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Varied approaches to boosting the North Coast economy, ranging from biomass energy production to marijuana to coastal protection from oil drilling, were voiced by seven Democratic congressional candidates at a public forum Wednesday night in Petaluma.

Few significant differences were revealed, however, as Tiffany Ren?, the vice mayor of Petaluma and one of the candidates, observed: "We're hearing a lot about progressivism in this race."

The seven Democrats are vying for the job held by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, whose retirement triggered the first wide-open race for the congressional seat in 20years.

One at a time, the candidates laid out their proposals for economic development in a district with high unemployment.

Stacey Lawson, a San Rafael businesswoman and educator, advocated biomass and biofuel development, putting the region's natural resources to productive use. She also proposed niche manufacturing and sustainable agriculture, calling for improved access to capital as a means to spur small businesses.

Norman Solomon, a Marin activist and author, advocated permanent protection of the coast from oil drilling as a boost to the tourism and fishing industries. Describing himself as "a New Dealer," Solomon said federal expenditures are needed to pull local economies "out of the ditch."

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said that "federal investments" are needed to support economic development plans already devised at the local level. Huffman also called for keeping state parks open "as a magnet for economic productivity" and a government loan guarantee program to provide capital for small businesses "because the banks aren't lending."

William Courtney of Mendocino County, describing himself as a "cannabis physician," said that 10 million marijuana plants worth $2,000 apiece could be taxed and regulated to establish a major industry.

The 90-minute forum, sponsored by the Democratic Club of Southern Sonoma County, drew a crowd of more than 200 to the Boys and Girls Club building in Petaluma.

Ren? cited energy retrofit programs for homes and businesses as a way to create jobs and contribute toward the nation's "energy independence." Boosting production by small farms would produce organic food and ease food insecurity in the northern part of the district, she said.

Andy Caffrey of Humboldt County repeatedly cited the "climate crisis" as his focus and said the issue trumps all others because "there are no jobs on a dead planet." Caffrey said his plan for a "New Green America" aims to end globalization and meet local needs.

Susan Adams, a Marin supervisor, said job development must start with communities, citing Marin's clean energy program for providing jobs and improving the environment.

Approaches to the federal debt also differed, with Caffrey calling deficit spending the "greatest national threat," while Solomon said debt is not a major issue on the North Coast, well behind concerns over jobs, health care and retirement security.

Cutting military spending and establishing "tax fairness" were generally endorsed by all the Democrats.

Lawson said the economic stimulus has worked, citing broad economic improvement.

The closest to criticism came when Adams said her campaign donations had come from within the district, while another unnamed candidate's money was largely from outside the area.

"Who are you going to be beholden to when you get in office?" Adams asked.

Lawson, who raised more than $450,000 from donors around the nation, said later that all her donations are from individuals, not political action committees.

Democrats hold a decisive advantage with nearly 50 percent of registered voters in the new six-county 2nd Congressional District, which stretches from Marin County to the Oregon border, excluding Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park. Fewer than one-fourth of registered voters are Republicans.

Marin has the largest bloc of total registered voters, with 146,105, likely to be divided among five candidates, including one Republican, who live in Marin. Sonoma County's 105,691 voters — 27 percent of the total — may prove pivotal in the race. The other four counties combined have a total of 142,496 registered voters.

Democrats vastly outnumber GOP voters in all but tiny Del Norte County, where the two parties are nearly equal in registration.

You can reach staff writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)