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By Miriam Raftery

Photos, from top left:  Ammar Campa-Najjar, Carl DeMaio, Helen Horvath, Brian Jones, Darrel Issa, Henry Ota

February 15, 2020 (San Diego) – Six candidates vying to fill the vacancy left by Rep. Duncan D. Hunter’s resignation took to the stage Friday in a debate sponsored by the Greater San Diego Association of Realtors at the Doubletree Hotel in Mission Valley.  Democrat Ammar Campa Najjar squared off against Republicans Carl DeMaio, Darrell Issa and Brian Jones as well as independents Helen Horvath and Henry Ota.

In response to questions, the candiates delved into issues including housing affordability, stabilizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,  reducing homelessness, fairness and equality, bringing jobs to our region, taxation, traffic, and more.

In opening statements, Campa-Najjar introduced his mother, who works in real estate, and emphasized his local roots in East County and experience working for the Chamber of Commerce at a national level as well as in the Labor Dept.  He said he is “tired of people looking down at those I’ve looked up to my whole life,” working people, and wants to help the middle class.

DeMaio, a former San Diego City Councilman and conservative radio talk show host, says the race is about “Who do you trust to go to Washington and fight?” He pledged to fight for people who “can no longer afford to live here.”

Horvath, an Army veteran with a PhD in psychology and 22 years of experience in federal consulting work, says she is “disgusted” with politicians. She says she is running to serve the community, not any political party, and wants to work on women’s issues among others. She mentioned her honorable discharge adding, “I had a secret security clearance in veiled swipes at Issa, who was rejected by the Republican-led Senate for a Trump trade position appointment due to failing an FBI background check.

Issa talked about his experience in the House and said he decided not to seek reelection in the 49th Congressional district in order to help Trump, before Trump became president. He criticized the Senate for blocking his appointment to the trade post. Issa, a veteran, said he had “two honorable discharges.” (Issa omitted mention of a bad conduct rating, demotion, and car theft allegation during his military service.)

Jones noted that he is a fully licensed real estate agent as well as State Senator representing East County and North County in a district with an 80% overlap to the 50th Congressional district. “I got 180,000 votes in the last election,” he said.

Ota, a loan officer, said he’s running on a single issue: to end homelessness in the United States. He is not affiliated with any party.

The first question asked candidates how they would work to make housing more affordable.

Ota wants a universal civilian service program to give people opportunities similar to the Veterans Affairs housing program. He notes that the definition of affordable housing -- $1200 a month for someone earning $50,000, is not realistic in our region.

Jones blames local and state regulations including the Calif. Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for making projects more expensive. In Sacramento, he says he’s working with the author of Senate Bill 50 on amendments to “return local control to cities on zoning and development.”

Issa also cited problems in California but added that the federal government has historically been part of the problem. He wants funds to be available and Sacramento to “do its jobs.”

Horvath says she has done research and named people she’s worked with on a housing commission for low income homes, adding that she was promoted by Supervisor Dianne Jacob.  “I want to work with realtors for solutions,” she said, adding that she hopes to address low income housing needs through grants.

DeMaio railed against efforts to raise commercial property taxes capped by Proposition 13. He wants to be sure the gas tax goes for infrastructure and wants to defeat Measure A, a local county proposition that would allow the people to vote on large housing projects approved by Supervisors that require waivers of the general plan.

Campa-Najjar noted that realtors have said more housing inventory is needed. “We have to cut red tape to allow more building,” he said. He noted that California is the biggest funder of federal taxes but is not getting back our state’s fair share. “We are 28th in HUD (Housing and Urban Development) money but fourth highest in homelessness,” he said.  He pledged to stand up to Trump or whoever is president to “make sure we get our fair share back” and allow qualified buyers to have access to capital.

Next, candidates were asked if voters should care whether their representative lives in the district. Two candidates in the debate, DeMaio and Issa, do not live in the district. Predictably, they defended their choice while the other candidates pointed out reasons why candidates should live where they serve.

“You shouldn’t pick a district seat due to political considerations,” Campa-Najjar, who lives in Jamul, said. “I’m tired of politicians picking voters instead of voters picking politicians.”

Horvath, an Alpine resident, said she’s gone to events across the district including events with Kumeyaay Native American tribal members, veterans and other groups in the area.  “You need someone that understands the issues and lives in the district,” she stated.

Jones, who said he’s lived in Santee since age 10 and represented the district for over 20 years, notes that his father was a homebuilder.  “I know this district and the voters know me,” he said, touting his legislative record of conservative, faith-based, family-oriented values.

Ota agreed that “absolutely” a candidate should live in the district, but notes he is a “transplant.”

By contrast, DeMaio ducked discussing local issues, instead proclaiming, “people are tired of career politicians who sell out. I’ a fighter. I will not sell out.” 

Issa said he voted from his home in Bonsall and noted that over a third of his former 49th Congressional district was in the 50th before reapportionment. “No, I don’t believe you need to live in the district,” he said, “but you need to have a heart in the district.”

