There's nothing like a crisis to define a candidate, and that has certainly been true for Congressman Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, and his Republican challenger Dean Andal.
The chasm between the two men on the financial meltdown and the recently adopted federal bailout package reflects their vastly disparate professional backgrounds and philosophies about the role of government.
They are seeking to represent residents in Congressional District 11, one of the most competitive House seats in the nation. The district stretches through four counties, including the San Ramon Valley, Morgan Hill, the Tri-Valley and western San Joaquin County.
Andal says he would have voted no on Congress' $700 billion bailout for failing Wall Street companies.
"I do agree that some federal intervention was needed," Andal said. "There is a credit squeeze. But what we got was a big mess and a bunch of congressmen who have very little clue about what they are voting on."
Incumbent McNerney, who voted twice in favor of what advocates prefer to call an "economic recovery plan," called Andal's post-vote assessment ill-timed and politically expedient.
"It takes more courage to speak up before the decision is made than after the decision is made," McNerney said. "This job is about making tough decisions and this was a very difficult decision."
Andal declined to offer an opinion on the specifics of the rescue package before its passage, pointing
Congress' bailout plan allows the government to use taxpayer dollars to buy toxic mortgage assets from struggling firms, a move Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson promises will help right the nation's tilting market.
Andal, who sits on the board of directors of a Stockton-based bank and served on the state Board of Equalization, disagrees.
He says Congress should offer ailing firms discounted loans from the Federal Reserve, an agency funded with fees levied against financial institutions.
"The federal government should not be in the position of determining winners and losers, who gets a bailout and who doesn't, which I think will lead to corruption," Andal said. "And there is no evidence this will provide liquidity in the credit market."
The former lawmaker criticized as "junk" the addition of unrelated provisions in the bill intended to win votes of unhappy legislators.
Andal is also worried about a provision in the bill that expands the U.S. debt ceiling by $1.3 trillion, a figure $600 billion in excess of the $700 billion bailout.
He called it a ruse designed to allow Congress to spend more money without public scrutiny. But it is not true, as Andal implied, that McNerney is clueless about the economy.
As the only member of the House of Representatives with a Ph.D. in mathematics, there is little evidence to suggest that McNerney lacks the intellect to grasp the intricacies of financial markets.
McNerney says his first instinct was to vote no on the bailout.
"Maybe I was going through what voters were going through," McNerney said. "At first, I thought, 'No way. Why should we bail out Wall Street?'"
On the day of the House's first vote on the bill, McNerney estimates his office received 600 to 700 phone calls and e-mails. Most constituents vehemently opposed the proposal.
But as details emerged and Democrats imposed conditions such as a requirement for participating firms to give the government an equity share and the formation of an oversight panel, McNerney says the tone of the calls shifted.
For example, he heard from a parent of a college student who lost her loan after school started.
Like Andal, McNerney disliked the add-ons even though he supported the programs, such as the one-year extension of wind energy tax credits.
"People are being hurt," he said. "I saw a much larger impact on the economy and as imperfect as the bill was, we had to do something."
Financial market turmoil has done more than put McNerney and Congress on the hot seat.
It has also inspired questions about Andal's largely ignored, thus far, banking background.
Andal is a nominally paid director at Service 1st Bancorp, a small, Stockton-based bank with assets of $250 million and branches in Lodi and Tracy.
He received bank director's fees of $6,000 from January 2007 through May of this year, according to his federal financial disclosure statement.
But suggestions that Andal intentionally avoided criticizing the bill before its passage because he stood to financially benefit from it are without merit, Andal said.
Service 1st makes commercial, not residential loans, and it has no distressed home mortgage debts, Andal said.
The bank did own, as of Sept. 18, about $100,000 worth of stock in struggling mortgage lenders Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. It also held $430,000 in Lehman Brothers corporate bonds. But the Freddie and Fannie investments are relatively small and the bailout comes too late for Lehman, which failed earlier this year.
More significant, Service 1st is within days of a sale and Andal will no longer serve as a director. The larger Fresno-based Central Valley Community Bancorp announced plans in May to purchase Service 1st.
"There is no benefit to Service 1st from the (bailout) bill," Andal said.
Under the $23.4 million purchase agreement, Service 1st stockholders will receive $2.50 per share plus stock in Central Valley. The sale is scheduled to go through this month.
Andal lists Service 1st stock valued from $250,001 and $500,000, his largest single stock investment, plus bank options worth $15,001 to $50,000.
In addition, he has a savings account at the bank, which contained $1,000 to $15,000.
Central Valley Community Bank makes residential loans but it is not involved in any subprime mortgage lending activities nor does it invest in subprime mortgage loans, according to financial media reports.