The Border, Crime, and Economy: Five Senate Candidates Express Their Positions

The candidates vying to become California’s new U.S. senator are eager to present themselves in a specific way.

Rep. Adam Schiff is known for his strong defense of democracy. Rep. Katie Porter has gained a reputation as a dedicated crusader against corruption. Rep. Barbara Lee is recognized as a courageous progressive leader. Eric Early is celebrated as a champion for the forgotten Americans. Steve Garvey is appreciated for his commonsense approach to building consensus.

Their advertisements, slogans, and speeches merely provide a glimpse into their identities and the actions they have taken, or intend to take, in addressing the pressing issues faced by Californians. All three Democratic candidates possess extensive voting records from their time serving in Congress.

All candidates except Early will participate in their first debate in this race on Monday evening. To prepare for the event, CalMatters sent a questionnaire to each campaign and examined their positions and track records on various issues. These include border security, immigration, criminal justice, foreign policy, the economy, labor, and housing.

Here’s a closer examination of their respective stances on these matters and the ways in which they vary from one another:


Border and immigration

All three Democrats have a similar history when it comes to immigration and border security matters.

They opposed Republican proposals that aimed to deny federally-funded housing to migrants, restrict asylum eligibility, and prohibit the use of public school facilities to shelter migrants. Furthermore, they have shown support for, and in some cases co-sponsored, legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and their children. They have also advocated for independent oversight on border security activities and sought to limit the president’s authority in restricting undocumented immigrant entries.

Support for expanding unemployment insurance benefits to undocumented immigrants seeking work is widespread.

During a November immigration forum, all three Democrats expressed their criticism of President Joe Biden’s policy that prohibits most migrants from seeking asylum if they cross the border illegally. Porter strongly believed that this policy dishonors the nation’s history and its future. Similarly, Schiff and Lee both condemned the policy, labeling it as wrong.

In a surprising move that caught some Democrats off guard, President Biden made the decision to continue the construction of the Mexican border wall initially started by former President Donald Trump. This decision, which came in October, drew immediate criticism from Senator Lee. Taking to Twitter, Lee urged the White House to reverse course on the matter.

According to CalMatters’ questionnaire this month, Lee, Schiff, and Porter all share the same opinion that a generic border wall is not an effective solution. Both Schiff and Porter emphasized the importance of utilizing advanced detection technologies for border security.

According to Porter, certain barriers that are tailored to specific sites can be effective. He gives an example of dangerous areas where the lives of migrants and U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel are in jeopardy due to unauthorized crossings and search and rescue operations.

Lee, among the three Democrats, seems to be the most vocal opponent of increasing the funds allocated to federal border patrol agencies.

In 2019, Lee opposed the authorization of a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid and security funding package at the southern border, while Schiff and Porter were in favor. The package, which received support from Republicans and moderate Democrats, passed the House without the stronger protections in migrant facilities that were advocated by House progressives.

In statements to CalMatters, Lee advocated for a 50% reduction in the budget of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. She argued that redirecting funding from the Department of Homeland Security towards “meaningful immigration reform” would be a more valuable use of resources.

In her response to the CalMatters questionnaire, Lee expressed her strong condemnation of ICE, stating that the agency is deeply flawed. Unlike Schiff, who supported the creation of ICE in 2002 during his first term, Lee stands out as the only Senate candidate who voted against its establishment.

According to Porter, she is not in favor of providing extra funding for the agency. However, she does believe that border patrol employees should be compensated fairly for their work in order to attract a workforce that can adequately serve the needs of our border communities.

Schiff emphasized the importance of Congress offering assistance to border communities and bolstering resources and personnel at ports of entry to effectively manage the growing number of asylum seekers.

Both Garvey and Early, the top two Republicans, are in favor of the border wall, allocating more funds for border patrol agents, and implementing stricter regulations on border entries. They both assert that the United States should give priority to immigration applications from individuals who are legally present in the country, and they are both against providing unemployment benefits to undocumented immigrants.

Early stated his support for a pathway to citizenship for “illegal immigrants who have enlisted in and participated honorably in our military.” At present, individuals who are not citizens can only join the military if they are legal permanent residents. However, there is a bill supported by Democrats in Congress that would enable undocumented DREAMers to serve in the military.

During one of his initial campaign events last month, Garvey made a visit to the Mexico border and expressed his intention to oversee the completion of the wall.

Crime and guns

Both the Republican and Democratic candidates appear to have similar views on this topic.

Investing in mental health services and policing to address crime has been emphasized by all, but the crucial aspect lies in the specifics.

