The two candidates in the 21st Congressional District race took jabs at each other Saturday morning during a debate sponsored by Univision Fresno and Bakersfield at Fresno State.
But unlike other debates incumbent David Valadao, R-Hanford, and Sanger Democrat Amanda Renteria have participated in, this one was conducted entirely in Spanish. It was geared toward Latino voters and focused on topics including immigration, water, agriculture and the economy.
Valadao's parents, who were Portuguese immigrants, taught him their native language before he learned English. He picked up Spanish during and after high school, mainly by speaking to workers on his family's ranch. Renteria, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, said she grew up speaking both Spanish and English.
David Ibarra, a news anchor at Univision Fresno, was the moderator at the debate, so-sponsored by Fresno State. Each candidate had one minute to answer every question, then 30 seconds for a rebuttal, if desired. They stumbled through the debate at times, though Renteria had better fluency overall and Valadao often mixed in English or Portuguese words.
Valadao, 37, and Renteria, 39, share similar views about many key issues: Both support comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for those here illegally; both say the Valley needs more water infrastructure, such as dams; and both agree the government should help reunite immigrant children with their families after the youngsters enter the U.S. alone.
But they differed on questions about the minimum wage, reducing high school dropout rates and economic recovery plans.
The candidates' sharpest contrast was with regard to raising the minimum wage. California has a high minimum wage, Renteria said, but it needs to continue increasing because working families shouldn't be poor.
Valadao disagreed, saying the state already approved minimum wage increases to $9 an hour as of July 1 and $10 an hour starting Jan. 1, 2016. More important, he said, is increasing business and job opportunities and making sure there is enough water.
Ibarra told the candidates that 18% of Latino students in Kings County drop out of high school, then asked what they would propose to improve that. Renteria, a former high school teacher, said she knows how important it is for students to graduate. She stressed the importance of Head Start and Title 1 funding for literacy and said that if elected, she will not propose cuts to education funding.
Valadao, in contrast, said people in the Valley enjoy working with their hands. He said he has historically supported increasing funding for vocational schools, which he said train people for the type of jobs that Valley residents like the most.
Ibarra said high schools in Tulare and Kings counties have a high number of adolescent mothers -- and two out of three are Latina. He asked the candidates whether they would support sex education and teen pregnancy measures if elected.
Valadao's original answer did not make sense. Asked to clarify afterward, he said in English he hadn't understood the question. While there is a place for sex education, he said, what is taught now in schools goes too far. He said he heard some schools now include lessons on "different types of positions and different types of tools."
Renteria said during the debate that the children of District 21 need to know their representative will support them. She noted that Valadao voted against the California Dream Act in 2011, which allows unauthorized immigrants, including thousands in the Valley, to qualify for private scholarships and state financial aid.
"When children feel like they have a future they will feel different about having a baby," she said. "They will wait."
But Renteria didn't say specifically whether she supports sex education.
As for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Valadao said he supports the executive order that grants young immigrants a renewable two-year work permit and halts their deportation. But he said immigration reform is necessary so such residents won't have to rely on temporary action that could change under the next president.
Asked what his plan would be to better the economy and help the people of District 21, Valadao said water is key to the state's agricultural industry.
"With water we have businesses and jobs to help the economy in the Central Valley," he said.
Renteria took a broader view and said the economy would improve through the statewide water bond proposal, immigration reform and education. She also said the Valley needs more diverse businesses.
"Right now we have agriculture, but we could also have solar (energy), technology," she said. "There are many things the Central Valley doesn't have and we need to bring those businesses here."
Toward the end of the debate, Ibarra asked the candidates to name three positive characteristics about each other.
"This is a really tough question," Valadao said in Spanish, emphasizing that he doesn't know Renteria well. When pressed, he said she is intelligent and a good speaker. He couldn't think of a third.
Renteria answered more easily.
She said she respects Valadao for serving in Congress, because "truthfully, this isn't easy." She said she also appreciates that Valadao works on a farm and plays basketball in his free time.
Oct. 6: Vote-by-mail ballots and sample ballots mailed to voters
Oct. 20: Last day to register to vote
Oct. 28: Last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot by mail
Nov. 4: General Election
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