Candidates tussle in round two- CalMatters

In summary

The four top candidates discuss crime, housing, the Gaza war and more in the second televised debate for California’s U.S. Senate seat. The Democrats bash Donald Trump and defend Joe Biden, while Republican Steve Garvey won’t say who he plans to support.

The four leading candidates vying to become California’s next U.S. senator debated crime, housing and border policies tonight while navigating gingerly around the likely presidential nominees Joe Biden and Donald Trump. 

Tonight’s event — featuring Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff and Republican former baseball star Steve Garvey — marked their second televised faceoff, following a Jan. 22 Politico debate. Hosted by KRON in San Francisco and aired by Nexstar Media Group stations across California, the debate also was the first to take place in the Bay Area, which is flush with political wealth.

If tonight’s debate looked familiar, that’s because it was: Schiff highlighted his role leading the first impeachment trial against former President Donald Trump. Porter portrayed herself as the anti-corruption crusader to bring changes to Washington. Lee deemed herself the true progressive on stage and recounted her life story. And Garvey continued to avoid proposing specific policies and again declined to say if he would vote for Trump. 

Unlike the three Democrats, Garvey, again, did not come to the “spin room” after the debate to answer questions from reporters.

They recycled the attacks from the last debate, too. Schiff, who consistently ranks first in polls, repeatedly associated Garvey with Trump, which political strategists deemed a tactic to elevate Garvey to the general election for an easier win. No Republican has won a statewide race in California since 2006.

Schiff faced attacks — albeit mostly subtle — left and right from Porter and Garvey, who are essentially competing for the second ticket out of the primary and into the November general election. 

Some of those shots were missed. Porter, stating Schiff has an inconsistent voting record on age limits for politicians, falsely claimed that Schiff voted against applying the limit to members of Congress the same week he voted for “age limits” on U.S. Supreme Court justices, when Schiff had voted for Supreme Court term limits. Porter later told reporters she had “misspoken.”

Lee, lagging in fundraising and polling, was largely unscathed and did not trade any blows with other candidates.

However the four candidates tried to stand out tonight, they are running out of time to change voters’ minds. Ballots started arriving earlier this month, and some voters have already cast theirs for the March 5 primary.

Here are some key takeaways from the debate:

The Trump connection

All four candidates said they would vote to certify the 2024 election if the presidential nominee of the opposite party wins the election. But all three Democrats said Trump should not be on the ballot at all and is a danger to democracy.

Garvey was again reluctant to commit to voting for Trump in 2024, as he did in 2016 and 2020, claiming it is a “personal choice” when pressed by debate moderators. He faced criticism from all three Democrats during the last debate but was only targeted by Schiff tonight. 

“I hope you would respect that I have personal choices,” he said.

The Democrats largely defended the Biden administration’s record and refrained from giving direct answers regarding Biden’s border and foreign policies. For example, the White House has requested more aid to Ukraine from Congress, but when asked whether there should be a cap on aid, none of the three Democrats gave a definitive answer. Garvey said there should be no limit on Ukraine aid.

None of the candidates gave a direct answer if they believed Biden or Trump is too old to run for office, instead arguing the voters should decide.

‘Corporate PAC money’ buzz 

While all three Democrats have historically touted their stance against corporate interests, Porter was the only to repeatedly mention the topic at the debate. She attributed cost of living problems to the relationship between corporate interests and politicians in Washington, D.C.

“The problem is that the workers who are creating the value, who are hard at work, are not receiving enough to live on while Washington insiders continue to give huge tax breaks to the wealthy,” Porter said.

All Democrats have vowed to ban members of Congress from trading stocks and to overturn Citizens United — the landmark Supreme Court decision in 2010 that prohibits the government from regulating labor union and corporation spending on politics. Similar efforts, though, have largely gone nowhere.

Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee swore off corporate PAC money. What does that mean?

The three Democrats have all pledged to reject corporate PAC contributions this election. Porter is the only one whose campaign account has never taken corporate PAC money and has attacked Schiff and Lee for their history accepting corporate PAC checks. Schiff has countered that he raised money from corporate PACs to support other candidates such as Porter. 

Porter’s attack on Schiff drew ire from some prominent California Democrats. Former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer said earlier this month that Porter’s argument “pushed me over the line” to endorse Schiff. 

