California Senate candidates grilled in second debate, asked if Biden and Trump are too old

Clockwise from top left, Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Katie Porter, former Los Angeles Dodger Steve Garvey, and Rep. Barbara Lee.
Who could replace the late California Sen. Dianne Feinstein in this year's election? The leading candidates are, clockwise from top left, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, Rep. Katie Porter, former Dodger Steve Garvey and Rep. Barbara Lee. (Los Angeles Times)

With millions of ballots already mailed out across the Golden State, the four leading candidates for the U.S. Senate in California spent their second televised debate on the defensive at times and were pressed to say whether they thought President Biden and former President Trump were too old to run for reelection.

Reps. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) and Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Republican candidate Steve Garvey all faced sharp questions from moderators: Porter was asked if she waited too long to propose solutions to California's housing crisis; Lee about her support for a $50 minimum wage and whether it would be sustainable for small businesses; and Garvey pressured to say if he would accept Trump's endorsement, were it offered.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) avoided a similarly pointed question, though he was asked whether California's progressive criminal justice reforms have gone too far — an area in which his views have changed significantly since his earliest days as a tough-on-crime Democrat in the California Senate.

Ballots for the primary were sent out last week. More than 22 million Californians can vote in the election to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who died in September.

Read more: Your guide to the California U.S. Senate election: The race to succeed Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Recent polling has shown Schiff's lead widening. A poll conducted in January by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, co-sponsored by The Times, found that 21% of likely voters backed Schiff, 17% chose Porter, 13% were for Garvey and 9% picked Lee.

Garvey, who played first base for the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, aims to appeal to the shrinking but significant number of registered Republicans across the Golden State, as well as to "no party preference" voters and registered Democrats who believe their party has failed to address homelessness, the high cost of living and other pressing issues.

"These are three career politicians who have failed the people," Garvey said during a discussion on the state's affordability crisis. With 60 combined years of experience among Lee, Porter and Schiff, he said, "they could have solved this issue."

In the final weeks of the primary campaign, Porter and Schiff have unleashed a multimillion-dollar barrage of television and radio advertising. A new advertising campaign from Schiff and his supporters focuses on Garvey, calling him "too conservative for California" and loyal to Trump — a strategy likely to boost the political newcomer's profile among Republicans.

If Garvey consolidates support from Republicans, he could finish in the top two in the primary, which is all he needs to advance to the November general election. For Schiff, boosting Garvey could help edge Porter out of the November election, easing his path to victory.

Porter's campaign ads focus on her reputation in Congress as an irritant to Washington's entrenched political hierarchy, touting her as having an independent streak and not being beholden to corporate interests. She mentioned Monday her work on the House Oversight Committee grilling Wall Street CEOs and said she'd bring that sort of sharp inquiry to the Senate.

All four candidates were asked whether they believed Biden, 81, and Trump, 77, were too old to be running for a second term. In as many words, all said no.

Biden's age became a major issue in the 2024 presidential race after a special counsel investigating whether Biden mishandled classified documents during his previous positions as vice president and senator claimed that the president couldn't remember major milestones in his life.

"Experience matters, I have to say," said Lee, 77. "With regards to term limits, age limits, this is a democracy — people have the right to vote for who they want to vote for."

"We all in our own minds and with our own eyes and ears have to make that determination," said Garvey, 75.

During the fast-paced, one-hour debate, hosted by San Francisco Nexstar affiliate KRON 4 and carried by news stations statewide, Schiff said Trump was unfit for office at any age, and accused Garvey supporting the former president despite his failed attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Garvey has said he voted for Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections.

Asked whether he had spoken to Trump since launching his campaign, or whether he would accept his endorsement, Garvey initially sidestepped the questions, but eventually said that he and the former president had not spoken. He declined to say whether he would accept Trump's endorsement.

"These are personal choices," Garvey said. "I answer to God, my wife, family and the people of California. And I hope you would respect that I have personal choices."

Lee largely avoided the fray during the debate, but was asked to explain how her support for a $50 minimum wage — nearly seven times the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour — would be economically viable for a small-business owners. With California's high cost of living, she said, the wage was necessary for families to make ends meet — but implied that it would not apply nationwide.

"I've got to be focused on what California needs, and what the affordability factor is," she said.

Porter was asked why she waited until last week to release a plan to fix California's housing crisis, one of the biggest issues facing the state. She responded that she'd been working on the issue throughout her legal career advocating for consumer rights and since she first arrived in Congress in 2018, and that she has firsthand experience.

"My own children are questioning whether they're going to be able to live in California when they graduate from high school because of the high cost of living," Porter said.

The moderators, KTLA 5's Frank Buckley and Fox 40's Nikki Laurenzo, asked Schiff whether he thought progressive criminal justice reforms, including the elimination of cash bail for nonviolent crime and the reduction of some felony crimes to misdemeanors, had "gone too far."

Schiff said there is "no question that we have a crime problem in California, particularly these smash-and-grab robberies," but said the data do not suggest that progressive criminal justice reforms are to blame. Instead, he said, the state needs to invest more in community policing.

"I've been focused on trying to keep communities safe since I was a prosecutor," Schiff said. "Back when Mr. Garvey was playing baseball, I was prosecuting cases in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles."

A former federal prosecutor, Schiff campaigned for the state Senate in 1996 on a tough-on-crime platform and told voters he supported the state's three-strikes law and the death penalty.

Schiff told The Times last week that while "there was certainly a time when I supported the death penalty for those who killed cops and those who killed kids," he no longer supports capital punishment.

After the debate, Lee, who served in the California Legislature at the same time as Schiff, said their contrasting views on the subject offered a clear choice for voters. She recalled sponsoring a law that would've reformed the state's "three strikes" law, which Schiff voted against.

"The difference between us is I looked at criminal justice reform and public safety in a comprehensive way and that enhanced sentences don't necessarily mean a reduction in crime," she said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.