Five leading candidates for California’s open U.S. Senate seat debated at University of the Pacific for the first time on Monday, April 25.
Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris, Democrat Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, Republican Tom Del Beccaro, Republican George “Duf” Sundheim and Republican Ron Unz exchanged views and jabs during the 90-minute debate.
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The race is to replace retiring long-time Rep. Barbara Boxer (D).
“It was a wonderful opportunity for us to talk about the issues with each other. It was great for the voters and the students to see it and to ask questions. I think it’s one of the most important things we can do in a campaign,” said Harris, considered a frontrunner.
The debate was first and only chance the candidates had to challenge each other’s positions on a televised stage.
KCRA’s Gulstan Dart and Kellie MeMarco moderated the event.
“I thought it was the best debate I’ve seen this year … The moderator and the panelists were really seeking answers the audience could identify with. So I thought the structure of the debate was very good,” said University of the Pacific Communication and Political Science Visiting Professor Dave Fredrickson who has assisted on 10 presidential campaigns.
Pacific hosted a watch party upstairs from the debate.
Candidates spoke on topics of taxes, water and higher education.
Serena Welch, student body president at Pacific, worked with the Pacific Political Science Association to create a question on student loan debt for the candidates.
Welch said she wanted more from the candidates, who specifically addressed community college education.
“The community college level yes is awesome that a lot of the candidates are talking about making that free but it kind of left the door open for okay what are they going to do for four years universities and graduate education at that. That’s the more expensive. Community college is awesome but I would’ve like them to address that issue as well,” said Welch.
Education was one of the hotter topics. The idea of free community college and discharging student loan debt were challenged.
“My economic program is the best chance for [college students] to get a job coming out of college. We need to expand the economy. When the economy is stuck, students don’t actually get a chance to go to work. … A flat tax will expand the economy and give students more opportunity and that’s the number one issue they’re facing and I hope they’ll join me on that,” said Del Beccaro.
The candidates understood college students want to hear specific plans about the cost of education.
Sundheim said he understands issues of affordability.
“I really understand that it’s just not providing better access to loans, it’s about bringing the cost of education down … I don’t believe the college education is preparing our students enough for the twenty first century jobs. I was very impressed with the people I met with at the University of Pacific today. I think they are very committed to do that but I think we need to do a much better job,” said Sundheim.
Conversations between candidates ignored party lines.
“There were times when you weren’t sure whether the Republicans were Republicans and the Democrats were Democrats. It was a good discussion,” said Fredrickson.
Considering California’s history of Democratic senators, the Republican candidates are pressed to appear moderate. A February piece in the Los Angeles Times, quoted a GOP strategist as saying the race would be an “uphill battle for any Republican.”
“I don’t like that word. Moderate seems to imply a lack of passion and a lack of drive and anybody that knows me knows that I don’t lack passion and I don’t lack drive … It’s about how do we move forward together? Aggressively forward together,” said Sundheim.
Candidate’s viewpoints weren’t the only things challenged Monday. An animated group in favor of candidate Clive Grey, an independent, protested exclusion from the debate.
“I am running for the U.S. Senate as an independent candidate. I was one of the few that were declined access to this fine building. And that is because they looking for Republicans and Democrats and they don’t want to hear about the people I represent,” said Grey. “I’m here to unite the parties, I’m not here to divide them. I’m here to get the people’s voice to Washington, bring in both sides and actually reduce the gridlock … We need to work together first, then we can start fixing our problems.”