Rep. Ami Bera and Scott Jones, running in one of the state’s most closely watched congressional contests, tangled Tuesday over the economy, firearms and immigration, with the men using their only televised debate to defend their character while painting the other as ethically suspect.
Bera, campaigning for a third term, tailored his message to the suburban Sacramento district by carving out positions largely in line with fellow Democrats. In prepared rejoinders, he admonished Jones for his recently renounced support of Donald Trump, the GOP’s divisive standard-bearer. Jones, Bera said, disavowed Trump only when his poll numbers “tanked.”
“When he was insulting Gold Star families, a family that lost their son protecting our country, that wasn’t enough?” Bera asked. “When he was making fun of disabled people, that wasn’t enough? When he was making comment after comment disparaging women, that wasn’t enough?”
Jones, a Republican in his second term as the county’s elected sheriff, said he parted ways with Trump when the presidential nominee spoke on tape about behavior he has targeted in his law enforcement career. He centered his appeal on GOP hallmarks like simplifying the tax code and slashing burdensome regulations, while criticizing Bera for having a light legislative record. He asked Bera whether he was proud of a campaign he implied was deeply negative.
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“I can tell you for me, on Nov. 9, whether I win or lose, I will be extremely proud of the campaign that I’ve run,” Jones said.
Both men came in nursing political wounds, and neither appeared comfortable over the hourlong exchange as they were forced to confront questions about their temperaments and fitness for elective office.
Bera entered the debate hampered by persistent questions about his 83-year-old father, who was sentenced this summer to federal prison for election fraud in connection with his son’s campaigns. Over Jones’ protests, the younger Bera stressed that the U.S. attorney closed the case after a more than 18-month probe turned up no evidence indicating the congressman or any of his staff were aware of Babulal Bera’s illegal shuffling of campaign donations. “That’s why they closed this case,” Bera said.
“Look, my father made a mistake, and he shouldn’t have done this. He’s not a criminal, but he broke the law.”
Jones said he “takes no pleasure” in talking about Bera’s family tragedy, suggesting Bera’s dad should not go to prison. Still, he proceeded to challenge the congressman over his stated lack of knowledge about his father’s criminality.
“Usually the person who commits the crime receives the benefit of the crime,” Jones said. “Here, the person who committed the crime is going to prison and the only person to receive a benefit was Congressman Bera by getting elected to two terms.”
Jones, meanwhile, faced queries about the legal morass that has gripped his department and leached into his congressional campaign. A deputy has accused Jones of making unwelcome sexual advances toward her between 2003 and 2005, allegations linked to a successful retaliation lawsuit brought by two current and two former female members of the Sheriff’s Department. The case has stretched more than six years and cost taxpayers at least $10 million.
Asked if his accuser was lying, Jones, who denied her charges under oath, replied, “Yes, she is lying.”
“The allegations are absolutely untrue – unequivocally false,” he added.
Bera called the then-26-year-old sheriff’s deputy’s court deposition “pretty disturbing.” “No woman should ever have to face this type of harassment,” he said.
Tuesday’s event at KVIE-TV studios took place before a studio audience of roughly 100. It aired live on the public television station and Capital Public Radio and will be carried nationally on C-SPAN. The Sacramento Bee, Folsom Lake College and the Los Rios Community College District also sponsored the event.
Amid the spirited exchanges over character, the debate exposed some sharp policy differences.
On health care, Bera, a 51-year-old former county medical director and UC Davis medical school official, said the president’s 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, wouldn’t be his first choice but could be improved upon. Jones dismissed Obamacare as a “miserable failure” but lauded a few of its provisions.
Bera reiterated support for legislation aimed at preventing people on terrorist watch lists from purchasing firearms and said the U.S. should send a message to the Russian government that trying to interfere with the presidential election was “not OK.” He called for an immigration overhaul addressing the 11 million undocumented people living here illegally and blamed Republican leaders of its rebuffing in Congress.
Jones, 49, continued to distance himself from Trump, asserting that he doesn’t support the candidate’s controversial plans for a wall that runs along roughly half of the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Jones advocated a pathway for legal status, and said, “There has to be absolute consequences for anyone in our country illegally.”
A fierce supporter of gun rights, Jones defended what some consider his too-permissive policy of issuing concealed-carry permits yet said he didn’t back so-called “no-fly, no-buy,” proposals pushed by Democrats in Congress because he didn’t have confidence in the Obama administration’s vetting process. He said the country is doing far too little to fight terrorism, abdicating its leadership role.
Less evident in Bera’s message Tuesday were the bipartisan themes he ran on when he defeated Republican Rep. Dan Lungren in 2012 and defended the seat two years ago against then GOP ex-Rep. Doug Ose. In those campaigns, Bera repeatedly cited pledges he claimed to have fulfilled, including not to take a pay raise and to back legislation that withholds congressional salaries if members don’t pass a budget.
This year, with Trump dominating the headlines, the pull into more traditionally partisan territory has proved too strong for Bera to resist.