Candidates Vie for House Seat Left Open by Former Representative

Candidates vying to fill California’s vacant 25th District congressional seat sparred at a forum at Santa Susana High School in Simi Valley on Thursday, blasting political corruption in politics and promising to represent the interests of residents. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (CN) — Republican and Democratic candidates vying to fill California’s 25th Congressional District seat said at a forum Thursday they support rent caps and construction of more affordable housing but disagreed on issues like climate change and immigration.

The seat has been vacant since November after former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill resigned amid a probe into ethics violations stemming from leaked photos of her relationship with a campaign aide.

Hill won the seat as part of the blue wave that handed Democrats control of the House in November 2018.

Forum moderator David Maron of the League of Women Voters of Ventura County asked candidates about their proposals to address a host of issues including homelessness, gun control and health care.

Getro Elize, a veteran running as a Democrat, said he would back a cap on rent increases in order to curb the flow of people becoming homeless while also boosting services that connect people to housing.

Democrat Anibal Valdez-Ortega, an attorney with a background in tenants’ rights activism, said he would push to expand both tenants rights and affordable housing.

Republican businessman Daniel Mercuri also agreed with capping rents but said local government should do more to purchase land for affordable housing development.

California’s 25th District covers portions of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, a region filled with arid, mountainous landscapes and one that is projected to get increasingly hotter as climate change worsens.

Republican Kenneth Jenks said climate change is real, not a partisan issue and it is a challenge the entire district should take seriously.

“Really what’s lacking is the leadership to make [sustainable energy sector] projects real,” Jenks said.

Valdez-Ortega said he wants to bring jobs to the region — in part through the sustainable energy sector — in order to curb rising climates while keeping local talent from leaving to jobs in LA.

Cenk Uygur, a Democrat and host for the news program The Young Turks, said climate change solutions — including green energy job projects — are stalled in Congress because of political donations from lobbyists and corporations.

“We can go from the worst case example to the best case example if we solve the problem right,” Uygur said, adding that he would also support the Medicare for All plan, another proposal he said is stalled by political corruption.

“If you don’t have enough money, it’s unbelievable but it’s true, we let you die,” Uygur said. “Can you imagine if we let people burn because they didn’t have private fire insurance?”

Uygur was endorsed by 2020 hopeful and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders but quickly retracted the endorsement after a backlash from Democrats who said Uygur has made sexist comments in the past.

Uygur said in an interview that the attacks are meant to smear him and his record as a progressive.

A majority of candidates on stage blasted political action committees as a root cause of political corruption and said they would support infrastructure for publicly financed elections.

“I don’t believe in money mixing with politics,” Jenks said.

Elize also pledged to support a Medicare for All plan and told the audience that the election was a “fight for the soul of this country.”

Addressing a question on gun control, an issue that was highlighted after a shooting last November at Saugus High School, Elize said that while he supports the idea of a constitutional right to bear arms, he would back measures such as red flag laws.

Valdez-Ortega said the Saugus shooting signals the need to act at the federal level on gun control.

“It shook me to my core,” Valdez-Ortega said of the shooting, adding that government funding should revamp mental health services for students.

David Rudnick, who said he identifies as a “JKF Democrat,” said he agrees with the proposal to arm certain teachers with guns as a security measure.

On immigration, Rudnick said immigrants should be offered a pathway to citizenship and processed fairly in immigration proceedings.

“The whole nation should be a sanctuary,” Rudnick said. “Everyone deserves a fair shake at the American dream.”

Elize and Jenks noted their own families’ ties to immigration from other countries.

Valdez-Ortega, an immigration attorney, said immigrants should be assured a pathway to citizenship and pledged to protect legal status for DACA recipients if elected.

The forum took place at Santa Susana High School located in Simi Valley, the birthplace of former President Ronald Reagan.

Candidates mulled over the notion of whether a historically conservative district, which recently flipped for Democrats in 2018, would continue to back a progressive platform in its current “purple district” form.

Valdez-Ortega told Courthouse News in an interview that although the district has been historically conservative, voters a hungry for someone like him — a product of public schools and an immigrant working class family — to bring resources and jobs to the district.

“The appetite for change hasn’t been fed by Democratic leadership,” Valdez-Ortega said. “We have to be very conscious that different parts of the district have their own challenges.”

Assemblywoman Christy Smith, the candidate endorsed by the state Democrats to fill the seat, did not attend, citing conflicts with her official duties.

Smith is also backed by Governor Gavin Newsom, U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein as well as a host of labor organizations.

Candidate Courtney Lackey issued a statement saying she had to skip the forum to be with her sick father who is battling cancer.

Although Republican Mike Garcia did not attend the forum, dozens of his supporters crowded the school auditorium.

The former U.S. Navy pilot issued a statement saying he had previously scheduled a fundraiser.

Garcia was endorsed by the Ventura County Republican Party on Thursday, just weeks after picking up the nod from the Los Angeles GOP as well as former Gov. Pete Wilson.

“As we get closer to both March elections, more and more Republicans and conservatives around the district join our grassroots efforts every day,” Garcia said in a statement.

Steve Knight, the former GOP representative for the district, did not participate in the forum but announced Thursday he’d been endorsed by California Assemblyman Tom Lackey, a Republican lawmaker representing nearby Palmdale.

Knight, an LA Police Department and U.S. Army veteran, was also endorsed by U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy who in a statement praised Knight’s conservatism and ties to the district.

Voters in the district will vote twice for the March 3 primary, selecting a candidate for the full congressional term as well as a candidate in the special election to fill the empty seat until next January.

The outright winner of the special election will head to Washington or square off in a May 12 run-off.

Chad Kampbell, president of Democratic Alliance for Action in Simi Valley, said in an interview that political groups in the region are working to educate voters about the double election.

“It’s always a challenge that we as activists and party-based organizations, breaking through to voters with the right messaging at the right time,” Kampbell said. “People have regular lives and don’t follow politics as closely, so part of our role as individual and organizations is to make sure they have information available to them.”

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