Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, and Democratic challenger Emilio Huerta clashed sharply over water, air quality, immigration and political attack ads during their Thursday evening debate hosted by KGET-TV 17.
The pair, vying for the 21st Congressional District seat, displayed different styles during the hourlong exchange.
Valadao was aggressive, jumping on Huerta’s statements, criticizing his opponent, eating into Huerta’s time and speaking over debate moderator Evan Onstot from KSEE-TV in Fresno.
Huerta was more measured and, though he took some swings at Valadao’s policies and actions in office, stuck closely to his campaign talking points.
Debate moderators Onstot and Jim Scott of KGET-TV went right for the hot button as the debate began, asking the two candidates about the political attack ads launched against both candidates over the past two weeks.
An independent ad by the Democratic House Majority PAC, on Huerta’s behalf, endeavored to tie Valadao to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Huerta said he thought the content of the ad was good.
Valadao called it dishonest.
Valadao didn’t stand up against Trump, Huerta said, until it was politically expedient. And he’s never called for Trump to step down as the Republican candidate.
“The best they can throw at me is to try and connect me to someone I’ve never supported,” Valadao said.
Valadao said he supported Trump’s Republican primary opponents and, when Trump won the nomination, said he couldn’t support either party’s candidate.
Then Valadao took the defense when moderators asked him about the attack ad he launched against Huerta this week.
The ad claims Huerta took advantage of low income families to a $1 million profit on a land deal made with a farmworker charity more than a decade ago.
Scott pointed out that the California attorney general investigated the deal and said it was legal.
“Maybe it’s not illegal,” Valadao said. “But is it ethical?”
Huerta said the ad misrepresented what happened. He has dedicated himself as a labor organizer, nonprofit leader and attorney to helping low income families have a better life.
The pair moved on to immigration, where Huerta called Valadao’s expression of support for a path to immigration reform a political ruse.
“In March of this year he signed on to a House resolution to petition the Supreme Court to overturn President Obama’s executive action on (Deferred Action of Parents of Americans and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals),” Huerta said.
Valadao said he wasn’t voting against immigration reform for “Dreamers” and the undocumented parents of children born in America. He supported the resolution because he believes President Obama overstepped his authority by taking executive actions to push forward his immigration agenda.
On water Huerta attacked Valadao’s inability to pass legislation that would bring more water to the valley.
Huerta, questioned by moderators about how he would do it better, said he would reach across the political aisle, reach out to Northern California water interests and bring people together — something Valadao’s legislation hasn’t done.
Valadao said that proves Huerta hasn’t even read his legislation. The language of the bill was pulled together with both Democrats and Republicans and Northern California water interests were included.
Before people throw stones at the bill, he said, they should read it first.
In the end the two men closed with simple presentations about why they should be elected to the 21st District seat.
“I have dedicated my life and my career to helping working families,” Huerta said.
“I’ve worked my butt off for the last four years for the Central Valley,” Valadao said.
The debate, which will run again on KGET Channel 17 at 6 p.m. on Saturday, was broadcast as the previously quiet race between the two men heated up.
Valadao, a Kings County dairy farmer and son of Portuguese immigrants, has won the district handily in the past two elections.
Political observers note he has been careful to do the work of the district and take moderate stances on hot-button issues like immigration reform.
Huerta, the son of United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, is a Bakersfield lawyer who grew up in the farm labor movement, served on nonprofit boards and has been active in Democratic politics.
In a presidential election year, with the 21st District’s heavy Democratic bent, Huerta has a chance to unseat Valadao. Valadao, who collected his lowest vote share ever in the June primary, looks vulnerable.
But Valadao had $1.2 million in his campaign chest at the end of September. Huerta had less than $100,000.
With less than three weeks to go before Nov. 8 that financial firepower can put a lot of negative ads over the airwaves.
Huerta is hoping his grassroots connection to the rural communities of the 21st, which runs from east Bakersfield, Arvin and Lamont though Kings and Tulare counties to Fresno County farm towns, will help him overcome Valadao.