Three of the four candidates vying to fill Congressman Juan Vargas' vacant state Senate seat debated mainly about jobs Friday.
Assemblyman Ben Hueso has a good chance of winning the seat in the heavily Democratic district, and pushing Senate Democrats back into a two-thirds majority.
Running against him are Hector Gastelum, a conservative Republican businessman from Chula Vista; Democrat Anna Nevenic, a nurse and author; and Dr. Xanthi Gionis, a conservative professor and businesswoman.
The district takes in all of Imperial County, parts of Riverside County and a large portion of south San Diego County, including parts of Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, Bonita, Coronado and Otay Mesa.
A special election will be held Tuesday for the seat, and if no candidate wins a simple majority of the vote, the race will advance to a May 14 run-off.
Gionis, who has recently come under heavy criticism from teachers and students of her for profit Aristotle University, did not attend the debate, hosted at Southwestern College and moderated by politics professor Phil Saenz.
The three other candidates sparred over how to best bring jobs into the community, with Gastelum criticizing his main opponent Hueso and fellow Democrats for raising taxes and hurting small businesses.
"We need to create jobs by making it easier on folks to do business here," Gastelum said. "Because when they are doing business here, they are hiring. That way we have less of the weak link. They are weak because they have no jobs. We need to fix that."
Eastern Chula Vista is largely a "bedroom community" with many residents commuting north for work; while Imperial County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state between 25 and 30 percent.
Hueso touted the bipartisan support of his bill urging the federal government to fully fund infrastructure upgrades to the San Ysidro, Otay Mesa and Calexico ports of entry to encourage bi-national commerce.
He also fired back against Gastelum, hinting at the fiscal conservative's recent financial troubles.
"I am a small business owner," Hueso said. "I am a successful small business owner."
The discussion also included the topic of women's rights. Gastelum said he does not support Roe v. Wade, a landmark Supreme Court decision on abortion. He added he thinks many young women purposely choose lower paying and lesser jobs so they have more energy for their children.
To that, Hueso later responded: "I think my values are more in line with the values of the people of this Senate district."
The South County district has about 48 percent Democrat voters, and a heavy portion of Latino or Hispanic residents. Voter turnout is expected to be low in this special election, but nearly 40,000 mail-in ballots are already in.
If Hueso wins outright on Tuesday, it opens the door for a new 80th Assembly District campaign, which is already in full-swing with labor leader Lorena Gonzalez and former Chula Vista Councilman Steve Castaneda battling to fill Hueso's seat.