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5 major candidates want to be California’s new U.S. senator. Here's where they stand on the economy, crime and the border

Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee (from left) during a U.S. Senate candidate forum hosted by the National Union of Health Care Workers in Los Angeles on Oct. 8, 2023.
Richard Vogel
AP Photo
Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee (from left) during a U.S. Senate candidate forum hosted by the National Union of Health Care Workers in Los Angeles on Oct. 8, 2023.

The five major contenders have different track records and proposals on some of the biggest issues facing California. They’re trying to position themselves to appeal to sizable voting blocs before the March 5 primary.

The main contenders to become California’s new U.S. senator want voters to see them in a certain light:

Rep. Adam Schiff as a defender of democracy; Rep. Katie Porter as an anti-corruption crusader; Rep. Barbara Lee as a courageous progressive; Eric Early as a champion for the “forgotten Americans;” and Steve Garvey as a commonsense consensus builder.

But their ads, slogans and speeches offer only a glimpse into who they are, or what they have done — or plan to do — to tackle some of Californians’ most pressing concerns. All three Democrats have years of voting records while serving in Congress.

All but Early are set to debate for the first time in this race on Monday evening. Ahead of the event, CalMatters sent each campaign a questionnaire and analyzed their records and stances on issues such as border, immigration, criminal justice, foreign policy, economy, labor and housing.

Here’s a detailed look at where they stand on those issues — and how they differ from each other:

Border and immigration

The three Democrats share a similar track record on immigration and border security issues.

They all voted against Republican proposals to bar federally-funded housing to migrants, limit asylum eligibility and condemn the use of public school facilities to shelter migrants. They have all supported — or even co-sponsored — bills to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and their children, establish independent oversight on border security activities and limit the president’s ability to restrict undocumented immigrant entries.

All support expanding unemployment insurance benefits to undocumented immigrants seeking work.

At a November immigration forum, all three Democrats criticized President Joe Biden’s policy that banned most migrants from seeking asylum if they crossed the border illegally. Porter said the policy was “dishonoring this nation’s history and our future.” Schiff and Lee both called it “wrong.”

Biden — noting that previous congressional actions tied his hands — decided to continue building former President Donald Trump’s Mexican border wall in October, shocking some Democrats. The decision drew instant criticism from Lee, who urged White House to reverse course in a tweet.

Lee, Schiff and Porter all agreed a generic border wall is ineffective in response to CalMatters’ questionnaire this month. Schiff and Porter both advocated for increased use of detection technologies at the border.

Porter, however, said some “site-specific” barriers do work, “for example, in dangerous areas where the lives of migrants and U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel are at risk when there are unauthorized crossings and search and rescue missions.”

Migrants stay in a makeshift camp in Jacumba Hot Springs in San Diego on Nov. 18, 2023.
Adriana Heldiz
Migrants stay in a makeshift camp in Jacumba Hot Springs in San Diego on Nov. 18, 2023.

Of the three Democrats, Lee appears to be the most staunch critic of allocating more funds to federal border patrol agencies.

In 2019, Lee voted against authorizing a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid and security funding package at the southern border, while Schiff and Porter voted in favor. The package — backed by Republicans and moderate Democrats — passed the House without the stronger protections in migrant facilities that House progressives had supported.

Lee called for a 50% budget cut for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in statements to CalMatters. Funding for the Department of Homeland Security, she said, would be better spent on “meaningful immigration reform.”

“ICE is rotten to the core,” Lee said in response to the CalMatters questionnaire. She is the only Senate candidate to have voted against creating the agency in 2002, when Schiff — then in his first term — supported it.

Porter told CalMatters she generally does not support additional funding for the agency, but said she wants border patrol employees to “receive pay commensurate with their work” to help “recruit a workforce that can meet the needs of our border communities.”

Schiff said Congress should provide aid to border communities and increase resources and personnel at ports of entry to help handle an influx of asylum seekers.

The top two Republicans — Garvey and Early — both support the border wall, additional funding for border patrol agents and tightened restrictions on border entries. Both said the nation should prioritize immigration applications from people legally present in the United States and both oppose offering undocumented immigrants unemployment benefits.

Early argued he supports a path to citizenship for “illegal immigrants who have enlisted in and participated honorably in our military.” Currently, non-citizens can only join the military if they are legal permanent residents, but a Democrats-backed bill in Congress would allow undocumented DREAMers to serve in the military.

