US Senate candidates debate ahead of primary

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday January 23, 2024
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U.S. Senate candidates Barbara Lee, left, Adam Schiff, and Katie Porter — all Democratic congressmembers — debated each other and the lone Republican on stage, former baseball star Steve Garvey, during a January 22 debate at the University of Southern California. Photos: Screengrab
U.S. Senate candidates Barbara Lee, left, Adam Schiff, and Katie Porter — all Democratic congressmembers — debated each other and the lone Republican on stage, former baseball star Steve Garvey, during a January 22 debate at the University of Southern California. Photos: Screengrab

The three Democratic candidates vying to represent California in the United States Senate hit the sole Republican candidate on his refusal to say if he will vote for former president and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump this year — while each articulated differences between them on how to best represent the Golden State.

Republican Steve Garvey, a former baseball star, raised eyebrows when he said at one point that he "touched" homeless people while talking to them about issues facing them and was criticized by two of his opponents.

It all happened during a 90-minute debate at the University of Southern California, televised locally on KTVU-TV on January 22. It was hosted by Alex Michaelson of KTTV-TV, Los Angeles' Fox affiliate, and Melanie Mason of Politico.

The candidates are running for the seat currently held by Black lesbian Senator Laphonza Butler (D), whom Governor Gavin Newsom appointed last fall after the death of longtime Senator Dianne Feinstein (D). Butler subsequently announced that she would not seek election.

Garvey, who is straight and played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, has not held elected office. He said he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, and wouldn't rule it out this time, as Trump has a presumed lock on their party's presidential nomination this year. After winning last week's Iowa caucuses, Trump is on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the third time in a row.

"I'm my own man; I make my own decisions," Garvey said. "I voted for him twice ... it's important when two people are the final two people that you choose the person you felt was the best person for the job. His first opponent [Hillary Clinton] talked down to the people of this country. She thought she was entitled. His second opponent [President Joe Biden] stayed in the basement and only came out in controlled environments. I wouldn't have voted for [former] President [Ronald] Reagan if he'd stayed in the basement."

Garvey said that economists say Trump "did an excellent job" and that "when the time comes, I'll look at the two opponents, determine what they did, and at that time I will make my choice."

Nonetheless, "I don't believe Joe Biden has been good for this country," he added. "I heard it said Trump was terrible for the world, we were less safe. We were safer more under him than we are under Biden."

Congressmember Katie Porter (D-Irvine), a straight ally, had a couple of baseball references for Garvey.

"Once a dodger, always a dodger," she said. "This is not the minor leagues. Who will you vote for?"

Congressmember Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), a straight ally who led the House prosecution on the first of Trump's two impeachments, disagreed that the world would be safer if Trump returns to the presidency.

"Can you imagine what would take place if Donald Trump was when [Russian president Vladimir] Putin invaded Russia [Schiff misspoke and meant Ukraine] and Ukraine needed our help?" he asked. "There is no scenario under which we would be safer."

Congressmember Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), a straight ally, said the nation itself wouldn't be safer, referencing her experience at the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which led to five deaths and hundreds of injuries.

"We were sitting on the floor. We had to escape," she said. "The U.S. won't be any safer, let alone the rest of the world."

On abortion, Garvey said he would refer to the choice of California voters, who in 2022 passed a state proposition enshrining the right in the state constitution. He said he was against a nationwide ban, which Republicans have floated as a possibility if they win back the Senate, but that with regard to Trump "at the end of the day, it's all a personal choice."

"It's a one-party state that has only one voice, and that's why I'm running," Garvey said, referring to California being a solid Democratic state. "I want to be the voice of the people."

Candidates debate earmarks, Gaza

A key difference between the candidates was earmarks, which Porter has made a main issue of her campaign by saying she was opposed to them. Earmarks are funds appropriated by Congress for specific projects or programs during the funding allocation process.

"We see people literally building bridges to nowhere with our hard-earned tax dollars," Porter said. She was referring to a 2006 project in Alaska where federal funds were to be used to build a bridge to improve airport access. That project was abandoned and instead some of the money was used to build a road to nowhere.

Lee and Schiff not only defended the use of earmarks, but said they are proud of using them. Lee twice said she got earmark funds appropriated to LGBTQ health groups. (There were no LGBTQ-specific questions during the debate, and Lee was the only candidate who mentioned the community.)

"I believe in earmarks," Lee said. "I believe in not being derelict in my duty. California, we are one of the states that sends money to [Washington] D.C. We don't get our money back."

Schiff said that Feinstein "brought billions" to California through earmarks.

"Any senator from California who says 'No, I'm not going to fight for those resources — that's going to be wonderful news to people in the 49 other states. I'm going to fight for money for housing, for mental health services. I'd rather have our constituents, Californians, housed than some political talking point."

