As Scott Peters and Lori Saldaña joust over who is more likely to defeat Brian Bilbray in November, the key will be who can carry the “Decline to State” vote. Can Peters’ appeal to moderates and fundraising advantage overcome Saldaña’s grass roots machine?
Last month I wrote a piece about Scott Peters and his appearance before the Ocean Beach Planning Board (seems like that’s where I’m getting a lot of my information these days). In it I was pretty critical of him. Perhaps a little over the top, but my main criticism, I thought, was a fair one.
Despite my criticism there was still something that I liked about him, despite his foibles in answering what many in the room felt was a pretty simple question. He was clear and concise through the rest of his talk, and he answered every question thrown at him openly and with as much detail as was necessary to get his point across. He was confident and in command, never getting defensive even though he was pressed repeatedly on a certain issue. Sloughing off the grilling, he was amiable upon his exit.
He could have taken my piece personally and held a grudge. It wasn’t offered as a personal attack, nor was it a critique about his abilities or qualifications for office; but rather more as a criticism of his apparent lack of knowledge of how things are operating these days in Washington.
To his credit he didn’t hold a grudge. As he departed the OB Rec Center over a month ago, he told me “we’ll talk more.” So I decided to take him up on that offer and requested a follow up interview, even knowing that he and his staff would not exactly be thrilled with what I had written. They were happy to oblige, if somewhat warily. Point for Scott Peters (we are keeping score, right?).
It should be fairly common knowledge by now that Scott Peters is not exactly a flaming liberal. Don’t expect him to embark on a crusade to ban all domestic oil production, nationalize all banks in response to the financial meltdown, and demand that single-payer healthcare be instituted immediately (although he probably wouldn’t mind seeing a shift toward a single-payer system). And that’s perfectly okay. He’s a pragmatist; a realist who recognizes the climate around him for what it is and finds a way to work within it while continuing to chip away to change things toward what in his view is the better.
And SURPRISE! He’s a solid Democrat with solid Democratic values. He even chafes at being referred to as a Blue Dog Dem. Which is fine, because it’s a label that does not really suit him.
His aim, he says, is to not only win the election in November, but to achieve Democratic control of the Congress. He acknowledges the direction Republicans have taken this Congress legislatively. “If you look at the Grover Norquist pledge,” he said, “you can’t work with that. The way they’ve tried to defund Planned Parenthood is wrong and it focuses attention on a battle that was won 30 years ago.”
“We should be focusing on things that matter to people right now, which is jobs.”
On the issues: He says he is 100% pro choice, and has gotten a 100% rating from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. He will not compromise on civil rights. In absolute terms he opposes Republican plans to privatize Social Security and voucherize Medicare. He was also a resolute ‘no’ on extending the Bush tax cuts. He opposes the Paul Ryan budget, calling it just another political tool. “It’s not a serious thing.”
When asked if he supported the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare,” if you will), without hesitation he replied “Yes. But we’re not done yet.” He pointed to the more popular things that the healthcare act has done, such as allowing kids to stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26 and the prohibition of denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. But more has to be done, and he acknowledges that “Obamacare” is a work in progress.
“We have to make healthcare affordable and accessible for everyone. That’s the goal,” he said.
Peters has been blasted for an interview he gave with local TV station KUSI in which he said he would put taxes and cuts to entitlements on the table. “I favor a balanced approach,” he told KUSI. “We can’t continue the same spending, but at the same time we have to look at new revenues. Everyone knows that that’s what the people think, and it’s the kind of thing that you do when you come together and work for solutions.” It’s been a part of his Democratic opponent’s attack, and it was a line of attack offered by MoveOn.org when they endorsed Lori Saldaña.
“We have to balance the budget, but we can’t do it on the backs of seniors and the middle class,” he said last week. “Social Security is something that people have earned, and we have to stand by it.”
As for Medicare: “Medicare is the barrier between poverty and retirement. And people shouldn’t be put in the position of having to sell their house to pay their medical bills, which happens too often.”
While he says that Social Security “is not in as bad of shape as people say it is,” he does say that changes must be made to Medicare, but that that does not involve vouchers. “You have to change the costs of Medicare, but I am not suggesting in any way that you wouldn’t provide healthcare for seniors.”
