he said he watched being picked and packed Tuesday by people who make $2 an hour--much less than the $3.35-an-hour minimum wage.
Simon Pushes Jobs Program
Sen. Paul Simon aggressively pushed his plan for an $8-billion jobs program, specifically pointing out that it would help the large numbers of unemployed people who live in miserable conditions just outside many South Texas towns.
Referring to these unemployed, Simon said: "Obviously we have decided in this country that we are not going to let those people starve. We give them money, but why not give it to them for doing something rather than doing nothing?"
Simon said he would guarantee 32 hours of work a week for any person on welfare and also help them to learn skills and to look for more meaningful work.
"My opponents make fun of my jobs program," Simon said, referring to questions about how the country would pay for such a program. "But I am not going to accept Ronald Reagan's agenda or mind-set."
Disagreement on Oil Fee
The only real disagreement in an otherwise gentlemanly discussion of the issues concerned the idea of an oil import fee, which both Simon and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt said would raise revenue, discourage American dependence on foreign oil and perk up the devastated U.S. oil drilling industry, some of which is in Texas.
But Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis charged that the oil import fee is a bad idea because it would burden some fuel users and would "devastate the Mexican economy--and that is the last thing Mexico needs."
Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. praised the so-called maquilladora program, an effort to address the jobs imbalance along the border with Mexico. Currently, most of the jobs are created on the Mexican side because the labor is cheaper, a situation that infuriates South Texans.
All of the candidates defended immigration, saying it strengthened the United States in the long run.