By Ken Stone
In August 2010, two candidates challenging Rep. Duncan D. Hunter went on an 11-day hunger strike to force the Republican to debate.
After national coverage, Democrat Ray Lutz and Libertarian Michael Benoit eventually won a face-to-face meeting with the incumbent at Cuyamaca College.
Hunter hesitance to debate was typical in 52nd and then 50th District contests. Counting his first race against Democrat Mike Lumpkin in 2008, the Marine combat veteran met opposing party rivals only four times — the last against Democrat James Kimber in September 2014.
But thanks to a Panama-born entrepreneur rising in North County GOP ranks, Valley Center will host the first scheduled 2020 debate in the vast right-leaning district.
William Del Pilar — president of the Valley Center Business Association of 50-plus area partners — has secured the leading contendors — Republicans Carl DeMaio and Darrell Issa and Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar.
“Without those three,” he said, “I personally felt that our event could be seen as … hollow.”
The forum is set for 7-9 p.m. Feb. 7, 2020, at the Maxine Theater in Valley Center — the first district showdown without a Hunter since before Duncan Lee Hunter, father of the guilty-pleading congressman, was elected to Congress in 1980.
“You’re probably surprised that our little community was able to finagle these three candidates,” Del Pilar said. “That’s what I would have thought. We were just persistent. I was 100% honest.”
An elected member of the Valley Center Community Planning Group and a candidate himself for the San Diego County Republican Party Central Committee, Del Pilar said he began organizing the debate more than three months ago — before even former North County Congressman Issa joined the race.
He also appealed to Hunter’s camp to join the debate.
“I said: ‘Congressman, I voted for you [in 2018]. I gave you the benefit of the doubt, and I wasn’t convinced your opponent will be best for this district. However, that was then. You still have a responsibility to speak to your constituents, and I cannot give you a pass,'” Del Pilar said Thursday in a phone interview.
A self-described “hard-core fiscal conservative,” Del Pilar promises the debate will be fair to Democrat Campa-Najjar, who lost to Hunter in November 2018 by about 3 1/2 points.
He says the debate, with two moderators yet to be announced, will include deeply researched questions by a committee including Republicans and Democrats.
“I don’t want any one side to dominate,” he said. “Your job isn’t to protect them.”
The goal is to avoid “generic answers,” Del Pilar said. “Give them fair but tough questions. If they try to skirt the issue, it becomes obvious.”
Most of all, Del Pilar, 53, is proud to bring candidates in front of a North County crowd — having felt burned by former county Supervisor Bill Horn, who he contends avoided mixing with the locals.
“I don’t believe in the drive-by candidates. .. or [limiting themselves to] social media or on TV,” he said. “I want them in front of the constituents who they want to represent. Once these people get elected, after a couple of terms, they refuse to come back to their district. … I just feel strongly that we need to bring these candidates to the people.”
Del Pilar says the Valley Center region is considered an ugly stepchild — “We feel we’ve been designated for growth the community doesn’t want.” The unincorporated area has just under 10,000 people, according to recent data.
“Ironically, we are a very active political base in the Republican Party, and we have a very active Democrat base,” he said. “I’m friendly with people in both segments.”
State Sen. Brian Jones, whose 38th Senate District includes Valley Center, isn’t yet part of the debate mix. Neither are eight other lesser-known potential candidates, including independent Helen Horvath of Alpine.
Del Pilar says his group hasn’t excluded any candidate, but has three criteria. He names financials and poll results but not the third.
Having come from a “Third World country” — his father worked in the U.S. Special Forces community in Panama for many years — Del Pilar says he’s sympathetic to candidates of modest means.
But hopefuls “need to be able to show they have something in the till to compete,” he said. If they do, “we will discuss … inviting them….. I will have as many candidates as qualified.”
The Maxine Theatre venue at 31322 Cole Grade Road — operated by the local school district and adjacent to Oak Glen High School — seats nearly 600 and is wheelchair-accessible.
The debate is presented by the Valley Center Business Association and the Valley Roadrunner/Times-Advocate. Del Pilar is looking for a radio or TV station partner covering the 361,367-voter district.
“We welcome every constituent in the 50th district to come out for an evening of political talk that’ll help determine the best candidate to represent our beliefs and values and who will represent the 50th district with integrity and honor,” he told the Valley Roadrunner, which first reported the debate.
A month after the debate, the top two vote-getters in the March 3 primary advance to the November presidential election.
Updated at 8:35 a.m. Dec. 14, 2019.
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