Garvey visited the Mexico border as one of his first campaign events last month and said he wants to complete the wall.

Crime and guns

On this topic, the Republican and Democratic candidates seem to share some common ground.

They have all stressed the need to invest in mental health services as well as policing to address crime, but the devil’s in the details.

The three Democrats want more funding to reform policing methods. They all voted for de-escalation training for police, more federal dollars for violence intervention initiatives and restricting police use of chokeholds after George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.

Garvey and Early’s campaigns called for more funding for police departments and law enforcement officers, as well as the need to secure the southern border.

All three Democrats support boosting funding for mental health treatment programs. Lee — arguing poverty is the root cause of crime — believes raising the minimum wage, expanding access to healthcare and legalizing marijuana will address the “structural problems” that lead to criminal acts, her campaign says.

Porter’s campaign championed her Mental Health Justice Act — a 2022 bill to give grants to governments to recruit and train mental health professionals to respond to emergency calls. Schiff and Lee both voted for the measure.

Garvey’s campaign said he also supports funding to treat mental health problems and drug addiction, arguing they often contribute to gun violence and homelessness. Early, via a campaign spokesperson, advocated for a “rebuild” of the nation’s mental health system “that allows for the severely mentally ill to be permanently housed and cared for,” arguing that services were “decimated” in the 1960s — when people were discharged from institutions and placed in community-based care centers amid the civil rights movement.

Gunsmith Don Gregory shows off two new single-action firearms recently released by Juggernaut Tactical in Orange on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023.
Alisha Jucevic
Gunsmith Don Gregory shows off two new single-action firearms recently released by Juggernaut Tactical in Orange on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023.

On gun policies, Garvey supports “common-sense measures” such as pre-sale background checks and an assault weapon ban — something mainly supported by Democrats, according to his campaign. “We can keep guns out of the hands of criminals while also protecting Second Amendment rights,” his campaign said in a response to CalMatters’ questions.

The candidates are otherwise split along party lines. For example, all three Democrats oppose the federal death penalty, while Republicans argue the opposite.

But there are nuanced differences, especially among Democrats. They all voted against legislation to permanently raise fentanyl-related drugs to the highest class of illegal substances — a GOP-led bill Biden urged Congress to pass. Lee, however, was the only candidate to vote against even temporarily doing so.

Schiff — a former prosecutor in Los Angeles — has the most controversial track record on criminal justice issues due to his past support for tough-on-crime policies.

Schiff was among 48 Democrats to support the Thin Blue Line Act in 2017 to apply the federal death penalty to cop killers — something Early supports. Schiff has since publicly spoken against the sentence. In his campaign response to CalMatters, Schiff credited his change of heart to “technological advancements” that revealed “deep flaws” with the death penalty and a “disproportionate application” of the sentence on people of color.

As a state senator, Schiff authored legislation to crack down on juveniles, including a bill to create year-long “boot camps” for teenagers found in possession of marijuana at school and another to try kids 14 years and older as adults if they commit murder or rape.

In Congress, he introduced legislation in 2009 to increase funding to a controversial program to place more cops in communities, supported language to exclude asylum seekers and immigrants from privacy protections and voted for the Protect and Serve Act in 2018 to impose stricter penalties on assaulting law enforcement officers, which most Democrats voted for. Lee voted against both measures.

Schiff’s record irked criminal justice activists, who in a 2021 letter urged Gov. Gavin Newsom not to appoint Schiff as the next state attorney general. He has since softened some of his positions on criminal justice. In February 2023, he said his viewpoint had changed since the 1990s. “I’ve learned that some of the policies of the 90s didn’t work,” he told ABC7 last year.

Foreign policy and defense

The issue of a ceasefire in the Gaza war highlights a key split among the three Democratic hopefuls.

A day after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Lee called for a permanent ceasefire from the stage of a Senate candidate debate — one of the first members of Congress to do so. Schiff called for “unequivocal support” for Israel, while Porter cautioned against Islamophobia and mourned the lives lost on both sides.

For months afterward, as the casualty numbers rose in Gaza, Schiff and Porter both called for a “humanitarian pause” — aligning with the Biden administration’s policy. But as calls for a permanent ceasefire grew, Porter shifted her stance in a Dec. 18 statement, calling for a “lasting bilateral ceasefire” that “brings remaining hostages home, secures Israel’s safety, removes Hamas from operational control of Gaza, and invests in creating a better economic and political architecture for Palestinians in Gaza.”

