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California Democrats split on Gaza, earmarks in Senate debate

Asked about Trump, GOP’s Garvey complains opponents ‘trying to call me MAGA’

Senate candidates debating in Los Angeles on Monday were Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee,  Adam B. Schiff and Katie Porter, and Republican former baseball player Steve Garvey.
Senate candidates debating in Los Angeles on Monday were Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee, Adam B. Schiff and Katie Porter, and Republican former baseball player Steve Garvey. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Two weeks before primary ballots hit Californians’ mailboxes, leading candidates vying for the state’s open Senate seat on Monday highlighted a key issue that’s dividing Democrats and foreshadowed what Republicans in blue states are likely to face in November. 

Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam B. Schiff sparred over how the United States should deal with Israel’s response to an attack by Hamas from Gaza. But in a live televised debate, they aimed their sharpest attacks at Republican Steve Garvey, especially the former baseball player and political rookie’s refusal to disavow former President Donald Trump.

Garvey described himself as a “commonsense…conservative moderate” in the mold of Ronald Reagan, a former president who remains a revered figure among California Republicans. When asked if there was anything he disagreed with his party on in the Senate, Garvey responded “just about everything.” He then laughed, and it was unclear if he was serious or joking.

And while Garvey said Trump was “the best person for the job” in 2016 and 2020, the former Los Angeles Dodgers infielder declined to say whether he would back Trump this year, and accused the Democrats of “trying to paint me into the corner, trying to call me MAGA.”

Porter responded: “California, I think what they say is true: Once a dodger, always a dodger.”

The four candidates are the top contenders in a field of more than two dozen people vying in the all-party primary to fill the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s former seat, held temporarily by appointed Sen. Laphonza Butler, who is not seeking election. The top two finishers of the March 5 contest will face off in November. The Democrats debated in October before a labor union conference, but Monday’s meetup was the first with Garvey and was carried on live TV.

Democrats make pitches

Schiff, who leads in most polls and has raised the most money, leaned in on his record of fighting Trump when the Democrats were asked about their record of voting together 90 percent of the time. 

“As you point out, we have a lot of similarities in our voting record,’’ Schiff said, “But when our country was threatened by a would-be dictator in the Oval Office, one of us stepped up to the middle of that fight. I took on the President…I led his impeachment when he incited an insurrection against our country. I served on the Jan. 6 committee to hold him accountable.”

Porter highlighted her plan to “shake up the Senate” by eliminating earmarks, abolishing the filibuster, and banning senators from trading stocks or accepting contributions from federal lobbyists and corporate PACs. 

“Washington is broken,’’ she said. “Lobbyists and big corporations spend billions to make sure that their agenda is at the top of Washington, D.C., agenda. Special interests have too much power. And we as Californians don’t have enough.”

Lee spoke of her progressive record and rejected Porter’s call to eliminate earmarks. 

“California is the one of the states that sends money to Washington [and] we don’t get our money back,’’ she said. “So I believe in targeting and funneling money to nonprofits and to organizations that deserve their federal dollars for homeless shelters, for LGBTQ+ health clinics, for education, for housing, for climate initiatives, for everything that our community needs.”

Divided over Gaza ceasefire

The war in Gaza emerged as another flashpoint. Lee, who was the only member of Congress to vote against the authorization for use of military force after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has called for a permanent ceasefire in the Middle East. “Killing 25,000 civilians is catastrophic and it will never lead to peace for the Israelis nor the Palestinians,’’ Lee said.

Schiff said Israel has a right and a duty to defend itself after the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas. “We can’t leave Hamas governing Gaza,” he said. “They are still holding over 100 hostages, including Americans. I don’t know how you can ask any nation to ceasefire when their people are being held by a terrorist organization.”

Porter has attempted to stake out a middle road on the issue, calling for a permanent ceasefire but only if certain conditions are met. “Ceasefire is not a magic word. You can’t say it and make it so,’’ she said. “But we have to push, as the United States, as a world leader, to get to a ceasefire and to avoid another forever war.”

Democrats avoid Biden criticism

The candidates were also asked to assess the state of the economy. None of the Democrats criticized President Joe Biden’s handling of the issue, which is a central plank of his reelection campaign. But all agreed there was room for improvement.

“The problem today is not that people aren’t working. The problem today is that people are working and they still can’t make enough to get by,’’ Schiff said. “President Biden has done a lot to address this, but there’s a lot more that we need to do.”

Lee noted that 20 million California residents are “one paycheck away from poverty” and housing and childcare costs remain high. “When you look at the fact that in the Bay Area, for example, $117,000 is just barely getting by for a family of four,’’ she said. “Who can make that off of a minimum wage?”

Porter said the answer to the question depends on who you are referring to. “CEOs of gigantic corporations, people who have generations of inherited wealth” are doing very well, she said. “And we have millions of Californians, including our farmworkers and other essential workers, for whom every paycheck is a struggle.”

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