Jeff Clemetson | Contributing Editor
The November midterm elections are just around the corner. And while there is much talk of the Democrats’ hope to unseat enough Republicans in Congress with fresh, young progressive candidates to take back the House of Representatives, the race for California’s 53rd Congressional District is the exact opposite.
Republican Morgan Murtaugh, a 26-year-old media personality that works for right-wing news network One America News, is running a long-shot campaign to unseat incumbent Democrat Rep. Susan A. Davis and become the youngest member of Congress.
On Oct. 6, the two candidates held their one and only debate at Voice of San Diego’s Politifest event, moderated by Lynn Walsh of the Trusting News Project.
“I think it’s time for the next generation of leadership to step forward,” Murtaugh said in her opening remarks, adding that voters should “reflect on the hate” going on in Washington D.C. right now. “Our leadership is so divided that they are driving a toxic wedge into our society.” Murtaugh called the recent confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh “despicable” and said she is sexual assault survivor herself, but that she didn’t believe Kavanaugh’s accuser Dr. Christine Blasely Ford, and called her accusations partisan “hate.”
In her opening remarks, Davis said she was thankful for the opportunity to debate because as a former League of Women Voters president, she believes in making sure candidates can speak to voters. Davis then touted her public service experience at local, state and national levels.
“And in that capacity, I’ve had the opportunity to build coalitions with people and to get out and really understand how we can make a difference in people’s lives,” she said, adding that her ‘no’ vote on the Iraq War authorization showed her good judgement; and that her effort in repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was her proudest moment serving in Congress so far.
Immigration and border wall
Walsh kicked off questions by asking the candidates about immigration.
Murtaugh said she supported a border wall, but not “as described” by the Trump administration.
“The most important thing we need to do is separate immigration reform from border security,” Murtaugh said, adding that Davis used to believe that but “changed her tune.”
“I’ve been down to the border three times and I’ve had Border Patrol come to me and we’ve spoken on the issue,” she continued. “And the one thing that I hear consistently is that they need more manpower, they need better infrastructure, and they need better technology.”
Murtaugh suggested a wall is needed here in San Diego, but not one in the desert of Texas. She added that there should be a program to find out who illegals are, and then the U.S. should deport some and grant others “residency.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time on the border and with that have been helpful in providing the dollars, along with my colleagues, for the new Port of Entry,” Davis said, adding that billions of dollars allocated to that project now need to be spent on funding better security equipment.
Davis said she rejects “terrorizing” children and taking them away from their parents. “That is wrong. That is not who we are as a country.”
She criticized the Trump administration for not knowing what they were doing in implementing its immigration policies. “I’ve never seen anything that went out with such disregard for the people who were being affected,” Davis said. “We have to change that. We can’t be complicit in that.”
Davis said the solution is to codify how to deal with illegals so the administration won’t have legal leeway and to pass the Dreamers Act, but that those reforms are hung up by Republicans too afraid to sign any legislation.
“We need people who do what they say,” she said.
Murtaugh then asked why Davis voted against legislation with a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers recently offered up by congressional Republicans.
“Because it included a border wall and we don’t have the money,” Davis said, adding that she would rather spend money on infrastructure; that the wall was a “poison pill” in the legislation; and that the wall is not supported by a majority of the constituents of the 53rd District.
On the issue of California’s “sanctuary” laws, Davis said the state opted to keep law enforcement separate from border enforcement so that people will still engage with police about criminal matters and not be too scared to talk with police to report crime.
“We want to make sure that law enforcement who deals with the border — whether its ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] or Border Patrol — we want them to do their job right and well. But what we don’t need is have all law enforcement be engaged in that one goal,” she said.
Davis also said she is against ICE agents “grabbing” parents from places like schools and hospitals and that unless representatives speak out “forcefully” against such actions, they are condoning them.
Murtaugh said sanctuary states should not exist, and that California should “realistic” about number of immigrants we should allow. She likened the sanctuary state laws to local efforts to solve the homeless crisis by building affordable housing.
