NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The incumbent candidate for the first congressional district sought to both assail Washington politics while defending his record there, staving off attacks from a little-known rival in a debate Tuesday night at Christopher Newport University.

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), a former small town mayor and Virginia state government employee, has served as the district’s congressman since he won the spot in a 2007 special election called after the death of former Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R).

The district, which runs from Newport News to Prince William County, has long been considered safe Republican territory and that party’s nominee has held the seat since the late 1970s.

Adam Cook (D), a lawyer and former military officer, and G. Gail Parker (Independent Green), a former military officer and federal employee who has focused on expanding passenger rail service as her primary campaign plank, are challenging Wittman for the seat in November. Parker calls herself Gail “For Rail” Parker.

Wittman said Tuesday that Washington is “30 square miles of fantasy land” and is “broken.” But he said he has tried to lead by example by voting against stop-gap budgets and adjourning the last congressional session before cuts triggered by a process known as “sequestration” go into effect.

The deal would mean automatic budget cuts totalling $1.2 trillion and defense cuts of $500 billion come January if Congress does not reach a budget compromise before then. The automatic, indiscriminate cuts, which have been assailed by both parties, were supposed to be an incentive for Congress to work out smarter, more sustainable cuts but a deal has yet to materialize.

Virginia’s first district would be among the most affected if billions are suddenly slashed from the U.S. defense budget — Newport News is home to a major shipbuilding industry for the U.S. Navy, and Northern Virginia’s economy has held strong in large part due to defense and federal spending.

Cook said Wittman should not have voted for the deal, which he said puts 200,000 jobs at risk and does untold damage to local economies. “Yes you have to raise the debt ceiling, but you don’t have to accept a bad deal,” he said.

Wittman said that the deal was the only one offered as some congressional Republicans insisted on major cuts before raising the country’s debt ceiling, which ensured the United States made mandatory payments on its debt. Failure to pay existing debts would have been disastrous, many said at the time.

“There is no ‘maybe’ button in Washington,” Wittman said. Parker stuck to her message on expanding passenger rail, saying it’s a solution to grow the economy and help plug budget holes.

“It is a solution that has been greatly overlooked by both of the parties,” she said.

The candidates also discussed taxes, the Affordable Care Act and transportation issues, among others, as part of the debate. They all agreed that campaign finance reform is needed. Wittman said outside groups should have to disclose who they are before paying for advertisements that help candidates win. “I want to make sure we get to knowing where the money comes from in these political campaigns,” he said.

District 1 creeps up the eastern side of the state, beginning in Newport News, and running through Fredericksburg and Stafford County, to Prince William County. The November election marks the first time thousands of new voters in Prince William will cast a ballot in the first district, as it now includes portions west of Manassas and runs through largely conservative Nokesville and Gainesville.

Tuesday’s debate was hosted by the Daily Press newspaper and National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association and moderated by Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at CNU.

Another debate among the District 1 candidates has been scheduled for Monday, Oct. 29, at 7:30 p.m. in the Dodd Auditorium at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.