(CN) — The contenders for California’s 25th Congressional District seat sparred in a virtual candidate forum Friday over which policies would improve job growth, transit infrastructure and housing affordability, and which legislative moves would set the district up for recovery after the economic downturn fueled by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The district — which includes the Santa Clarita Valley, and portions of the northern San Fernando Valley, Antelope Valley and eastern Ventura County — has not had a representative in Congress for over five months.
Former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill resigned from the seat in November following an ethics probe of leaked photos documenting her relationship with a campaign aide.
Hill won the seat as part of the blue wave that handed Democrats control of the House in 2018.
Democrat Christy Smith and Republican Mike Garcia emerged from a crowded field of candidates from both parties and secured enough votes in the March 3 special primary to head into a runoff election to fill the vacant seat.
Democratic candidates combined for nearly 51% of the vote in the March 3 special primary election while Republican candidates captured 49% of votes, according to election data.
Due to the elevated risk of further spread of Covid-19 with traditional voting process, the May 12 election will be entirely vote-by mail, following an executive order signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom.
The governor’s order requires all voters in the 25th Congressional District to receive a vote-by-mail ballot.
At Friday’s forum, hosted by the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce, the candidates agreed a post-pandemic economic recovery plan for the district is sorely needed.
Smith, a California Assemblywoman representing Santa Clarita and roughly 58% of the district, said she would correct the error that led to small businesses in the district not receiving their fair share of federal stimulus funds.
“The federal response has to be getting money in people’s pockets while ensuring people can safely return to work,” Smith said, adding she would back a federally-funded revamp of the local health care system. “We need to be funding our health delivery system to make sure we can stand up to a pandemic in the future.”
As proof she can bring results to the district, Smith cited her decade of experience in public office and her existing relationship with the state’s Democratic congressional delegation.
Garcia, a businessman and former Navy fighter pilot, called for a bipartisan solution to addressing the district’s needs but said state leaders should be held accountable for tax increases that have added to residents’ already high living costs.
“We need to put politics aside, stop with the partisanship and work together. We need to drive the unemployment line downward in a safe fashion while not putting [workers] at risk,” Garcia said. “But I’m running because I don’t want the nation to become what our district has become, which is a victim of poor policy and high taxes.”
Garcia criticized state leaders, saying irresponsible tax policies have allowed the state to build up its $21 billion rainy day reserves.
“We have a rainy day fund because they’ve overtaxed us,” Garcia said. “I’d like to see how that comes back to us.”
Smith defended the rainy day fund, saying it has fueled the state’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
“We might see reduced [state] revenues in a few years,” Smith said. “The rainy day fund will get us through without draconian cuts to funding.”
On the state’s housing affordability crisis, Garcia said the issue is driven by bad policy.
“Even two millennials with good jobs can’t afford a home together,” Garcia said. “We need to cut the red tape and lower taxes.”
Smith said she agreed taxes and fees for things like the state-mandated review of a housing project’s environmental impact drive up construction costs.
“We should not eliminate environmental protections but we need a state buy-down option to make it enticing for housing developers to invest,” Smith said.
Garcia attacked Smith’s support of California’s Assembly Bill 5, a law designed to require gig-economy companies to offer employee status and benefits to their workers.
Garcia said the bill has eliminated independent contractor jobs that are vital to the economy and lowered workers’ wages.
Smith said the law closes a loophole that allows companies to not pay essential worker benefits, which in turn robs the state of vital finances.
“There a lot of great businesses that play by the rules,” Smith said. “But it creates unfair competition when there isn’t compliance.”
Garcia touted his positions as pro-taxpayer and pro-business stances that would drive economic growth.
“I think you can frankly drive a truck between Christy Smith and I in terms of tax policy,” Garcia said. “I look forward to serving with pride and dignity without drama, just results.”
President Donald Trump tweeted his endorsement of Garcia this week, praising his conservative stance on immigration, gun ownership rights and crime.
“An Annapolis graduate, he served our Country as a highly decorated Navy Fighter Pilot and will be a great Congressman (#CA25),” Trump tweeted. “Loves our Military, and Vets. Turn your Ballots in now and track them, watching for dishonesty. Report to Law Enforcement.”
Garcia is also backed by the Los Angeles County Republican Party, former LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and former California Gov. Pete Wilson.
Smith’s campaign responded to Trump’s endorsement with a series of tweets featuring Trump’s comments downplaying the severity of the Covid-19 outbreak before it swelled into a global pandemic.
The campaign also issued a statement touting support for Smith from local labor unions and from California Democratic Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein.
Smith, who flipped her assembly seat from red to blue in 2018, has also been endorsed by Newsom and the Los Angeles Times.
In a post-forum campaign email, Garcia spokesperson Lance Trover said the former fighter pilot won the debate.
“Christy Smith’s record of consistently voting against families and small business and for liberal Sacramento policies, including $3 billion in higher taxes, was on full display,” Trover said.
Kunal Atit, Smith’s deputy campaign manager, said Smith was the clear choice.
“As a state assemblywoman Christy has always put our community first, today voters heard how Christy will bring that same solutions oriented leadership to Congress to help residents and local businesses in CA25 weather the current economic and healthcare crisis.”