24th District congressional candidates emphasize differences in forum

The nine candidates for the 24th District congressional seat are, from left: Katcho Achadjian, Salud Carbajal, Justin Fareed, Steve Isakson, Matt Kokkonen, Benjamin Lucas, William Ostrander, Helene Schneider and John Uebersax. They faced off during a debate Thursday at Cuesta College.
The nine candidates for the 24th District congressional seat are, from left: Katcho Achadjian, Salud Carbajal, Justin Fareed, Steve Isakson, Matt Kokkonen, Benjamin Lucas, William Ostrander, Helene Schneider and John Uebersax. They faced off during a debate Thursday at Cuesta College. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Immigration reform, offshore oil drilling, LGBT rights and even the types of cars they arrived in became topics of discussion for the 24th Congressional District candidates Thursday night at Cuesta College, as each tried to differentiate themselves from their opponents in their fourth debate of the election.

Nine people are running for the seat being vacated in January by outgoing nine-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Lois Capps. The four Democrats, three Republicans and two independents in the race mirror the political diversity of the district since boundaries were redrawn in 2010.

Capps has long enjoyed a Democratic majority in the district, which covers all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties as well as a small slice of Ventura County. But the district is now more competitive with registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans by a slim 37 to 33 percent. Independent and decline-to-state voters account for about 23 percent.

The two candidates with the most votes in the June 7 primary, regardless of political party, will move on to the general election on Nov. 8.

As one audience member at Thursday night’s forum mused: “This is gonna be interesting, whatever happens in June.”

The forum was moderated by Brad Pomerance, anchor of Charter CommunicationsCalifornia Edition, and featured 14 questions submitted in advance by Cuesta College students as well as questions posed live via Pomerance’s Twitter page.

With each candidate given a minute to respond and with some questions presented in a yes or no format, the forum moved at a rapid pace. Here’s a look at some of the key issues addressed:

Offshore oil drilling

In a question submitted by a student, candidates were asked if they would support further local offshore oil drilling in light of the onshore leak of 101,000 gallons of oil from a pipeline owned by Plains All American Pipeline in Refugio Beach in May 2015.

Most of the Democrats said they don’t support renewing the leases of current drilling operations off the Santa Barbara coast. Two-term Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider called oversight and maintenance of existing pipelines woefully inadequate and three-term Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal said the perils of oil drilling outweigh the benefits.

Democrat William Ostrander, a San Luis Obispo rancher and founder of the campaign finance reform-focused Citizen’s Congress, called oil a “20th century technology” and said the U.S. should stop subsidizing the oil industry.

Benjamin Lucas, a Democrat from Montecito, however, said he supports offshore drilling and blamed Capps specifically, saying that on her watch, local pipelines have gone without upgrades for some 30 years.

Republican candidates either supported or indicated their support for continued local drilling. Matt Kokkonen, a San Luis Obispo financial planner, said drilling for oil offsets natural underwater seepage. He said drilling has reduced the environmental impact of seepage by 50 percent, citing an unnamed study.

State Assemblyman and former San Luis Obispo County supervisor Katcho Achadjian, who owns several gas stations, said he supports drilling but wants more emphasis placed on pursuing renewable energy sources and related jobs.

Justin Fareed, a Santa Barbara rancher and vice president of his family’s athletics business, would not directly answer the question, saying only that the U.S. oil industry has the latest technology in place to prevent environmental hazards.

The independents were split, with Atascadero engineer Steve Isakson saying he does not support more drilling. Morro Bay statistician John Uebersax, who is running on an anti-war platform, said the U.S. should produce its own oil in order to maintain independence from countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Another student question asked what type of vehicle each candidate arrived in, drawing varied responses from Fareed’s Jeep Grand Cherokee to Kokkonen’s Chevy diesel truck, to Schneider’s Toyota Corolla.

Ostrander said he carpooled.

The role of federal government

Asked about the role of the federal government — whether they support President John F. Kennedy’s view that government should lift people up through various services or President Ronald Reagan’s preference of limited government — most candidates split along party lines. Isakson leaned toward Kennedy while Uebersax said Americans should not depend on their government to solve problems.

Minimum wage, abortion, LGBT rights

In a series of yes or no questions posed on Twitter, candidates were asked about their support of a $15 minimum wage, whether they think abortion should remain protected under federal law, and whether they support the elimination of anti-discrimination laws, such as North Carolina’s recently passed law prohibiting transgender people who have not taken surgical and legal steps to change the gender written on their birth certificates from using public restrooms for the gender with which they identify.

All candidates but the three Republicans support a $15 minimum wage.

On the abortion question, the Democrats and Isakson said the procedure should remain protected under federal law. Kokkonen said it shouldn’t. Achadjian, Fareed and Uebersax each declined to answer the question, saying the issue is complicated.

On LGBT rights, Kokkonen and Fareed said states should have the right to pass their own laws. Achadjian disagreed with his Republican opponents. “Discrimination of any kind, in any place, is unacceptable,” Achadjian said.

The Democrats echoed Achadjian’s words, with Lucas saying North Carolina was “wrong” to pass the law.

“Ignorance is ignorance no matter where you are,” Ostrander agreed.

“The thought that some parts of the country can have some rights and others can’t is appalling,” Schneider said.

Immigration reform

Fareed and Kokkonen — whose campaign slogan is “The Legal Immigrant” and immigrated to the U.S. from Finland in the 1960s— cited public safety concerns and the need to secure borders.

Achadjian, who immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon in the 1970s, again differed from his conservative colleagues, saying he supports guest worker programs and a reasonable path to citizenship, but added that people with criminal records shouldn’t qualify.

Isakson and Uebersax joined most Democrats in supporting a reasonable path to citizenship, though Lucas suggested increasing the criminal penalties for illegally crossing the border.

Congressional partisanship

A question about easing partisanship in Congress turned into a back-and-forth between the Democrats and Republicans, with the two independents calling for solidarity.

Ostrander called Republican members of Congress “obstructionists,” and Schneider pointed to the Republicans’ ongoing efforts to block President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, to the U.S. Supreme Court following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February.

“These are the same old talking points,” Fareed replied. “You (Ostrander) seem to be looking backward. I’m looking forward.”

“Obamacare was passed without a single Republican vote,” Kokkonen said. “It’s the Democrats who are being obstructionists for not allowing it to be overturned.”

Achadjian took the opportunity to tout his moderate record in the Assembly, saying he was the only Republican appointed to a committee chairmanship in a Democratic-held state Assembly.

Uebersax, the anti-war candidate, told the audience that the bipartisan issues are largely distractions at a time when voters should be focusing on the United States’ place in the global community. “We’re all Americans,” he said.