The two candidates vying for the critical 34th Senate District seat, which could determine if Democrats keep their supermajority in Sacramento, went head-to-head Wednesday, each trying to win the support of influential Orange County business and government officials.
In what could be their only debate of the race, Republican county Supervisor Janet Nguyen and Democrat community college trustee Jose Solorio clashed over their visions for the state, but also agreed on several key points.
Both played up their commitment to supporting businesses and jobs, as they spoke before a crowd of about 75 public relations executives, lobbyists and other well-connected players at the private Pacific Club in Newport Beach.
Nguyen focused on what she called the “one-party rule” of Democrats in Sacramento, citing efforts to weaken the property tax-limiting Proposition 13, revive affirmative action in college admissions and transfer state prison responsibilities to local jails.
More importantly, Nguyen contended, Democrat policies “continue to drive thousands of jobs away every month from California to other states.”
The state needs legislators like her, she said, to encourage and retain high-paying jobs.
“We have to make sure that we fight to keep these (high paying jobs), lower our taxes, get rid of the burdensome legislation that are killing these businesses,” she said.
Solorio, meanwhile, argued the two years Democrats have generally held a supermajority have proven to be successful, with a growing economy, a balanced budget and pro-business policies.
“I get the connection between business and government,” said Solorio, pointing to tax credits for home builders, small businesses and film production he said he helped implement when he was a state Assemblyman.
A supermajority means Democrats hold at least two thirds of the seats in both the 40-member state Senate and 80-member Assembly. With that advantage, they don’t need Republican votes for controversial issues like raising taxes or putting issues on the ballot.
Democrats won the supermajority in the election two years ago, but lost two-thirds control of the state Senate this year when three Democratic Senators were charged with felonies. The November election will determine if they regain that advantage or not and the Nguyen-Solario contest is considered critical to GOP hopes of lowering the Democratic advantage.
Given the Democrats’ majority in Sacramento, Solorio argued Orange County businesses would be much more effective in getting favorable state policies if he were elected.
“If you want to get anything done, you go to a Democrat,” said Solorio. The other option, he said, is to have “another Republican sit in the corner” who can’t achieve anything.
“California, we don’t want a race to the bottom in terms of wages,” he said. “I don’t want to beat Texas. I don’t want to beat China.”
Nguyen agreed but added, “this race is about allowing one-party rule. I actually agree with my opponent on one thing: I don’t want to be a China, I don’t want to be a communist government. I don’t want to be a one party rule. My family escaped from there.”
The contest pits Nguyen, who has served on the county Board of Supervisors since 2007, against Solorio, a state Assemblyman from 2006 until he was termed out in 2012, and current board member at Rancho Santiago Community College District.
The 34th District covers a wide swath of central and western Orange County, and both candidates’ childhoods reflect many of the working-class minority residents they’re competing to represent.
In Nguyen’s case, much of her campaign advertising has highlighted her family’s flight from Vietnam as refugees, and the hard work she said she's done to live out what she calls “the American Dream.”
The Senate district runs from Santa Ana, through Garden Grove and Westminster and into parts of Anaheim, Huntington Beach and Long Beach, with a narrow difference in party voter registration.
In a departure from his softer approach before the primary election, Solorio attacked Nguyen for what he described as ethical lapses.
He took aim at Nguyen’s tenure overseeing CalOptima, the county’s health plan for more than 600,000 low-income, disabled and elderly residents.
Federal auditors found that thousands of seniors “have not been getting their medical – their emergency treatment,” Solorio said. “That’s dangerous.”
“Because of bad leadership” at CalOptima, Solorio added, “thousands of seniors cannot enroll in that senior OneCare program at CalOptima because that system has been run into the ground.”
He suggested the state take over the agency if county officials can’t fix it.
Nguyen, meanwhile, said there is no evidence to back up her opponent’s accusations about her.
She in turn attacked Solorio for supporting a state budget that removed $73 million in funding from Orange County government coffers.
Ed Arnold, a longtime local news anchor, moderated the debate and asked each candidate where they stood on a series of statewide policy issues.
The candidates disagreed on several policy points.
When it comes to surplus money in the state budget, Solorio said it should be used to restore public safety and education services, as well as pay down debt.
Nguyen said the state should ensure it has a rainy day fund, and criticized Democrats for raising taxes to balance the budget.
On the state’s high-speed rail project and the legislature’s recent plastic bag ban, Solorio supported both while Nguyen opposed them.
At the same time, both candidates seemed to agree on a few policies.
Solorio and Nguyen said they opposed any changes or weakening of Proposition 13, which limits property tax increases.
Both opposed extending Proposition 30, the seven-year public safety and education tax.
They also agreed that charging drivers a per-mile fee to raise money for roads was wrong, with Nguyen taking aim at the idea of the government tracking people.
“Do we need our government to know every time I go to the bathroom?” she asked.
Similar positions aren’t all they share.
Both candidates have had some of the same financial backers, including Disney, the Apartment Association of Orange County, the oil and gas industry, Pacific Life Insurance Company, Sempra Energy and the parent company of Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
Wednesday's debate was sponsored by the Orange County Public Affairs Association, Time Warner Cable and Curt Pringle & Associates.
Pringle, a former GOP Assemblyman and mayor of Anaheim, currently runs a public relations and lobbying firm.
It’s unclear if more debates will take place between the candidates ahead of the Nov. 4 election.
After the forum, Solorio said he didn’t know of any more debates that were planned.
In their closing remarks, Solorio focused on his pro-business stances while Nguyen said she’d give a stronger voice for conservative policies.
“If you want to be effective, and if you want your clients to be effective, you want to have the most effective state legislator possible to take care of your business,” said Solorio.
Right now, the debate audience's clients don’t go to Republican legislators in Orange County, but instead go to Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) or Assemblyman Tom Daly (D-Anaheim), he added.
Nguyen, meanwhile, argued that leaving control of Sacramento with Democrats could prove to be disastrous.
A “two-thirds supermajority can raise taxes without your support, can do away with Prop 13” and put anything on the ballot, Nguyen said.
“Allow me to go to Sacramento and make sure that we’re at the table.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Solorio's position on Proposition 30. We regret the error.