Jess Phoenix, Katie Hill and Bryan Caforio address the issues & attack Steve Knight’s empty podium in the final debate for the “nation’s most flippable seat”.
The stakes were high as three Democratic candidates running to unseat incumbent GOP Rep. Steve Knight in California’s 25th Congressional District squared off at a debate last Saturday night in the Newhall Family Theater. Those stakes likely explain why a fourth podium onstage – bearing Steve Knight’s name – stood empty.
The April 28th face-off was the last scheduled joint appearance for the three leading Democrats and their lone Republican opponent before California’s June 5 primary. Fortunately for Democrats in CA-25, California’s top-two “jungle primary” rules create zero chance of sending two Republicans into the November general election since Knight is running unopposed – but it’s anyone’s guess at this point which Democrat will emerge to face the incumbent.
Knight has been largely a no-show in the district for the past year – completely shunning public Town Halls in favor of telephone Town Halls with pre-selected questioners. Two weeks ago, he finally ventured out to host a lunch meeting for invited citizens – at an eatery in Eagle Rock, Calif., near downtown L.A. and some 35 miles from the closest residence in the geographically vast California 25, which straddles the northern L.A. County-southern Ventura County line.
The Cook Political Report has identified Knight as the nation’s only GOP Congressmember who carries all seven of its electoral “risk factors” for a loss.
CA-25 went for Hillary Clinton by 6.7 points in 2016, and voter registration now tilts by 3.5 points to the Democrats, in what was for decades a solid GOP district.
The candidates who engaged with voters on Saturday include consumer rights attorney Bryan Caforio, former homeless agency executive Katie Hill, and scientist (volcanologist, to be specific) Jess Phoenix.
Agreement on many issues
Unsurprisingly, it was hard to find daylight on many issue positions taken by the three Democrats.
All agreed, for example, that Trump’s threat to scrap the Iran deal is a bad idea politically and strategically, and argued that it be improved rather than ended.
They all argued for increased funding and a carefully prescribed role for the federal government in public education. As Caforio, the son of two Southern California public school teachers, put it, “National baselines can do amazing things, but we can’t have too heavy handed an approach.”
Agreeing, Hill added that setting a floor is the right thing to do. No school in America, she asserted, should “be teaching that evolution doesn’t exist.”
Phoenix contributed an impassioned critique of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ efforts to roll back student protections “for sexual assault victims…for students with disabilities…for transgender students…and just recently, she’s been trying to stop investigating civil rights violations in schools. We have to take care of those things – that is the federal government role in education.”
The three also agreed generally that Congress must have all available evidence on hand before deciding whether Donald Trump should be impeached.
Phoenix explained it this way. “I’m not Bob Mueller. I don’t know what he’s found. We have to go through the legal process…if we have the evidence, sure I’ll vote to impeach.”
Caforio’s response was similar. “From what I’ve seen so far, the amount of corruption…I believe he’s breaking the law on a regular basis,” before cautioning that “we don’t yet have the public evidence to get Republican buy-in… But it’s Congress’ constitutional duty to get to the truth.”
Hill agreed on the need to obtain all the evidence before deciding, but expressed concern about a Pence presidency if Trump is impeached. “I worry that he’d be more effective at getting bad laws passed,” and that Trump might be seen as a “martyr.”
The three agreed that increased government funding is needed to address the country’s extensive list of challenges. They had different ideas about where to get the money.
Hill called it a “revenue problem,” in which “the wealthy and corporations pay virtually nothing…we have to get more from people who’ve been ducking the priorities.”
Caforio argued that the answer could be found both by shifting priorities and rethinking how we fund big-ticket items like healthcare. “When they passed this tax bill, they found $1.5 trillion … and gave it to corporations and billionaires.” That shouldn’t happen, he said. If, he added, the nation were to move to Medicare for all, which he supports, “over a ten-year period, the proposed…plan would save $17 trillion in healthcare costs.”