Garvey agreed in substance with Lee and Schiff.

"I wouldn't call them 'earmarks.' I would call them necessary for the state of California I will fight for," he said.

Another point of contention was the war in Gaza. On October 7, Hamas terrorists went into Israel and killed 1,200 people in the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. Israel responded with an extensive bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip, governed by Hamas, and a ground invasion, which has led to the deaths of at least 25,000 Palestinians, according to media reports, making it the deadliest conflict in the region in over four decades.

Biden has been called on to support a ceasefire, considering the billions in U.S. military aid sent to Israel.

Schiff and Garvey were opposed to a ceasefire; Lee spoke in favor of one; and Porter was conditionally in favor.

"The conditions on the ground in Gaza have changed as the conflict has evolved," Porter said, calling for a permanent ceasefire pending the release of hostages held by Hamas, resources to rebuild Gaza, and a "free state for Palestinians."

Lee said a two-state solution (in which there are both Jewish and Arab states in the former Mandatory Palestine) is the only end to the conflict, and said the fighting is a threat to American security. Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the war authorization on September 14, 2001 — three days after the September 11 attacks that killed about 3,000 people.

"It could spiral out of control," she said, referencing her vote 23 years ago. "You see what's happening — it's escalating in the region. We have to make sure our national security is also protected."

Garvey said it would be foolish for the U.S. to insist on a ceasefire.

"I stay with Israel yesterday, today, and tomorrow for whatever their needs are," Garvey said. "That day [October 7] was atrocious. Terrorists while Israelis slept performed atrocities. With common sense and compassion, we realize we have to give Israel the opportunity to fight back. It's naive to think we can ask our government to tell them or try to influence them to ceasefire. If 9/11 became 9/12 and one of our allies came to us and said 'we want you to ceasefire,' what would we have done?"

Garvey said a two-state solution is not tenable in the foreseeable future, saying, "If peace was broken, it was broken on the 7th, and it won't be until the next generation we can talk about that again."

Schiff was opposed to a ceasefire but supportive of a two-state solution in the region.

"I go back to the brutal murder of 1,200 people — not just murder, but rape and torture. No country, after having been attacked by terrorists like Israel was on October 7, could refuse to defend itself," Schiff said. "We also should work with Israel to reduce the number of civilian casualties and my heart breaks for all the people who've lost lives, for all the families who have lost lives. I support a two-state solution. We have to get back on the road to a two-state solution. We can't leave Hamas governing Gaza. I don't know how you can ask anyone to cease fire when they have citizens being held by a terrorist organization."

Lee mentioned the LGBTQ community again in a discussion over rising antisemitism and Islamophobia in the aftermath of October 7, with Lee pledging to fight bigotry.

"I will fight against antisemitism each and every day until we dismantle it totally," Lee said. "Antisemitism, Islamophobia, white supremacy, hate against the LGBTQ+ community — believe you me, as a Black woman, I know what hate is."

Oakland, housing issues addressed

Lee was also questioned on the state of Oakland, which she represents in Congress. Mason asked Lee why she should get a "promotion" considering the city losing three professional sports teams in recent years, and an In-N-Out last week. KRON-TV reported that the burger eatery cited crime as a reason for the forthcoming March 24 closure of the location at 8300 Oakport Street, off of Hegenberger Road near Oakland International Airport.

"I'm the most experienced, the most consistent progressive who gets the job done," Lee said. "Public safety is on everybody's mind and I understand that. That's why we need a public safety plan."

Key to Lee's plan are "getting guns off the street," implementing gun control and implementing police reform.

"Believe you me, I understand what is happening in my community and the state and throughout the country," she said. "But the punishment must meet the level of the crime."

The candidates also weighed in on the issue of homelessness.

Garvey brought up the issue as emblematic of a fading California Dream, for which he came to the state when he went to play for the Dodgers.

"When was the last time any of you went to the inner city, actually walked up to the homeless," he asked. "I needed to talk to the homeless. I went up to them, talked to them, touched them and listened to them, and you know what they said to me? This is the first time someone has looked at me and talked to us about our lives. By the way, these are career politicians. They talk about Washington being dysfunctional? You're Washington."

Schiff, continuing the baseball analogy theme, called the answer "a swing and a miss."

Lee said, "As someone who has been unsheltered, I cannot believe the way he described himself hugging and touching with the homeless."

Schiff said that "in a state as prosperous as this one, it's utterly unnecessary and utterly shameful" that so many people are homeless. Porter, Schiff, and Garvey expressly endorsed building more housing, with Garvey saying it will happen if the economy improves.

The top two vote-getters regardless of party affiliation in the March 5 primary will advance to the November election. Recent polling has shown Schiff leading the pack, with Garvey in second followed by Porter then Lee.

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