A small crowd turned out Wednesday night to hear congressional candidates, Democratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman and Republican Dan Roberts, debate at the Sebastopol Community Center.

The audience of about two dozen community members submitted questions on topics that ranged from local river stewardship to foreign policy at the 90-minute debate hosted by the League of Women Voters Sonoma County and Sonoma County Water Coalition.

Huffman, who is termed out of the Assembly, and Roberts, a political newcomer, were the top two vote-getters in the June primary.

They are competing for an open seat created by the retirement of Petaluma Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey and are seeking to represent the new 2nd Congressional District stretching from Marin County to the Oregon border, excluding Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Sonoma Valley.

In his opening remarks, Roberts acknowledged that Democrats heavily outweigh Republicans in the district, and he asked voters to take a "fresh look" when they go to the polls.

"You don't have to vote simply by party," he said. "I'm a reformer more than I'm a Republican."

Roberts touted his business experience and stressed the need to improve the economy and to reign in what he called overregulation and overtaxation.

Huffman acknowledged the respectful tone both candidates have carried through the campaign, but noted their meaningful differences on issues like Social Security privatization, global warming and reproductive choices for women.

"I strongly believe the federal government should fund access to women's health services, and I am a completely committed supporter of reproductive choice," Huffman said.

Huffman said his top priority if elected would be to get the economy moving.

"Like people all over this country, the people in this district are hurting far too much from a tough economy," Huffman said.

He advocated investing in infrastructure, education and clean energy in part to create jobs. He also said the federal government should invest in broadband Internet in rural areas.

"The government doesn't create jobs," Roberts said. "The private sector creates real, value-added jobs. That's where we really differ."

Environmental issues were a recurring theme as audience members asked where the candidates stood on issues such as vineyard tree removal and river water diversions for frost protection.

"I'm going to be very protective of our forest lands," Huffman said. "Converting prime forest lands into vineyards is not something I support as a rule."

Roberts showed less knowledge of local environmental issues than Huffman, but stressed the importance of jobs. Roberts said he just returned from Trinity and Humboldt counties, where foresters would like to see the federal government end its role in forest stewardship.

"Selective thinning, cutting extraction, that's a positive for our district," Roberts said. "It's a job creator."

Wednesday's forum was recorded for viewing on public broadcasting, home computers and BLIP TV. It also will be replayed on the League of Women Voters' Smart Voter website at www.SmartVoter.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.