The three Democrats are advocating for increased funding to implement reforms in policing methods. They have all supported measures such as de-escalation training for police officers, allocating more federal funds towards violence intervention initiatives, and placing restrictions on the use of chokeholds by law enforcement. These actions were prompted by the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.

Garvey and Early advocated for increased funding for police departments and law enforcement officers, while also emphasizing the importance of securing the southern border.

All three Democrats are in favor of increasing funding for mental health treatment programs. Lee believes that poverty is the underlying cause of crime and proposes addressing the “structural problems” that contribute to criminal acts by raising the minimum wage, improving healthcare access, and legalizing marijuana, according to her campaign.

Porter led a campaign to support the Mental Health Justice Act, a bill in 2022 that aimed to provide grants to governments for the purpose of recruiting and training mental health professionals to effectively respond to emergency calls. Both Schiff and Lee supported and voted in favor of this measure.

Garvey’s campaign has expressed support for funding to address mental health issues and drug addiction, as they believe these factors often contribute to gun violence and homelessness. In fact, Early, speaking through a campaign spokesperson, has actively advocated for a comprehensive overhaul of the country’s mental health system. Their goal is to create a system that provides permanent housing and care for individuals with severe mental illnesses. Early argues that the mental health services were significantly impacted in the 1960s, when many individuals were discharged from institutions and transitioned into community-based care centers as part of the civil rights movement.

Garvey’s stance on gun policies aligns with the implementation of “common-sense measures,” including pre-sale background checks and an assault weapon ban. These measures are primarily supported by Democrats, according to his campaign. In response to CalMatters’ inquiries, his campaign emphasized the importance of keeping firearms away from criminals while also upholding Second Amendment rights.

The candidates are divided along party lines when it comes to their stance on the federal death penalty. While all three Democrats are against it, Republicans hold a contrasting view.

But there are subtle distinctions, particularly within the Democratic party. All of them opposed the Republican-sponsored bill that aimed to permanently elevate fentanyl-related drugs to the most severe category of illegal substances, which Biden encouraged Congress to pass. Nevertheless, Lee stood out as the sole candidate who voted against even temporarily implementing such a measure.

Schiff, a former prosecutor in Los Angeles, has garnered controversy for his previous endorsement of strict law enforcement measures.

Schiff, along with 48 other Democrats, showed his support for the Thin Blue Line Act back in 2017, which aimed to apply the federal death penalty to individuals who kill police officers – a stance that Early also stands behind. However, Schiff has now publicly voiced his opposition to this sentence. In his response to CalMatters during his campaign, Schiff attributed his change of heart to “technological advancements” that have shed light on the “significant shortcomings” of the death penalty system, including its disproportionate impact on people of color.

During his tenure as a state senator, Schiff took the initiative to address issues concerning juveniles. One of his notable legislative accomplishments was the introduction of a bill aimed at establishing year-long “boot camps” for teenagers discovered with marijuana on school premises. Additionally, he proposed a measure to treat 14-year-old and older offenders as adults in cases involving murder or rape. Schiff’s efforts reflected his commitment to tackling juvenile delinquency and ensuring the safety and well-being of communities.

In 2009, he proposed a bill in Congress to boost funding for a contentious program aimed at deploying more police officers in communities. He also backed a provision that would exclude asylum seekers and immigrants from certain privacy protections. Furthermore, he cast his vote against the Protect and Serve Act in 2018, a legislation that sought to impose stricter penalties on those who commit acts of violence against law enforcement officers, a measure that garnered support from most Democrats. Conversely, Lee opposed both of these measures.

In a letter addressed to Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021, criminal justice activists expressed their displeasure with Schiff’s track record, urging against his appointment as the next state attorney general. However, Schiff has since modified his stance on criminal justice, acknowledging a shift in his perspective since the 1990s. In an interview with ABC7 last year, he admitted, “I’ve come to realize that certain policies implemented in the 90s were not effective.”

Foreign policy and defense

The three Democratic hopefuls are divided on the issue of a ceasefire in the Gaza war.

During a Senate candidate debate, Lee stood on the stage and became one of the first members of Congress to advocate for a permanent ceasefire following the Hamas attack on Israel that took place on October 7. Schiff, on the other hand, expressed his unwavering support for Israel, while Porter cautioned against Islamophobia and expressed sorrow for the lives lost on both sides.