Building affordable housing, according to Murtaugh, won’t solve the causes of homelessness. Rather she said it is just the “eyesore” of homelessness and called the building affordable housing solution “lazy.” Her approach would be job training and help assimilating the homeless back into society.
“Throwing them into affordable housing, that’s not going to help the problem,” she said. “That’s going to keep them in poverty.”
Environmental roll backs
Walsh then asked the candidates whether they support the Trump Administration’s rollbacks of environmental protections, especially proposed changes that would limit California’s ability to set clean air standards.
Although Murtaugh dodged the question of whether she supports Trump’s environmental rollbacks, she did say she considers herself an environmentalist and that it is the government’s job to protect environment.
“One thing that drives me crazy, as someone who enjoys the environment so much, is the toxic waste that has gone on for decades in the Tijuana Valley,” she said. “It has gotten so bad that when there are storms, you can’t go into the ocean all the way up to Coronado.”
Murtaugh then praised Trump for including provisions in the new NAFTA agreement that will help address the issue.
Davis said she does not support rollbacks of environmental laws from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) or other agencies.
“What we need today is to continue the movement that San Diego has shown brings about sustainable growth and environmental change, cleanliness and security,” she said, adding that worldwide problems often stem from bad environments where poor water and air quality lead to civil unrest. “So it’s not just an environmental issue, it’s a national security issue and unless you fight against what this administration is doing today, then we are just enabling them.”
Davis said she has been working on the Tijuana Valley issue for many years, and that it has been hard to come up with solutions. In the last national defense budget, she put in language to have the military investigate and work on the problem because that area is where the Navy SEALs will train in near future.
“We used it as a tool to get them to pay attention to this problem,” she said. “I, personally, would not want one SEAL in the area unless we can define the problem and the solution and make sure it gets done.”
Davis also went after Trump’s tariffs on solar panels for setting back clean energy programs in San Diego.
On the question of what the government can do about gun violence, Davis said that one of her worst days in Congress was the day her friend Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot. She also listed recent school shootings at Parkland High and Sandy Hook as reasons for supporting gun control.
“We’ve had so many tragic times that innocent people have been killed because we have not done anything about this problem,” she said.
Davis added that change will require legislation and that she supports closing the gun show loophole; instituting background checks for everyone; and expanding services available for mental health.
Murtaugh said she can relate to the gun issue because she was almost at the October 2017 Las Vegas concert where a gunman opened fire, killing 59, and that she had friends who were shot there.
“I can definitely relate to the tragedy and the heartbreak that comes with mass shootings but we have to be cognizant of the fact that there are more guns in this country than there are human beings and to just say we’re going to get rid of guns is not feasible,” she said.
She added she would support universal background checks, but only if implemented “hand in hand” with concealed carry “reciprocity.”
Murtaugh also said she supports more mental health programs, as well as firearms education taught in schools.
Davis said that she is not in favor of gun control legislation that would take away guns from responsible gun owners, but does support taking “weapons of war” off the street.
The final question of the debate — about where the candidates stand on term limits — was picked from Twitter, Walsh said.
Murtaugh said she believes in term limits and said the only reason they have not been implemented is because members of Congress won’t vote to fire themselves from their jobs. She suggested that members of Congress should serve four-year terms instead of instead of two, but with a maximum of three or four terms.
“Running every two years is what I think has caused the political divide and why we can’t get a lot done,” she said. “Because members of Congress are constantly running for reelection.”
“What problem are we trying to solve?” she asked. “If it is a matter of we think that people serve too long, we have to look to some practices that other states have had.”
Davis pointed to California’s three term limit and said the positive was there were new people in committees right away; the negative was a loss of expertise. California eventually extended the limit.
Davis said one idea would be to put term limits on congressional committee chairs “because that’s when people develop leadership.” Davis recently stepped down as ranking member of the Armed Services Committee Military Personnel Subcommittee.
“That’s why I took myself out of chairing a committee, in order to let somebody else take that position,” she said.
—Additional reporting by Sara Butler, editor of San Diego Uptown News.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.