When asked to explain why she shifted her stance, Porter’s campaign pointed to her Dec. 18 statement, in which she seemed to suggest Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of Palestinian governance of Gaza was the reason.

“His remarks and actions necessitate tough conversations with our ally Israel about its long-term strategy and among U.S. policymakers about our approach in the Middle East,” she said in the statement.

Schiff, however, has stood by his initial position, arguing that a permanent ceasefire would “perpetuate Hamas terrorist control of Gaza,” according to his campaign.

All three Democrats signed on as co-sponsors of a largely symbolic bipartisan House resolution affirming Israel’s right to defend itself. But Lee was the only candidate to vote against the Hamas International Financing Prevention Act — a bipartisan bill that would sanction Hamas, its affiliates and governments providing aid to the group.

“The bill was opposed by major humanitarian organizations because it is overly broad and will hurt a lot of innocent Palestinians by making it harder if not impossible to receive humanitarian assistance,” Lee spokesperson Sean Ryan told CalMatters in an email.

Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Thursday, Jan.18, 2024. The army is battling Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war ignited by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
Ohad Zwigenberg
AP Photo
Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Thursday, Jan.18, 2024. The army is battling Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war ignited by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Decades before Gaza, Lee shocked the world by being the lone vote against the Afghanistan war after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a decision that got her death threats then but now hailed as a show of courage by her supporters. 

Lee is still somewhat of a unicorn on foreign policy compared to her opponents.

In 2002, Lee voted against authorizing the use of military force in Iraq, while Schiff voted in favor. Lee has since sponsored a resolution to repeal the authorization most years; it wasn’t until 2021 that the House passed it, with Schiff and Porter both voting in favor.

Lee was also the only candidate to support a U.S. troop removal from Syria in March 2023 — a measure most Democrats, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi, voted against. Critics of the bill said a removal could give Islamic State terrorists time to reorganize, the Associated Press reported.

Additionally, Lee touts herself as the most consistent in calling for cutting the nation’s “bloated” defense budget. She has voted against authorizing defense and military spending when Schiff and Porter voted in favor, voting records show.

Schiff’s campaign said he wants to reduce the Pentagon’s budget by 10% and supports eliminating weapons systems the administration does not need or want. “There is far too much waste in the defense budget that must be eliminated,” his campaign said.

Porter’s campaign said the funding level needs to be indexed to national security threats and there needs to be more oversight. “I’ll never rubber stamp spending, but I believe investing in our servicemembers and their well-being is paramount,” the campaign said.

Both Republicans support increasing the defense budget. Neither Garvey nor Early supported a call for a ceasefire. They both argued Israel must have the ability to fight Hamas until it is destroyed, their campaigns said.

Economy and labor

Although far lower than during the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation remains high, jumping from 3.1% to 3.4% in December. Experts attribute it to the rising cost of housing, and project it’s unlikely to last given a housing market cool-down, NBC reported.

Republican candidates blame the Biden administration. Garvey attributed it to “excessive government spending” while Early criticized the reduction of domestic energy production — a GOP talking point that conflicts with record-high U.S. oil production in October.

Democrats slam corporations instead. Porter — a self-proclaimed warrior taking on Wall Street interests — argued inflation worsened because businesses are overcharging customers, pointing to record-high profits for big corporations. Similarly, Lee blamed corporate greed. Apart from corporate profit, Schiff pointed to the supply chain interruption during the pandemic and a lack of housing as contributing factors.

Among the three Democrats, Schiff — a past member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition — has historically been the most skeptical of federal spending. In 2005, he demanded a “rainy-day” reserve in the budget.

Schiff is the only Senate candidate to vote in favor ofraising the debt ceiling last year to avoid a default. Lee and Porter — along with 38 other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — voted against it. Lee said she voted to stand up against “extreme MAGA Republicans holding our economy hostage,” and Porter — who has argued the debt ceiling should be abolished — criticized the measure for including “giveaways” to the oil and gas industry, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Schiff, who applied to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus last year but withdrew, voted multiple times against the “People’s Budget” — which contains all the caucus’ priorities and which has served as a purity test. Lee — the only other candidate in Congress at the time — voted in favor.