In the aftermath of the escalating casualty numbers in Gaza, Schiff and Porter consistently advocated for a “humanitarian pause,” in line with the Biden administration’s stance. However, as the demands for a permanent ceasefire gained momentum, Porter altered her position in a statement on December 18th. She now called for a “lasting bilateral ceasefire” that not only ensures the safe return of remaining hostages but also guarantees Israel’s security, eliminates Hamas’s operational control in Gaza, and focuses on establishing improved economic and political conditions for the Palestinians residing in the region.

Porter’s campaign cited her December 18 statement as an explanation for her change in stance. In that statement, she seemed to imply that Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to accept Palestinian control of Gaza was the underlying factor.

In her statement, she emphasized the importance of engaging in difficult discussions with our ally Israel regarding its long-term strategy and among U.S. policymakers concerning our approach in the Middle East.

According to his campaign, Schiff has maintained his original stance, contending that a permanent ceasefire would only serve to “perpetuate Hamas terrorist control of Gaza.”

All three Democrats showed their support for Israel’s right to defend itself by becoming co-sponsors of a bipartisan House resolution. However, Lee stood out by casting the only vote against the Hamas International Financing Prevention Act, a bill that aims to impose sanctions on Hamas, its affiliates, and any governments that provide aid to the group.

Major humanitarian organizations have voiced their opposition to the bill, citing concerns that its broad scope could negatively impact innocent Palestinians and hinder their access to much-needed humanitarian assistance. According to Sean Ryan, spokesperson for Lee, this opposition stems from the belief that the bill may make it more challenging, if not impossible, for Palestinians to receive the aid they require.

Decades prior to Gaza, Lee stunned the global community when she cast the only vote against the Afghanistan war following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. This brave decision, which garnered her death threats at the time, is now celebrated by her supporters as a remarkable display of courage.

Lee’s stance on foreign policy sets her apart from her opponents, making her somewhat of a rarity in this regard.

In 2002, Lee opposed the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq, while Schiff supported it. Lee has consistently introduced a resolution to revoke the authorization over the years. However, it wasn’t until 2021 that the House finally approved it, with both Schiff and Porter voting in favor.

Lee was the sole candidate who expressed support for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria in March 2023. This stance set her apart from most Democrats, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who voted against such a measure. Critics of the bill argued that a withdrawal could potentially allow Islamic State terrorists to regroup and reorganize, as reported by the Associated Press.

Lee prides herself on being the most steadfast advocate for reducing the country’s excessively large defense budget. Voting records reveal that while Schiff and Porter voted in favor of authorizing defense and military spending, she consistently voted against such measures.

Schiff’s campaign has expressed a desire to decrease the Pentagon’s budget by 10% and has shown support for eliminating unnecessary weapons systems. According to his campaign, there is an excessive amount of waste within the defense budget that must be addressed and eliminated.

Porter’s campaign emphasized the importance of indexing the funding level to national security threats and called for increased oversight. They firmly stated, “I’ll never rubber stamp spending, but I believe investing in our servicemembers and their well-being is paramount.”

Both Republicans, Garvey and Early, are in favor of boosting the defense budget. They both firmly oppose any suggestion for a ceasefire and strongly believe that Israel should have the necessary means to combat Hamas until it is completely eliminated, as stated by their respective campaigns.

Economy and labor

According to NBC, inflation continues to remain high, even though it has decreased compared to the levels seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. In December, inflation rose from 3.1% to 3.4%. Experts believe that this increase can be attributed to the rising cost of housing. However, they also predict that this high inflation rate is unlikely to persist, as the housing market is expected to cool down.

Republican candidates are pointing fingers at the Biden administration, with Garvey claiming that it is a result of “excessive government spending” and Early criticizing the reduction of domestic energy production. However, it is worth noting that this GOP talking point contradicts the fact that U.S. oil production reached record highs in October.

Democrats are criticizing corporations instead. Porter, who considers herself a warrior fighting against Wall Street interests, argues that inflation has gotten worse because businesses are charging customers excessively. She highlights the fact that big corporations are making record-high profits. Similarly, Lee blames corporate greed for the situation. In addition to corporate profit, Schiff points out that the supply chain disruption during the pandemic and the lack of housing are also contributing factors.

Among the three Democrats, Schiff has historically been the most skeptical of federal spending. Back in 2005, he insisted on including a “rainy-day” reserve in the budget.

Schiff was the sole Senate candidate who supported the decision to increase the debt ceiling last year in order to prevent a default. On the other hand, Lee and Porter, along with 38 other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, voted against it. Lee justified her vote as a resistance against the “extreme MAGA Republicans” who were using the economy as a bargaining chip. Meanwhile, Porter, who has advocated for the elimination of the debt ceiling, criticized the measure for including certain benefits for the oil and gas industry, as reported by the Los Angeles Times.