Caforio, who tried earlier this year to convince all CA25 candidates to sign the pledge used by Elizabeth Warren, Russ Feingold and other national Democrats, which requires candidates to donate to a charity of their opponents’ choice any funds they receive from “dark money” sources, then added, “We need to get campaign finance under control so people can’t buy their elected officials’ votes.”
Phoenix and Caforio signed the pledge, Hill refused, and Knight didn’t respond.
Phoenix took direct aim at the military-industrial complex in her answer. “We can save a lot there while not harming our security…and redeploy some of that money to educate kids to do cybersecurity work.” She slammed the fact that Congress can find the funds for warplanes but “not for pencils and schoolbooks.”
Phoenix and Caforio parted ways with Hill on DACA. They both declared a “no compromise” position on voting to protect DACA participants from expulsion from the country; Hill, however, said she would vote with Republicans on their recommended border security measures in exchange for DACA.
And then the fireworks began
Fireworks erupted at several points in the debate – first, ironically, when discussing gun violence legislation.
When asked what they’d do to convince gun owners to accept gun-safety regulations that they believe violate their Second Amendment rights, sparks started to fly.
Phoenix cited Australia’s successful gun buyback program and explained, “We’re not saying to take everyone’s guns away. We should be specific with regulations, about magazine capacity, universal background checks, 14-day wait, supporting CDC research, updating the ATF registry…” She also delineated her recommendations about which guns should be considered “assault weapons” subject to a ban.
Bryan’s response was impassioned. “I’m darn sick of waking up morning after morning and reading about another gun massacre. I’m so proud of the young people…they’re poised and articulate…and they’re afraid to go to school.”
Citing his own work in the law, he declared, “The Supreme Court is clear: we can take action to ban bump stocks, impose waiting periods, raise the legal ownership age, have universal background checks…the Constitution and the Supreme Court have both said those actions are allowed under the Second Amendment.”
Challenged by moderator Stephen Daniels of Radio Free Santa Clarita, who asked him what he’d say to a Republican member of Congress who has argued that such actions would not be allowed, Caforio fired back, “He’s flat-out wrong. The Supreme Court for hundreds of years has said we can put protections in place.”
“But how do you convince him?” pressed Daniels.
“You just pass legislation that passes constitutional scrutiny,” Caforio replied, arguing that some issues are too important to wait until everyone comes around on them.
Hill cited her own family’s gun ownership history and declared, “We’re not trying to infringe on that right. It’s part of the fabric of America whether you like it or not.”
When Daniels remarked to Hill that she’d been “endorsed” by anti-gun violence group Moms Demand Action, Hill said yes, she had. That prompted a chorus of protest from audience members who knew that she, Phoenix and Caforio have all been identified – but not “endorsed” – as “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America” candidates of distinction.
Then it got hotter.
During a discussion of state party endorsements (the party voted not to endorse in the primary), Hill faced Caforio and accused his campaign of sharing opposition research about her with delegates to the California Democratic Convention and sending negative emails to delegates – an accusation she’d also made at the event in February. Caforio replied firmly, “As you know, it was not shared at the convention by my campaign, and that’s just a flat-out lie. It’s just not true.”
When Hill tried again to challenge Caforio, asking about endorsements he might have received from labor unions or other officials this year (most of his endorsements arrived last year), audience members called for her to stop. Hill turned to the audience and said, “I think this is an issue. Does anyone else think this is an issue?”
The audience roared back, “NOOOOOO!!!!”
The evening came to a dignified conclusion after the three candidates agreed that either of their opponents would be better for CA25 constituents than the incumbent Republican.
As Phoenix put it, “Steve Knight is spineless… Either Bryan or Katie would be far more accountable” to the district than its current representative.
Hill declared her two opponents “incredibly respectable and way smarter than Knight…all of our values are much more in line with the district than his.”
And Caforio closed the question by saying, “It didn’t take Trump for me to want to get Knight out of office. We three hold the same fundamental Democratic values of putting people first, fighting for healthcare, for gun safety, for the environment…”
Knight, of course, had no comment.