Tucson U.S. Reps. Ron Barber and Raúl Grijalva promised a gathering of Arizona retirees on Tuesday they will protect Social Security.

The pair met with the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans to celebrate the 77th anniversary of Social Security, joining in singing "Happy Birthday" to the program.

Barber said Social Security "is essential to providing dignity of income and health care as seniors reach their retirement years," and he cited statistics about how dependent older people are on the government program.

He also painted it as a women's issue, saying women are more dependent on Social Security than men because women are less likely to have pensions and more likely to live longer.

He criticized Republican leaders for wanting to privatize some aspects of Social Security.

"These are very bad ideas, very backward ideas, and we have to do everything together to stop them from becoming a reality," he said.

Grijalva said Mitt Romney has done the American people a "favor" by picking Paul Ryan as his running mate because "nobody can dance around the contrast anymore," he said. "Nobody can hide from what is on paper and what he's said repeatedly for the last four or five years."

He said a plan allowing workers to put part of their Social Security contributions in private retirement savings accounts is a gamble.

"There'll be lower benefits, they're going to raise the retirement age, and modernization means you will be working longer, probably earning less, and covering the losses of everybody who decided to gamble and lost," Grijalva said.

Social Security will be a major issue in the election, he said, and he pledged "not only to protect Social Security as it is now but to ensure it is there for the generation after us and the generation after that."

On StarNet: Find a breakdown of Tucson-area races and candidates, plus voter resources and links to recent political coverage, at azstarnet.com/elections

Candidates respond

Congressional District 2

Matt Heinz (D): "Social Security is a cornerstone of our retirement system and social safety net, and we need to guarantee that the current generation of retirees and those nearing retirement receive their benefits. As a 35-year-old, I recognize that the question of the long-term solvency of Social Security in one that my generation and those younger will have to answer. We will need to take into account changing life expectancies and wealth disparities in a way that ensures Social Security's solvency when we are ready to retire."

Mark Koskiniemi (R): "If Social Security and Medicare are not reformed, we can count on one statistic - 100 percent of Americans will get nothing from the programs. It is unfortunate that Representative Barber is unable to ensure that all options can be evaluated for the best way to address this looming crisis. If he has not already, I hope that he will review, add productively to, and get on board the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission."

Martha McSally (R) campaign: "Facts are important things. Unfortunately, Mr. Barber leaves out the fact that he recently voted to cut $716 billion from Medicare to fund government-mandated health care. That is a fact that Martha McSally can't support, and that is a fact that seniors across Southern Arizona are troubled by. In Congress, Martha McSally will preserve these critical programs for seniors and future generations."

Congressional District 3

Amanda Aguirre (D): "We need to protect Social Security for our working families and future generations. I will fight for the rights of all workers to receive their pension and benefits."

Manny Arreguin (D): "We need to preserve the promise to the generation that is expecting and relying on those benefits. We need to have an open and honest dialogue on reforming our system for future generations. One way we can protect the benefits, plain and simple, is to create jobs. Mr. Grijalva has been a job killer - 11,000 jobs lost - and it's hard for me to believe current leadership can get the job done."

Gabriela Saucedo Mercer (R): "Congressman Grijalva joined the Obama administration in cutting half a trillion dollars out of Medicare. Seniors have already lost benefits, and not because of the "Ryan budget."

What is wrong with giving people choices or options if they choose to go with a private account? It is their money.

For years the federal government has been raiding the Social Security account, literally stealing from it and jeopardizing the integrity of Social Security as we know it. Preserving Social Security as it is will result in bankruptcy as has been predicted by economists."

Jaime Vasquez (R): "In order for Social Security and Medicare to survive, both programs should be taken out of the hands of politicians. We gave the fox the keys to the henhouse when we allowed politicians to manage Social Security and Medicare. Two examples are Obama stealing $500 billion from Medicare and planning to stick it to our seniors in two years by way of less services and higher co-pays. Another example: People on career unemployment are awarded SSI benefits after the regular benefits run out. Folks, that is what is wrong with our system."

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 573-4346. On Twitter @BeckyPallack.