Political Notebook

Newcomer Heng and veteran lawmaker Costa trade barbs in first televised debate

Republican Congressional candidate Elizabeth Heng and Congressman Jim Costa
Republican Congressional candidate Elizabeth Heng and Congressman Jim Costa jwalker@fresnobee.com

Democrat Jim Costa and Republican Elizabeth Heng sparred for nearly an hour on live television Tuesday in their first prime-time debate leading up to the Nov. 6 general election – as Heng looked to land the blow to finally topple the longtime political veteran Costa in what is typically viewed as a fairly safe Democratic district in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Within 30 seconds of her one-minute opening statement, Heng attempted to paint Costa as a do-nothing career politician who has lost touch with the Valley.

Heng, a first-time candidate, has spent much of her campaign trying to hammer this point, rolling out attack ads in recent weeks, along with the near round-the-clock trashing of Costa’s record through social media.

“We’ve given Jim Costa 40 years to bring us a better life, yet nothing has changed,” Heng said.

Costa began his opening statement by centering on the frustrations he and other Americans feel with the current political climate, as well as the need for healthy, civil debate.

The veteran of nearly four decades of campaigning and public service then turned on his own offense in his very first response to the evening’s panel.

After touting a record of “getting things done” on water, health care and education, he turned to Heng’s only recent return to the Valley after her years spent away in college and working as a congressional staffer in Washington, D.C.

“My opponent tries to say, ‘He’s done nothing,” Costa said. “I can understand that she flew in here 10 months ago, and she’s been gone for eight years.”

Civil, but pointed

While the two kept things civil, they clashed on almost every fundamental issue, with nearly all of the dozen or so questions receiving a rebuttal grant from moderator and KMPH FOX26 anchor Gia Vang.

The questions were asked by a panel consisting of KMPH FOX26 weekend anchor Rich Rodriguez, KMJ 580 AM/105.9 FM anchor Matt Otstot and ValleyPBS senior vice president for content and development Elizabeth Laval. The three stations each aired the debate live in some fashion.

A live audience was present, but it consisted of invited guests. The debate was not open to the public, and only the panel asked questions. The candidates had 45 seconds to answer each question.

The two Fresno candidates displayed starkly different styles and temperaments during the debate.

Heng, who finished just six points behind Costa in the June primary, stood still and looked directly into the camera for most of the night. Many of her answers included the Republican and anti-Costa talking points she has stuck to through ads and media interviews throughout the campaign.

Some did not deal directly with the questions asked, spurring the panelists and moderator to press her for responses.

High-speed rail

When Laval asked if the candidates supported California’s high-speed rail project and what they would replace it with if they don’t, for example, Heng called it “a perfect example” of career politicians at work.

Laval interrupted Heng’s response to press her for a yes or no answer on support and what she would do instead. Heng said she would scrap it and began to discuss costs ballooning up to $100 billion.

Vang then interjected, asking Heng to say what she would replace high-speed rail with.

“Temperance Flat,” Heng said. Many Valley Republicans have called for a similar plan, known to any local billboard watcher as “dams not trains.”

Costa, a supporter of both Temperance Flat and high-speed rail, said they were two different issues. He equated the rail project to California’s early highway and water projects, saying “doing big things is hard.”

He also attempted to correct Heng on the cost, saying high-speed rail would be roughly $60 billion.

Recent estimates actually peg the cost at $77.3 billion and perhaps as high as $98.1 billion.

Costa, by contrast, moved from side to side as he looked at Heng, the panel and the silent audience in his responses. Whereas Heng had several reminders to stay on topic, Costa was cut off several times for going over his allotted 45-second time limit.

Work in Washington

They weighed in on various foreign and domestic issues, including water, trade, U.S. relations with Russia and China, immigration and congressional interaction with President Donald Trump.

Heng continued to chide Costa for “only bringing two pieces of legislation to the House floor” after 14 years in office and characterized him as a blind supporter who voted in line with former House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi – a favorite Republican target, particularly in the Valley.

Costa, who at times shook his head during mentions of his record and Pelosi, told Heng he had in fact pushed 90 bills across through omnibus packages, which lump bills from minority candidates into one large bill with no individual author credit.

He also noted that a water bill, co-authored by Turlock Republican Jeff Denham, that will bring 57,000 acre-feet of water to the Merced area had been signed by Trump earlier that morning.

Costa pointed to the federal funding of local veterans home and hospitals, the re-opening of the Fulton Mall and various highway improvements as clear examples of him working for the Valley.

Heng did not rebut Costa on these points. She also did not challenge him when he claimed to be the Democrat with the third-most independent voting record in Congress and noted that Pelosi was not a candidate in this race.

In an interview after the debate, Costa told The Bee he was expecting Heng to bring up Pelosi, as his challengers always do.

But he took particular aim at Heng’s characterization of his record, saying of the omnibus packages that she “either doesn’t know any better and should or is lying,” given her time as a congressional staffer.

When Heng pounced on Congress’ inaction on immigration, Costa noted he supported a recent effort by Denham and Rep. David Valadao that Republican party leadership would not bring to the House floor.

More to come?

However, it wasn’t all disagreement between the two.

The two agreed that “everything should be on the table” in regards to possible sanctions against Saudi Arabia for its alleged involvement in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, should that involvement be proven.

Both said they supported Temperance Flat and opposed sanctuary city policies, though they differed on the specifics surrounding water and immigration. They likewise praised Trump’s recent executive action on Valley water.

They also expressed some optimism for Trump’s plan to cut middle-class taxes.

Costa said he had hoped Republicans would include such a stipulation in their tax plan.

Heng then leapt on Costa for not supporting that plan, which she said saved each family in the Valley about $600. She said Costa’s portrayal of the savings as a small figure was wrong, as that money could be groceries or school supplies for struggling families.

After the debate, Heng said she felt it went well and hoped to have several more before the election. The two will hit the stage again on Oct. 30 for a live, closed-door debate hosted and broadcast by KSEE24.

Rory Appleton: 559-441-6015, @RoryDoesPhonics
Related stories from Fresno Bee