Asked how they would address homelessness, given that over half the nation’s homeless are in California, candidates gave sharply conflicting responses.

Ota wants to reopen and fund  mental health facilities with a 90-day evaluation and universal civilian service with a goal of ending homelessness in two years.

Jones thinks the federal role is limited on this issue and wants a punitive approach toward some cities. He blamed Democrats in Sacramento, stating, “If you make it easier to be homeless, the more homeless you get.”  On a federal level, he said, “I like Donald Trumps idea to take the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) …and go after cities like San Francisco. If there is a health crisis, come in with sanctions and prosecutions.”

Issa said Pres. Trump “has been engaged on this issue” and noted that Housing & Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson visited San Diego this week. “Our mayor has proven we can do a better job than San Francisco and L.A. by actually trying to cure it [homelessness].” He wants to make money available for Solutions for Change, a faith-based group that requires homeless to address substance abuse issues and transition them into homes.  He favors housing with services but not housing first.

Horvath offered a more compassionate view. “Our community is faced with the politics of demonization,” she observed. Se faulted DeMaio for previously calling homeless people “vagrants,” adding, “When I heard that, my heart broke, because I am a vteran ad I think of all the veterans who are borderline homeless, who struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”  She said DeMaio’s remark shows a lack of knowledge on the issue, adding, “We need to create the change in the community so we’re not looking at homelessness only as a mental health problem.”

DeMaio said his website lays out a four-point homeless plan and says his campaign office is in a homeless shelter.  Like Issa, he touted money for the faith-based Solutions for Change program and requiring people to be clean and sober. “We need to stop coddling and start caring. Not housing first,” he concluded.

Campa-Najjar quoted Jesus, noting that Christian values call for caring for the least among us.  He notes that many homeless are veterans, and that 80% of local homeless people are from San Diego – they didn’t come here from somewhere else.  He again called for the funding formula for HUD to be changed so California gets its fair share.  Homeless need housing, wrap-around services and mental health, he said, adding, “There is no silver bullet solution. We have to do everything.”

Next, candidates were asked their views on raising or repealing the cap on  SALT (State and local tax deduction). SALT lets taxpayers in high-tax states like California deduct local tax payments on their federal tax returns, but Trump signed a tax law which caps those deductions at $10,000 for single filers and married couples filing jointly.

All candidates agreed on lifting the cap.

Campa-Najjar said the cap should be changed and there should be no marriage penalty.  “WE need to repeal that.” He added he is running to represent everyone in the district and when needed will stand up against whoever is in the White House, whether that’s Trump, Boomberg, Sanders or someone else.  “We will repeal the limits on the SALT Cap deductions, because it helps people in our district and in our county and our state.”

DeMaio said the Trump tax cuts saved $2300 a year for the average taxpayer in San Diego and he, too, wants to eliminate the SALT cap, noting people are “taxed on money you never received.”

Horvath supports eliminating what she calls the “marriage penalty” tax as well as tacking other issues  hurting families and women including military sexual assaults, and notes that as a consultant she has made recommendations for cutting other programs to save money such as a $4 million Navy program cut.

Issa, who voted against the tax bill when in Congress, noted it wasn’t easy to tell Speaker Paul Ryan he would oppose it. He said the bill was “unconstitutional on principal,” adding, “I told my party they were making a mistake…Of course I will lift the cap. Taxing people twice is wrong.”

Jones said he supports tax reform and raising the deduction cap.

Ota noted that as a single person he benefited from the tax plan could would support an overhaul of the tax code.

Candidates were then asked how they would reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which fell under federal conservatorship and hold over half the nation’s home mortgages.

Ota called for going back to private capital.

Jones said government involvement in a transaction results in failure. I support complete reform, either completely privately funded or completely government-backed,” he stated.

Issa said, “I fought the Freddie and Fannie takeover” and also fought corruption including CEOs “cooking the books” which contributed to the crash.  “Some things the government does well, when they are looking over shoulders,” he noted, adding that if there was no corruption, Fannie and Freddie could have profits.

Horvath said she would support a public-private partnership and wants to assure long-term availability of funds to consumers.

DeMaio said continued oversight of Fannie and Freddie is needed. He likened politicians to “arsonist firefighters” and said problems were caused by those after “fast and easy money” and by people who were “put into homes they never should have been in.”

Campa-Najjar said, “I agree with the National Association of Realtors” position on the issue with regard to government charters and oversight.

Candidates differed sharply when asked if they would support the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination in housing, employment and services based on “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition of an individual.”  The measure passed the House of Representatives last year, with most Republicans voting against it.

Campa-Najjar affirmed, “You should not be denied based on sexual orientation, religious beliefs or anything else”” in housing and other concerns.

Horvath noted that she recently wrote an article supporting an Equal Rights Amendment for women and criticized Jones for “not supporting equali right. It hurts my heart as  a Christian,” she added, affirming that she, too, supports the Equality Act. “We need equal rights for everyone in housing and everything else.”

Ota agreed that “I don’t think anybody should be excluded.”

