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Congressional Candidates Duke It Out at San Marcos High School

Six of the nine candidates vying for the 24th Congressional District seat discussed immigration, education, drugs and foreign policy

Six of nine congressional candidates attended a debate at San Marcos High School Thursday night.
Six of nine congressional candidates attended a debate at San Marcos High School Thursday night.  (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

Less than three weeks before the June 7 primary, six of the nine declared candidates for California’s 24th Congressional District debated national issues at a forum at San Marcos High School in Goleta.

Discussing immigration, campaign financing, and elements of domestic and foreign policy, the candidates seeking to win the seat frequently offered concurring assessments of many topics, but starkly different approaches to solving problems.

Two of the four fundraising leaders in the race, Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, a Democrat, and State Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, a Republican, were absent, as was Morro Bay statistician John Uebersax.

Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, a Democrat, told the sparse audience of about 40 that Carbajal was attending a fundraiser, and San Marcos’ student moderators said that Achadjian was attending to assembly business in Sacramento.

The nine candidates are running for the seat currently held by Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, who announced her retirement last year. 

The debate started off with campaign finance reform, and both Schneider and Republican Justin Fareed, a Santa Barbara businessman and rancher, took the opportunity to argue that Carbajal’s absence was the result of a broken system.

“I think there’s a problem when, in a primary election especially, that the voters are being outnumbered by special interests and the establishment in Washington, D.C.,” Schneider said.

One issue that saw the candidates split along familiar party lines was gun control, with Democrats Schneider and San Luis Obispo rancher William Ostrander favoring greater regulation and Republicans Fareed and financial advisor Matt Kokkonen focusing on Second Amendment rights.

“What we need to have is follow-through on the actual mental health component legislation to that end, but most importantly, we need to make sure that we have modernized technology for inter-agency cooperation,” Fareed said.

The six agreed, however, that U.S. education policy required considerable revamping, and each argued that more vocational training opportunities were an essential part of that.

Ostrander, Kokkonen, and Democrat Benjamin Lucas of Montecito argued for potentially incorporating public service programs to either help students pay off college debts or as another method of getting them engaged in their communities.

Though all six once again agreed that the immigration system is broken, the topic proved one of the most contentious points of discussion.

Two of the four fundraising frontrunners attended Thursday’s debate: Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider and Santa Barbara businessman Justin Fareed. Click to view larger
Two of the four fundraising frontrunners attended Thursday’s debate: Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider and Santa Barbara businessman Justin Fareed.  (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

Fareed argued that the issue was complex and required a series of smaller, more narrowly defined steps toward reform.

Schneider dismissed the approach, which she said was liable to fall apart when political momentum ran out, and argued that a single large-scale, holistic push for reform was needed.

Fareed suggested that she was going about it “the exact same way past politicians having been trying to address this issue.”

Some of the livelier moments of the night came when the fiery, Bernie Sanders-esque Ostrander and Kokkonen, the most conservative candidate in the race, butted heads over the role of immigrants in society.

“Studies have been made about what the economic impacts of immigration are for both legal and illegal,” said Ostrander, who more than peppered his arguments with scientific studies, legislative particulars, and a range of statistics.

“And all the studies point out that there is a positive net gain to both legal and illegal immigration in this country.”

Kokkonen strongly disagreed.

“They are illegal aliens, and we have a problem in the enormous cost to all of our facilities because of that,” said Kokkonen, who later argued that some 20 percent of Syrian refugees have terrorist inclinations. He rhetorically offered a jar of M&Ms to the crowd, asking if they’d take one knowing 3 percent were poisoned.

Schneider, Ostrander, Lucas, and Steve Isakson, an Atascadero engineer, roundly dismissed the notion of defunding Planned Parenthood, which many Republicans have argued funds abortions with tax-payer money, and agreed that the organization offers valuable educational and medical services.

“Since the '70s under the Hyde Amendment, none of those dollars are even used for abortion services,” said Schneider, who worked in human resources management for 11 years with the organization before running for public office.

“The debate about that issue is ridiculous because it’s not evening making any sense according to the facts.”

Though he said Planned Parenthood offered important services to the community, Fareed dodged the defunding question, insisting that the real concern is “how are taxpayer dollars being spent and is that actually yielding a return for the tax-payers.”

Schneider and Fareed, the two most popular candidates present at the debate, generally agreed on the need for more local control over education standards, citing the “cookie-cutter” approach of Common Core State Standards as ill-suited for communities’ variety of educational needs.

When the discussion turned to the environment and the state’s severe drought, Ostrander argued that, as a farmer, he had the most experience tackling the state’s water and environmental issues, citing his use of regenerative farming and sequestration of carbon using soil.

Fareed came out in support desalination and the construction of infrastructure intended to produce and store water.

“It’s something that has to be an investment,” he said.

Schneider promoted “a diversification of options” that included better landscaping, continued conservation efforts, and desalination.

Santa Barbara, which plans to reopen its desalination plan in the fall, has one of the highest conservation rates in the state, she said, at 35 percent.

All six agreed that medical marijuana should be legalized, though the degree to which pot in general should be legalized varied between the candidates.

Fareed argued local and state regulations would better address communities’ own unique drug-use situations, and Ostrander floated the idea of a widespread decriminalization effort, rhetorically asking if the nation’s drug policy is about reducing addiction and use, or penalizing users.

Ostrander, Fareed, and Schneider emphasized the need for turning more attention to the growing problem of prescription drug addiction.

Of the nine candidates, four — Carbajal, Fareed, Schneider, and Achadjian — have all significantly outraised their opponents and garnered far more endorsements.

The top two vote-getters of the nine candidates on June 7 will continue to the Nov. 8 general election, regardless of party preference. 

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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