Lee is also the only candidate to sponsor the Curtail Executive Overcompensation Act, a measure increasing taxes on corporate CEOs. Lee and Porter are both sponsoring the Oligarch Act, another measure aimed to tax the rich, while Schiff is not. Schiff has, however, expressed support for repealing tax cuts for the wealthy made under the Trump administration.

Construction workers on site of a tiny homes village in Goshen on June 2, 2023.
Larry Valenzuela
CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Construction workers on site of a tiny homes village in Goshen on June 2, 2023.

All three Democrats have gained union endorsements, although Schiff has won the most from statewide unions. All the Democrats support the Protecting the Right to Organize Act to override all state right-to-work laws and strengthen union protections. Garvey and Early both said that the decision belongs to states, not the federal government, according to their campaigns.

The five candidates also split along party lines on whether striking workers should be eligible for unemployment benefits — a controversial bill vetoed by Gov. Newsom last year. All three Democrats said those workers deserve the benefits. Early outright said no, while Garvey’s campaign told CalMatters that governments should stay out of disputes between unions and businesses.

All three Democrats believe the federal minimum wage — $7.25 per hour — should increase.

Lee called for a $50 hourly minimum wage during a forum last year, noting that’s the living wage one working adult with two children would have to make, according to an Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimate.

Porter’s campaign said she supports a $20 federal minimum wage and $25 for California, indexed to inflation. Schiff’s campaign said he supports a $20 federal minimum wage indexed to inflation, with a boost to $25 for health care workers.

Early believes the federal rate does not need to change and that an increase would worsen inflation, according to his campaign.

Garvey, on the other hand, did not give a specific number. “Each state and its voters have the ability to raise their minimum wage, as California has multiple times, beyond the federal minimum wage,” his campaign said.

Homelessness and housing

On California’s worsening homelessness crisis, Republican candidates say mental health problems are the main culprit — not the lack of affordable housing.

Early, in his campaign’s response to CalMatters’ questions, said the cause of the state’s homelessness is “severe mental illness” and “soft-on-crime” policies, referring to Proposition 47 — a ballot measure passed in 2014 that reduced penalties for certain thefts and drug offenses.

“The biggest factor is manifestly not insufficient low-income housing,” the campaign’s statement read.

Garvey’s campaign said the biggest driving factors of the problem are “drug and alcohol addiction” and “mental health issues.” During a Wednesday visit to a Sacramento homeless encampment, he said he wants a “deep dive” into how taxpayer dollars are spent to battle the homelessness crisis.

A person sits in a makeshift tent along a barbed wire fence near Highway 99 in southwest Fresno on Feb. 11, 2022.
Larry Valenzuela
CalMatters/CatchLight Local
A person sits in a makeshift tent along a barbed wire fence near Highway 99 in southwest Fresno on Feb. 11, 2022.

But the Democratic candidates all argued a lack of affordable housing is driving the crisis.

The homelessness problem is a “direct result” of failed federal housing policies over the past decades, Porter argues on her website. Her campaign said she supports a “major investment” in housing, including a fully-funded federal Section 8 program and an expansion of the national Low Income Housing Tax Credit.

Lee’s campaign said homelessness is a housing issue “at its core.” Like Porter, she also called for a fully-funded Section 8 program and a national rent control standard — one that the Biden administration has pushed for. She believes expanding health care access, offering free college and raising the minimum wage would help ease homelessness in the state, her campaign said. She also touted legislation she introduced to help renters, such as the DEPOSIT Act, which would allow federal programs to cover security deposit and moving expenses for those using the Housing Choice vouchers.

Similarly, Schiff’s campaign said he also supports expanding Section 8 vouchers and providing wraparound services. Additionally, his campaign stressed the importance of easing regulations and offering tax incentives to encourage the build-out of affordable housing — something Garvey and Early also support.

On Schiff’s campaign website, he touted legislation he introduced and supported to fight homelessness, including the Affordable and Homeless Housing Incentive Act, which would offer tax incentives for homeless shelters.

Asked if they support more federal funding to combat the crisis, only Early’s campaign said no. Garvey’s campaign said funding for housing should prioritize projects in “low-income areas, and near job and transit centers.”

Schiff andLee have both touted their success securing earmarked funds for housing and homelessness. Porter, however, is a staunch opponent of earmark requests, arguing the funding goes to lawmakers’ “pet projects” and requests should be rejected. She has signed onto letters instead, urging her colleagues to approve grants to homelessness assistance programs.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.