Schiff, who last year expressed interest in joining the Congressional Progressive Caucus but eventually withdrew his application, cast his vote against the “People’s Budget” on multiple occasions. This budget proposal encompasses all the key priorities of the caucus and has been regarded as a litmus test for ideological purity. On the other hand, Lee, who was the sole candidate in Congress at the time, voted in favor of the budget.

Lee is the sole candidate who has taken the initiative to sponsor the Curtail Executive Overcompensation Act, a proposal that seeks to raise taxes on corporate CEOs. Additionally, both Lee and Porter are co-sponsoring the Oligarch Act, a bill aimed at implementing taxes on the affluent. On the other hand, Schiff has not joined in sponsoring the Oligarch Act. Nevertheless, he has expressed his support for the repeal of tax cuts for the wealthy that were implemented during the Trump administration.

All three Democrats are in favor of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which aims to override state right-to-work laws and enhance union safeguards. Garvey and Early, in their respective campaigns, emphasized that the responsibility for this decision lies with the states rather than the federal government.

The five candidates had differing opinions on whether striking workers should be eligible for unemployment benefits, a bill that was vetoed by Gov. Newsom last year. While the three Democrats believed that these workers deserved the benefits, Early outright said no. Garvey’s campaign stated that governments should refrain from getting involved in disputes between unions and businesses.

All three Democrats are in favor of raising the federal minimum wage, which currently stands at $7.25 per hour.

During a forum last year, Lee advocated for a $50 hourly minimum wage, emphasizing that it represents a living wage for a working adult with two children, as estimated by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Porter’s campaign has expressed its support for a $20 federal minimum wage, along with a $25 minimum wage specifically for California. Both of these wage rates would be indexed to inflation. On the other hand, Schiff’s campaign has stated its support for a $20 federal minimum wage that would also be indexed to inflation. In addition, Schiff believes there should be a boost to $25 for healthcare workers.

According to his campaign, Early believes that there is no need to change the federal rate and that an increase would only exacerbate inflation.

Homelessness and housing

Republican candidates in California attribute the state’s worsening homelessness crisis to mental health problems rather than the lack of affordable housing.

According to Garvey’s campaign, the main causes of the problem are drug and alcohol addiction as well as mental health issues. During a recent visit to a homeless encampment in Sacramento, he expressed his desire to thoroughly examine the allocation of taxpayer funds in addressing the homelessness crisis.

According to the Democratic candidates, the crisis is being driven by a lack of affordable housing.

According to Porter’s campaign website, she attributes the homelessness problem to the failed federal housing policies of the past decades. She advocates for a significant investment in housing, which includes fully funding the federal Section 8 program and expanding the national Low Income Housing Tax Credit.

According to Lee’s campaign, homelessness is primarily a housing issue. Similar to Porter, she supports the idea of a fully-funded Section 8 program and a national rent control standard, which aligns with the Biden administration’s objectives. Lee believes that improving access to healthcare, providing free college education, and increasing the minimum wage would contribute to alleviating homelessness in the state. Additionally, she highlighted her efforts in introducing legislation like the DEPOSIT Act, which aims to assist renters by allowing federal programs to cover security deposits and moving expenses for individuals utilizing the Housing Choice vouchers.

Schiff’s campaign also expresses support for the expansion of Section 8 vouchers and the provision of wraparound services. They emphasize the significance of reducing regulations and offering tax incentives to promote the development of affordable housing, which aligns with the views of Garvey and Early as well.

On Schiff’s campaign website, he highlights the legislation he introduced and supported to combat homelessness. One of the notable bills is the Affordable and Homeless Housing Incentive Act, which aims to provide tax incentives for homeless shelters.

When asked about their stance on increasing federal funding to address the crisis, Early’s campaign outright rejected the idea. On the other hand, Garvey’s campaign emphasized the importance of allocating funds for housing projects in low-income areas that are in close proximity to job and transit centers.

Both Schiff and Lee have highlighted their achievements in obtaining earmarked funds for housing and homelessness. However, Porter takes a different stance, firmly opposing earmark requests. She argues that such funding often ends up being directed towards lawmakers’ personal projects, and therefore believes that these requests should be rejected. Instead, Porter has chosen to show her support by signing onto letters that advocate for the approval of grants to homelessness assistance programs, urging her colleagues to prioritize these crucial initiatives.

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