“Katie Porter, if she doesn’t take PAC money, that’s fine. You could say that, but don’t go after a fellow Democrat,” Boxer said on FOX40.

The No Corporate PAC pledge means leaving some money on the table, but it applies to a limited group of PACs and is largely symbolic, and Lee, Schiff and Porter have continued to fundraise from company executives and accept money from trade association PACs, CalMatters reported today. 

Also today, End Citizens United — the advocacy group championing the pledge — released its 2024 legislative scorecard and gave all three Democrats an A+. In last year’s scorecard, Porter was the only one fully aligned with the group’s policy positions, according to the group’s website. Lee was marked as 96% aligned and Schiff, 93%. 

What did not come up at the debate was on the issue of earmarks — a process members of Congress use to request federal funding for home districts. Porter, who has vowed to eliminate earmarks, argues the process breeds corruption. Schiff and Lee, however, have deemed the process necessary to funnel resources to their constituents.  

The housing plan 

At least 181,000 residents in California were unhoused as of last year, accounting for 28% of the nation’s homeless population and up by 40% from five years ago, according to a federal census.

All three Democrats agree that homelessness is a housing problem. They have all released plans to address homelessness in California, with Lee’s campaign releasing hers just ahead of the debate.

They share similar policy pitches. Lee, Schiff and Porter are all calling for an expansion of affordable housing tax credits, as well as federal assistance with renters and homeowners’ down payments. Porter wants to develop a federal program allowing college students to sign four-year leases “to lock in rental costs.” Both Schiff and Lee’s housing plans specifically mention wrap-around services for people experiencing homelessness.

Garvey, who touted his homelessness tours this year to San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento, said tonight that $30 billion had been “wasted” and again called for a federal audit into the use of federal housing funds.

Schiff and Garvey also clashed on the minimum wage — Garvey supported keeping the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, whereas Schiff has supported raising it to at least $20. 

“Mr. Garvey, you can say the minimum wage is fine where it is, but you want to know why people are living on the street? It’s because we are paying the poverty wages,” Schiff said.

Garvey blamed the low wages on the “career politicians” he is running against.

“These are three career politicians who have failed the people,” he said. “You keep talking about ‘It should be higher.’ Why haven’t you done something about it?”

The Gaza conflict 

The candidates also continue to split on the Gaza War, as casualties rise and calls for a permanent ceasefire grow in recent months. At major debates and forums in recent months, pro-ceasefire protesters have flooded the venues, at times shutting down the events. 

This morning, Israeli forces rescued two hostages, but the raid killed more than 60 Palestinians in Gaza, the Associated Press reported.

When asked if they support the Biden administration’s stance that any peace would only begin with the elimination of Hamas, none of the Democrats gave a definitive answer. 

Lee was the first among the Senate candidates to call for a permanent ceasefire. Porter initially called for a “humanitarian pause” and later shifted her stance to support a bilateral ceasefire with conditions attached. Schiff has maintained his support for a humanitarian pause, arguing Israel has its right to defend itself.

Of the three Democrats, Lee has been the most consistent in calling for a defense budget cut even when Schiff and Porter voted in favor, CalMatters previously reported. 

All Democrats have said they support a two-state solution. But Garvey disagrees.

“To think there could be a two-state solution is naive, because one of those states will always try to annihilate Israel.”

Curbing crime

Faced with retail thefts, did California’s progressive policies on crime go too far? No, the three Democrats agreed tonight.

Porter took a subtle jab at Schiff when she suggested that governments should not look back to “the 1990s” for “tough-on-crime policies.” 

Schiff, early in his career, authored and supported tough-on-crime policies, especially against juvenile offenders. In 2017, he supported the Thin Blue Line Act, a bill that would have applied the death penalty to cop killers. He has since reversed his stance, telling CalMatters “technological advancements” have revealed “deep flaws” in the death penalty. 

But Porter largely refrained from calling out Schiff tonight — a large contrast from the January debate. Asked why, Porter said the message should be “affirmative.”

“One of the things we are seeing in this race, with Mr. Schiff and Mr. Garvey … is people fighting with each other,” she told reporters. “These guys are just pointing the finger at each other. Let’s go back to talking about the issues.”

Garvey, whose campaign had told CalMatters he supports an assault-style weapon ban, walked back the statement tonight. “What I do say is California has spoken in terms of assault weapons,” he said.

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