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Lee, Porter, Schiff face off in California Senate forum

Democrats avoid pointed jabs, but show differences on Israel and other issues

From left, Democratic Reps. Katie Porter, Adam B. Schiff and Barbara Lee vie in a California Senate candidates forum organized by the National Union of Healthcare Workers  in Los Angeles on Sunday.
From left, Democratic Reps. Katie Porter, Adam B. Schiff and Barbara Lee vie in a California Senate candidates forum organized by the National Union of Healthcare Workers in Los Angeles on Sunday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

LOS ANGELES — The three leading candidates for California’s open Senate seat found plenty of common ground and avoided taking pointed jabs at each other at a forum Sunday, but they also showed differences, including on how to respond to the attacks on Israel — and deal with Republicans. 

Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam B. Schiff all supported raising the minimum wage, lowering health care costs and using the federal government to address the high cost of housing and people on the street with mental illness, though they sometimes diverged on how to reach those goals.

The three answered questions posed by a panel of reporters during a conference of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, whose approximately 17,000 members will vote this week on an endorsement. Roll Call cosponsored the event with the union and Courage California.

Notably, the person who currently holds the seat, Democratic Sen. Laphonza Butler, was not at the gathering in Los Angeles. Butler, who was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last week to fill the remainder of the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s term, was invited to attend but her spokesman told the Los Angeles Times she would be in Washington. Butler has not said whether she would run for a full term in 2024.

[Video and transcript: Democrats vying for California Senate seat debate]

Lee, Porter and Schiff used the event to burnish their brands and make the case that each is best equipped to win a once-in-a-generation open Senate seat. California’s primary system has candidates of all parties compete in March, with the two top vote-getters facing off in November 2024. With early polling showing the House incumbents out in front, the race could end up being between two Democrats.

Porter talked about being a single mother of young children who knows what it’s like to struggle, and said she wasn’t afraid to stand up to powerful interests. She repeatedly reminded the audience that she doesn’t take corporate PAC or lobbyists’ contributions. “This is who I am. And this is why you trust me to fight for us,” she said. “What happens when politicians get too cozy with corporations? Corruption.”

Schiff described himself as a progressive unafraid to go to war with then-President Donald Trump but who nevertheless knows how to work with his political opponents. “We have to bring people together to solve problems,” he said. 

Lee noted her long history as a liberal advocate and cited the struggles she has overcome. “I’ve been in this fight for a long time. And I had to choose between feeding my family or handling rent. I’ve been told that I’m not qualified because of the color of my skin,” she said. “And I know for sure, when we stand up and fight back, we can win.”

Jackki Patrick, a patient care assistant from Oakland and a member of the union’s executive board, said she’s still undecided about which candidate would win her support. “I thought it was great that they were here at our event and we got to ask the questions,” she said.

Here are five issues the candidates addressed:


Schiff had the 2022 backing of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — which has funded attacks in the past on Democrats it deemed too likely to back Palestinians — but the group has not yet endorsed in the Senate race.

“The only sentiment I want to express right now, while Israel is going through its own 9/11, is unequivocal support for the security and the right for Israel to defend itself,” Schiff said. He said he spoke with a friend whose relatives were casualties in the attacks. “This is the tragedy they’re dealing with right now.”

Porter condemned the loss of both Israeli and Palestinian lives. “There are lost lives in Gaza, there are lost lives in Israel and it’s because the United States has allowed terrorism to flourish and has refused to take a strong enough stand against Iran, who is backing Hamas and Hezbollah,” she said.

Lee has backed legislation placing restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel. In response to the current crisis, she said the U.S. “has a responsibility” to call for a ceasefire “and to call for the whole world to come together to try to stop the escalation of what is taking place in the Middle East.”

Minimum wage

All of the candidates support legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 hourly rate to $17 by 2028. 

But is that high enough, especially in a high-cost state such as California? All three candidates said no.

Schiff said his father earned $18,000 a year as a traveling salesman and that was enough for the family to afford a home. “I want people to be able to afford good, safe housing, and we’re not going to get it at a minimum wage,” he said. “What we need is really a livable wage that will vary from place to place. So states should have flexibility but there ought to be a minimum and for health care workers, I support more than $25.”

Lee said $20 per hour should be the floor. Anything less is “unacceptable anywhere in the United States, especially in California.” Later, when pressed to provide a specific number, Lee said the minimum wage should be $50 per hour.

Porter noted that corporate profits have ballooned in recent years. “We have a Washington that is consistently putting the interests of big corporations ahead of the interests of workers and families,” she said. Porter said she backs a $20 per hour federal minimum wage, and $25 in California, and would tie future rate increases to inflation.

Health care costs

Lee and Schiff said Democrats have made significant progress in reining in health care costs, such as capping the costs of certain drugs for Medicare recipients, but said they would expand that program to more Americans, as well as increasing the number of medications that are covered. While all of the candidates spoke in favor of “Medicare for All,” Porter blamed Democrats for failing to pass it when the party controlled both chambers in the last Congress. “When I got to Congress, we had the gavel as Democrats and we had the ability to pass Medicare for All and put it on the floor for a vote, we didn’t do it. That’s what I mean when I say Washington is rigged to work with special interests and not for us,” she said, drawing cheers from the audience of health care workers.

Term limits

All of the contenders expressed support for term limits for Supreme Court justices. But they had different opinions about term limits for elected members of Congress. Porter said she hasn’t totally made up her mind about term limits, but spoke of the importance of multi-generational political leadership. “That means having the voices of experience of the past but also having the voices of people who are experiencing things in the present,” she said.

Schiff said ending gerrymandering and overturning Citizens United — a court ruling that led to corporations and unions being able to spend unlimited amounts on campaigns — would do more to bring in new voices than enacting term limits.

Lee, who is serving her 14th term compared to Schiff’s 12th and Porter’s third, said people in a democracy should have the right to elect whom they chose. “And when that person is not doing his or her job, you don’t vote for them anymore,’” she said.

The next speaker

Lee called the Republican leadership struggle in the House that led to Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s ouster as speaker last week a GOP “civil war” and said Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., “is the only person who could bring some civility back and move the country forward.”

Schiff — who was censured in June by Republicans who said he falsely spread allegations about Trump’s 2016 campaign colluding with Russia — said there are conservative Republicans who he views as “people of conviction” that would be suitable for the role. He cited two former House members, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, but declined an invitation to name a current member he’d support because “my endorsement would not help them.”

But Porter sharply disagreed. “When we say there are Republicans of principle on the other side, I think we have to be clear about what those principles are,’” she said. “There is no Republican who will support the right of every American to make their own choice about whether to have an abortion. For me that makes all of these candidates unacceptable.”

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