When it comes to fireworks, Wednesday afternoon's debate between five candidates seeking to replace U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) was a wet match compared to the M-80s lobbed during the most recent presidential debates.
Republicans Lynn Schott and Bob Peterson and Democrats Joe Dunn, Bao Nguyen and Lou Correa expressed repeated agreement with one another on the issues they were asked about, which ranged from immigration and ISIS to free trade and affordable housing for millennials. Even when "I agree with Bao" or "like Lou says" were not uttered, the candidates mostly gave answers that parroted one another.
All want to create more jobs and housing opportunities in the 46th Congressional District. They want to strengthen the middle class, reform immigration policies and usher in bright futures for young people. No one on the dais inside a banquet room at the tony Pacific Club in Newport Beach expressed support for the Trans Pacific Partnership international trade agreement.
Voters were left to parse out subtle differences on how each would accomplish those goals—as stated in one-minute answers to questions during the Orange County Public Affairs Association's hour and change event.
Most differences fell along party lines. Schott, an Irvine councilwoman, and Peterson, who told the polite crowd of business-suited professionals that he rose from washing the underwear of Orange County Jail inmates to overseeing the joint, each say they want to cut government regulations and seal the border before considering comprehensive immigration reform.
Both took gentle jabs at “career politicians,” who in this race would be Dunn, who served two terms as a California state senator, and Correa, who was first elected to the state Assembly in 1998 and later went on to win seats in the state Senate and on the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Peterson said career politicians are beholden to special interests, while Schott said Dunn and Correa's lives obviously improved as elected officials but the same cannot be said of their constituents.
"I believe I am the candidate who has the hands on the pulse of this community," Schott said. "Many candidates here are good at getting elected. But the job is not getting elected. It is serving the people of the 46th district."
Schott and Peterson got an assist from Nguyen, who said career politicians need to be held accountable for leaving California so over-regulated. That set off one of the afternoon's rare sparks as Correa called for a "point of order." That's because, in responding earlier to an audience question about over-regulation, Correa spoke of two times as a legislator he helped craft bills to cut regulations so specific businesses would remain in the Golden State. When Nguyen uttered the A word (accountability), Correa again referenced his two examples before informing the upstart, "I'd be happy to show you my resume."
Which led to Patterson and his I-agree-with-Bao moment by saying he, too, believes career politicians need to be held accountable. Schott then called it "demonstrable" that taxes are too high, regulations are too plentiful and corporate headquarters are too eager to leave the state or even the country.
"We have to look at business owners and entrepreneurs as the hearty backbone to our country's economy," she said.
I was expecting a standing O in this room, but Schott's statement was met by silence, crickets, not even one half-hearted "harumph." Perhaps the coffee was not coming around quickly enough to wake the crowd so late into the program.
Only Dunn had the guts to turn the regulation question around, saying if they are truly onerous they should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. But he took issue with the blanket nature of the question, noting that California currently has the fastest growing economy in the country. That's because people want to stay in homes, parks and open land protected by regulations, environmental or otherwise, Dunn reasoned. Were that not true, he said, all these businesses would relocate to Mississippi, which imposes the fewest regulations.
Of course, everyone is not enjoying the spoils of California's growth. All three Democrats called for creating more middle class jobs through the repair of our decaying infrastructure, and each agreed college tuition and student loan debt are too damn high.
Overall, based on their answers, Schott sounded more moderate than Peterson, Dunn came off more liberal than Correa, and Nguyen obviously pitched himself as the lone immigrant millennial who'll be around to see the bright future all the other candidates say they want to guarantee him.
Moderating the event was former Tustin Mayor Jerry Amante, a Republican and self-described "little Italian" who opened by tipping his chapeau de paille to Sanchez, acknowledging the would-be U.S. senator's many years tirelessly addressing constituent and Orange County issues in Washington, D.C.
"Each of the five candidates are vying to fill big high heels," Amante says.
Given what they went on to tell the crowd, one wonders if they all wear the same size.
"As a proud Mexican American," he resents politicians who portray people his age as criminals and rapists. (Paging Donald Trump ...) ... "The world is getting a little dangerous right now." ... "We need a strong, smart military. ... People on the ground [in the Middle East] know who our friends are. We need to work with our friends, such as Israel." ... The federal government is considering ending the FHA loan program and, "I don't know why." This will be disastrous to consumers and businesses.
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"My No. 1 issue with any trade agreement is does it cost U.S. jobs. If the answer is yes, my answer is no." ... "Our infrastructure is crumbling, so that is critical to every business represented here today." ... To defeat ISIS "in the long term, we need to look at the conditions, like poverty, dictatorships, bigotry, to allow them to find their own path forward so their citizens can live there." ... Students mired in student debt need a path to home ownership, "the great stabilizer" for healthy communities.
"I'm going to fight to rebuild America." To pay to fix our infrastructure, "close the loopholes that allow corporations to take their wealth offshore." ... "As a congressman, I will not let what happened in Flint happen in Orange County." ... "We live in a highly inter-connected world. We can't go it alone. At home. we're effected by terrorism as well. ... We should not work with any country that is OK with xenophobia." ... "I am a proud millennial. Too many college graduates have massive debt."
Law enforcement needs a voice in Washington, D.C., adding the "maligning and fear mongering is unacceptable." ... A 2016 index ranks the U.S. military "marginal to weak. ... That is not acceptable in this nation." ... When it comes to student loan debt, young people need to put some "skin in the game," and by that he means working to earn their way instead of "handouts." Unfortunately, older immigrants have taken away too many of their jobs.
People in the 46th district "are in a lot of trouble" due to a lack of jobs and clear vision of a safe future, especially once they reach their golden years. ... "We need legitimate mortgage reform. I see millennials struggling in the sharing economy because they see government roadblocks." ... "We have our priorities mixed up. ... We talk about repairing our infrastructure. The good people of the 46th district are trying to figure out how to pay their rents and mortgages next month."