The three Republicans – DeMaio, Issa, and Jones, all said they oppose the Equality Act.

DeMaio, who is gay, said he instead supports the Fairnessfor All Act, because “we also need to be mindful of those with religious beliefs.”

Issa stated, “No, I’m not going to support HB 5 (the Equality Act),” adding he fears that “it could become leverage for attacks on faith-based organizations.”  He drew a parallel to the Affordable Care Act, which required employers to provide coverage for birth control

Jones said the Equality Act has “many pitfalls” and that he would not support it as currently written. He cited First Amendment freedom of religion rights.

Next, candidates were asked what the believe is the most pressing infrastructure issue in the 50th Congressional District.

Ota cited sewage from Mexico to local waterways, but he admitted this is not in the district.

Jones cited traffic gridlock on State Route 52 in Santee as well as problems on highways 78 and 67.  He wants a federal audit of funds going to SANDAG (San Dego Association of Governments) and has also called for a state audit of SANDAG.

Issa agreed that SANDAG has not lived up to obligations to North County and East County.

Horvath quipped that she broke her nose on a local road and is aware firsthand of infrastructure problems with roads and bridges. She also cited concerns with SANDAG priorities and noted, “We don’t need bike lanes in East and North County.”

DeMaio said, “Talk is cheap, action is everything.”  He wants to “stop SANDAG from stealing Transnet money” and thinks 100% of federal gas tax money should go to roads. He, too, wants audits.

Campa-Najjar  notes Jamul still has dirt roads and Alpine students without a high school have to commute on the highway and “they die.”  He said it is time for California to get back funds to which our state is entitled. “We’re done being double-taxed.” While others griped about SANDAG, a local agency, Campa-Najjar wants to see a federal infrastructure bill to invest in our region’s infrastructure.

How would candidates bring jobs to our region and what industries would they prioritize?

Campa-Najjar, who has worked in the U.S. Labor Dept. promoting job creation, called for apprenticeship programs and vocational training. “The average apprentice makes  $70,000 a year,” he said, adding that if apprentices can “earn while they learn” they can afford housing and education. He again emphasized his desire to “rebuild the middle class” that has been decimated by loss of good-paying jobs.

DeMaio wants to “cut the cost of living and the cost of workers” and “cut te cost of operating for businesses.”

Horvath said lack of childcare is hurting communities. She wants to increase childcare and work on new job opportunities including opportunities for immigrants to fill some jobs.

Issa blamed California for stagnating growth and said, “Education is part of it,”  noting that our state’s schools are rated 49th and 50th in the nation.  

Jones focused on the question asked, stating, “Jobs, the economy and small business are my area in the legislature.” He said he’s had 26 bills signed by Democratic governments and “most deal with helping small businesses, helping you succeed.” He wants to “get government out of the way in lending and in building,” as well as getting approvals faster. He noted that he served on committees dealing with Biocon and the blue economy” and sees these as key opportunities for jobs in our region.


Ota touted his universal civilian service program to train people in jobs in fields such as healthcare, agriculture, forestry, infrastructure and more.

Throughout the debate, DeMaio regularly ran over his scheduled time, despite multiple admonishments by the moderator, Matt Hall of the San Diego Union-Tribune, also president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists.

In closing statements, Ota noted that this is a ”crazy time in the world” and urged voters to decide which two candidates’ should advance to a run-off in November.

Jones praised the new San Diego Association of Realtors president as a “pillar of stability” and added that he wants to see the IRS tax code redone. In a barb at opponents, he reminded voters to decide, “Who do you want to listen to for the next eight months?”

Issa noted that with 18 years of seniority in Congress, “I could go right to the top of key committees.”

Horvath said she is sick of partisan politics. She touted her 22 years of federal government operations experience and quipped, “We need a psychologist in Congress at this point!”  Horvath, who had asked for equal time when opponents repeatedly ran over theirs, but was denied, added, “We have had some lapses in behavior tonight.”  While some have poured big  money from special interests and out-of-area donors, Horvath pledged, “I will  not be bought.”

DeMaio said Trump gave up a job on the Apprentice show for “a worse job” as President. “I’m doing the same,” he said, referring to stepping down as a talk show host to run for Congress.  “The voters of California need a fighter—not a sellout, not a quitter.”

Campa-Najjar said he wants to put “country over party. I’m not bought by either party.” He said we are on the “precipice of greatness” here in San Diego County,with our biotech industry and military, but “we have to move forward together.”  Though he is a Democrat he assured conservatives he does not support open borders or taking guns away, and is concerned about “crushing debt.”  He concluded, “You’ve invested in my education. Let me give back” to serve the community.

View videos of full debate:

Part 1: https://youtu.be/txEnXUBpqOw

Part 2: https://youtu.be/hcKapGlcPW0

Part 3: https://youtu.be/iJ_j71lYPFM

Part 4: https://youtu.be/YEsiX1tOAKM

 Part 5: https://youtu.be/yEeKdy_aD0Q

Part 6: https://youtu.be/L08qj-TH634

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