U.S. Senate candidates share visions for California in first debate
Pictured are U.S. Senate candidates Rep. Barbara Lee, Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Katie Porter. The Democratic congressional representatives were three of four candidates in the Senate debate Monday, alongside Republican Steve Garvey, who is not pictured. (Myka Fromm/Assistant Photo editor)
Jan. 23, 2024 9:57 p.m.
Candidates made their case to Californians on Monday during the first debate for a United States Senate seat.
The University of Southern California Dornsife Center for the Political Future co-hosted the debate with POLITICO and FOX 11 Los Angeles at the university’s Bovard Auditorium.
The four candidates – Republican Steve Garvey and Democratic congressional representatives Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff – are vying for the seat currently held by Sen. Laphonza Butler, whom Gov. Gavin Newsom named to the U.S. Senate after Diane Feinstein died in September. Butler announced in October she would not seek election to the seat her predecessor held for over 30 years.
FOX LA’s Elex Michaelson and POLITICO’s Melanie Mason, who moderated the debate, asked the candidates questions about housing insecurity, homelessness, climate change, abortion and immigration, among other topics.
The triad of Democrats spent the bulk of the debate calling out Garvey’s inexperience and lack of clarity in his policy-related answers. Garvey, who is a former baseball player, has never run for public office before and does not list specific policies on his campaign website.
Porter also responded to Garvey during the debate after he refused to say whether he would support former president Donald Trump’s candidacy.
“Once a Dodger, always a Dodger,” Porter said, referring to Garvey’s career in Major League Baseball. “This is not the minor leagues.”
While the three Democratic challengers aimed to distinguish themselves on domestic policy during the debate, most divisions came from the candidates’ responses to the ongoing war in Israel and Gaza.
An Oct. 7 attack by the militant group and Palestinian political party Hamas on Israeli villages resulted in an estimated 1,200 people dead, according to the Associated Press. Since then, Israel has launched a ground invasion, air raids and bombings that have killed more than 25,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to AP.
Lee was the only candidate during the debate to call for an immediate permanent ceasefire. However, Porter said a ceasefire would be appropriate after diplomatic solutions brought hostages home and resources to Gaza.
Schiff and Garvey both disagreed with calling for a ceasefire. But while Schiff said he wanted to reduce civilian casualties in Israel and Gaza, Garvey said he stood by Israel and that he thinks it is naive to believe a two-state solution could happen in his lifetime.
Jewish Voice for Peace at USC led a protest calling for a ceasefire during and after the debate outside the Bovard Auditorium. The group cheered on Lee as she left the debate while they booed the other three candidates.
Estee Chandler, a board member of JVP LA, said after the debate that the group decided to protest the event to let their representatives know that they cannot ignore their constituents and because American tax dollars have been sent to Israel.
Lee said in an interview with The Bruin after the debate that she called for a ceasefire because she wants to see peace through security in Israel and the end of destruction in Gaza. She added that Israel’s preclusion to a two-state solution and continued attack on Gaza is counterproductive to peace and Israel’s security.
“I said it in 2001, it could spiral out of control,” Lee said. “This is very dangerous, and I’m going to keep speaking up, fighting and trying to make sure that this administration course corrects.”
A topic moderators and candidates brought up multiple times throughout the debate was housing and homelessness in California.
When asked during the debate how to tackle housing insecurity in California, Schiff said he would use his experience in the U.S. House of Representatives to expedite the building of housing in California. Porter said housing is her top priority if elected to the Senate and that the country needed to stop relying on the policies and politicians from “decades and decades ago” to get the job done – referring to Lee and Schiff, who have served in Congress since 1998 and 2001, respectively.
Lee said during the debate that housing is a human right, adding that her strategy for solving the housing crisis in California would be to ensure that housing policy affects an extensive range of Americans, including making college tuition free for students to eliminate financial insecurities that lead to student houselessness.
Porter said in an interview with The Bruin after the debate that she believes housing is not yet a human right because work still needs to be done to make that statement a reality.
“That starts with changing who is controlling the housing agenda in Washington,” Porter said. “We need to push at the federal level to make different housing policy that’s going to deliver the kind of affordable workforce housing that California needs.”
Garvey responded to the question by saying he believes inflation needs to be curbed to address the housing crisis. When he was asked later about the homelessness crisis in California, he responded that he had needed to talk to Californians experiencing homelessness, so he went to the “intercity” where he “touched and listened” to the communities in San Diego, LA and Sacramento.
Lee, who was formerly unhoused, responded to Garvey that she could not believe how he described unhoused Californians. Schiff said during the debate that the moment was the only time he would invoke a baseball analogy against Garvey.
“Mr. Garvey, that was a total swing and a miss,” Schiff said.
Monday’s debate was the first before the primary election March 5, after which the top two finishing candidates will advance to face off in November. According to a Jan. 12 poll from the LA Times and UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, 21% of likely voters support Schiff, 17% support Porter, 13% support Garvey and 9% support Lee.
County elections offices will begin mailing ballots by Feb. 5, while ballot drop-off locations will open Feb. 6. All ballots must be sent before or on election day, or starting in person Feb. 24 when some vote centers open.