THE DEPARTURE of Ellen Tauscher as representative of the 10th Congressional District to serve in the Obama administration has left a void that will be a challenge to fill. Fourteen candidates — five Democrats, six Republicans and three minor-party hopefuls have responded.

If, as is highly likely, no one receives a majority of the vote in the Sept. 1 special election, the top vote-getter in each political party will participate in a runoff on Nov. 3

The diverse district, which runs from Fairfield through much of Contra Costa County and into southern Alameda County, has become increasingly Democratic. It is heavily favored to elect a Democrat to replace Tauscher, especially without a Republican officeholder seeking the seat.

Among the five Democrats running are three state officeholders: Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier and Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan.

Of the three, only Garamendi has experience working in Washington, D.C., as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior in the Clinton administration. Garamendi also has broad experience in state government with two years in the Assembly and 14 years in the state Senate. He twice was elected as California Insurance Commissioner, where he helped make significant consumer reforms.

Of all 14 candidates, we believe Garamendi has the right combination of experience, knowledge of key issues and dedication to serving the public interest that make him the best choice to fill Tauscher's seat.

With eight years' experience as insurance commissioner, Garamendi has valuable knowledge needed to make informed decisions about health care reform. As a rancher and with service in the federal Department of Interior, he has credibility with agricultural interests and environmentalists, which puts him in a favorable position to work on critical water issues that affect the Delta.

Garamendi lives on the edge of the 10th Congressional District, but has considerable knowledge about the area and expertise on issues affecting the region, and is not beholden to special interests.

DeSaulnier also has a long political career, including service on the Concord City Council, Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors and a short time in the state Legislature. However, we have serious questions about his commitment to the public interest independent of acceding to the wishes of organized labor, particularly public employee unions.

Many of the financial problems that afflict Contra Costa County today stem directly from decisions DeSaulnier championed while he was supervisor. Most notably, in 2002, at a time when the county faced a $31.5 million shortfall, was already laying off workers and was already experiencing increased public employee pension costs, DeSaulnier supported unsustainable pension increases that hiked benefits for public safety workers by as much as 50 percent.

The plan allowed public safety workers to retire at age 50 with a pension worth 3 percent of their salary for each year served.

Such excessive public employee union benefits have strained some local jurisdictions to the brink of bankruptcy. Indeed, bankruptcy, which would allow the rewriting of unaffordable employee contracts, might be the only way out for some jurisdictions. But Democratic legislators, DeSaulnier and Buchanan among them, have backed an effort to remove the use of local government bankruptcy. They are pushing Assembly Bill 155, which would require state approval of such bankruptcies, severely diminishing local control of fiscal policy.

As for Buchanan, she has been in state office, which she won with massive financial support from the Democratic Party, for less than a year. She lacks the experience to leap into Congress and should not so quickly abandon her Assembly constituents.

Those who do not wish to select from among the three leading Democrats should take a close look at David Harmer. He had the best grasp of the issues among the six Republican candidates and seems to us to be the most qualified.

Finally, we want to comment on Fairfield Democrat Anthony Woods, a young veteran who impressed us during the campaign. Woods holds a master's degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He served two tours of duty in Iraq and was a recipient of the Bronze Star. We think Woods has the potential to be an excellent public official. However, we would like to see him start with something smaller than Congress and demonstrate his leadership skills.

Tauscher's replacement will be going to Congress at a critical time, with major issues confronting the nation, including economic recovery, health care, energy, the war in Afghanistan and reform of financial institutions. The 10th Congressional District needs someone with broad experience and dedication to the public interest. We believe John Garamendi best meets those criteria.