Porter, Schiff attack each other in final Senate debate. Is it a November preview?

By Shira Stein Feb 20, 2024 (SFChronicle.com)

Rep. Adam Schiff, left, and Rep. Katie Porter, take part in a debate for California’s Senate seat on Jan. 22 in Los Angeles. The candidates met again Tuesday night in the final debate before the March 5 primary.Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

The top four candidates for the open California Senate seat made their last pitch to voters Tuesday night in the final debate before the March 5 primary. 

The evening was either Rep. Katie Porter’s last gasp, or a preview of what the next eight months will look like if she and Rep. Adam Schiff face off in November.

Porter, D-Irvine, spent much of the debate trying to goad Schiff, D-Burbank, into a fight — and it worked. Schiff is in the lead in both polling and fundraising, and Porter is duking it out with Republican former baseball player Steve Garvey to advance to the general election. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, has been in fourth place in multiple polls.

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Schiff’s best-case scenario would be facing Garvey in November, essentially guaranteeing he would become California’s next senator. If he faces Porter, it will be an expensive, bruising battle for a safe Democratic seat.

In answering the first question of the NBC4-Telemundo 52 debate about how they would address inflation, Porter immediately went on the offensive, hitting Schiff for saying he wants to bring down child care and housing costs, but not signing onto legislation aiming to do so. 

Schiff was ready. 

“There’s nothing easier than putting your name on a bill. Where you see the real legislators is they write their own legislation,” Schiff said. (Cosponsoring or writing legislation doesn’t guarantee that it will become law.)

Porter also repeatedly took aim at Schiff for his support of earmarks — the once derided, then revived practice that Congress uses to steer money into hometown projects without going through the normal appropriations process.

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“For too many decades, Washington gave sweetheart deals to certain defense contractors through earmarks. And there is a candidate on this stage who has done that again and again, getting earmarks for his private corporate donors who are big defense contractors,” Porter said.

Schiff took the moment to highlight his similarities with California’s long admired (and later criticized) senator, Dianne Feinstein, who died last year. 

“We have a strong disagreement over whether senators should bring back resources for their state. I believe that they should. Rep. Porter doesn’t believe they should. She prefers a political talking point. But look, I want to bring back billions, just as Feinstein did.” Later, he said he would “get things done” like Feinstein had. 

The two also traded barbs over fundraising. Porter has made taking on corporate special interests a key part of her case to voters and regularly brings up that she has never taken money from corporate political action committees (Schiff and Lee no longer accept them).

Schiff attacked Porter on a claim made last week by a pro-cryptocurrency super PAC, alleging that she has in fact taken money from corporate special interests. 

Fairshake, a pro-cryptocurrency super PAC funded by billionaires including San Francisco’s Ron Conway and Silicon Valley’s Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, purchased $2.9 million worth of anti-Porter advertising that says, “She claims not to take corporate PAC money. No. Instead, Katie Porter takes her campaign cash directly from Big Pharma, Big Oil and the Big Bank executives. More than $100,000.”

They cite the fact that Porter has taken money from executives at Spectrum Pharmaceuticals, Wood Oil Company and Royal Business Bank. But the first two aren’t members of their industry’s lobbying groups and the bank doesn’t meet the definition of what’s known as a systematically important financial institution. In other words, those donors might come from powerful industries, but not necessarily powerful companies.

“I don’t think Rep. Porter has been fully clear about her own record of taking thousands of dollars from people in the oil industry, thousands from Wall Street bankers, thousands from people in (the) pharma industry,” Schiff said. “The problem with a purity test — as Representative Porter (would) like to establish — is invariably the people establishing them don’t meet them.”

Porter shot back at Schiff and the ad, pointing out that the Sacramento Bee’s fact-checkers rated the claim as “mostly false.”

The night had two other standout moments — all four candidates said they would’ve voted against a bipartisan border and foreign aid deal (the deal collapsed after some Republican senators withdrew support), and Porter took aim at a candidate who wasn’t even present.

Schiff, Porter and Lee said they would have voted against the border deal because it wasn’t comprehensive in their view, lacking a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Garvey said “there were too many things packed in there, too many things hidden.”

Later, Garvey was asked to defend former President Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda and when he didn’t articulate a clear answer, Porter took the opportunity to ding Republican Eric Early, who was not part of the debate.

“Mr. Garvey has been unclear on where he stands with regard to Donald Trump. He’s even said he might vote for Joe Biden. There is a Republican that is dangerous in this race and that’s Trump Republican Eric Early, who has said he will be 100% MAGA at all times,” Porter said.

Porter’s campaign has been raising Early’s profile in an effort to split the 24% of registered Republicans in California so that she can make it into the top two (Garvey would need to coalesce that group to beat Porter and make it into the general election).

Reach Shira Stein: shira.stein@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @shiramstein

Feb 20, 2024

By Shira Stein

Shira Stein is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent, covering national politics and policy with a particular eye to the impacts on California. She was previously a health care reporter and received several awards for her work covering the COVID-19 pandemic for Bloomberg. She also covered the fall of Roe v. Wade, including being the first to report President Joe Biden’s consideration of a public health emergency for reproductive rights; the Trump administration’s efforts to lower prescription drug prices; and the third legal fight to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

She previously interned at the Washington Post, Bloomberg Law, and the Colorado-based Durango Herald. She is a native of the Bay Area and a graduate of American University.

She can be reached at shira.stein@sfchronicle.com.

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