There are a few ways to save on costs, he says. One is to negotiate the cost of prescription drugs under Medicare Part D. Under the current structure, whereas insurance companies can negotiate prices with the pharmaceutical companies, with Part D the pharmaceutical companies get to dictate the costs of medicine to the government. The government is not allowed to negotiate. That has to change, Peters says.
Then, he says, we have to make the system more efficient. Part of that involves electronic record keeping that would eliminate the need for many duplicate tests, which is starting under the Affordable Care Act.
We also need to change the delivery system, he said, which would include a greater emphasis on prevention, or shifting to a “pay for outcomes” model such as the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis. This would lower costs, he says, by incentivizing lowering the cost of healthcare in part by reducing the need for healthcare.
Finally, he says people need to be informed of their choices with regards to end of life care decisions. This, he reminds us, is what Republicans excoriated as “Death Panels,” but are in actuality important choices that people need to know about. “We can’t be engaged in this sort of fear rhetoric; that Michele Bachmann kind of rhetoric that’s designed just to scare people away.”
“There are legitimate concerns about Medicare that we have to change, but that doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop delivering care.” Changes to the system to help it deliver service more efficiently and cost effectively are okay, he says, but cuts to actual benefits are off the table.
These are the same delivery system adjustments, he points out, that will be necessary to make the Affordable Care Act work. “We can’t just be reimbursing for procedures,” he said.
On taxes, “How (does Congress) reach a tax policy that’s progressive but also encourages job creation in America instead of abroad? That’s where you have to talk.”
His opponents have also skewered him for his vote in April, 2005, against the Living Wage Ordinance while a member of the San Diego City Council. That vote is held up as an example to show that Scott Peters is not a champion of working people. But again, much like Lori Saldaña’s decision to not vote in favor of Chelsea’s Law, the truth is not as simple as a convenient sound bite.
Yes, Scott Peters voted against the Living Wage Ordinance, which mandated that all entities that had contracts to provide services or receive grants from the city, and who met certain thresholds, were required to pay their employees at least $10 per hour if their employment package included healthcare benefits, and $12 per hour if it did not. On the surface, that does not look good for Mr. Peters.
But there is some sorely needed context that is missing. Recall at the time that the City of San Diego was mired in a desperate financial crisis. It had been labeled by Wall St. as “Enron by the Sea.” The city’s bond rating had been downgraded to “junk” status, and government leaders were facing down a better than $20 million budget deficit, with the City Manager projecting a possible deficit in excess of $90 million by 2009 if the crisis wasn’t brought under control.
The City Manager’s audit determined that if the living wage ordinance were enacted at that time that it would cause the city’s budget to take yet another hit when it simply couldn’t afford to.
Peters erred on the side of caution and voted against the ordinance. “I keep hearing my father’s voice in my head saying ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,” he said just prior to the vote, and went on to clearly express his support for the principle of the ordinance. However, given the city’s financial state, and the audit’s conclusion that it would further overburden the city’s budget, he determined that he could not support it at that time.
It would be fair to criticize him for being overly conservative on that particular vote. As then Councilmember and current State Assembly member Toni Atkins said, “FDR instituted Social Security during the Great Depression, so there’s no reason we can’t do this.” But it is not fair to criticize him for not supporting the ordinance. And he was not the only member of that City Council with those same concerns.
To Peters’ credit, he now readily admits that that vote was “a mistake.” The ordinance worked well and in 2008 he took a leadership role in expanding the living wage ordinance.
His endorsements include a myriad of prominent political figures, both on the left and in the middle, including Congressman (and Mayoral candidate) Bob Filner; Assemblymembers Toni Atkins and Marty Block; groups like Progressive San Diego, SEIU, and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, among many others. In a letter published May 8th in the OB Rag, Labor Council CEO Lorena Gonzalez said “The San Diego Labor Council has endorsed Scott because of his outstanding record for workers, and his commitment to getting things done.”
As a member of the City Council and the Port Commission, Peters has demonstrated an ability to work with and strike deals with a variety of conservative partners. And it’s true that the overwhelming majority of those who have endorsed him have cited his ability to “get things done” as one of the primary reasons for their support. They appreciate the fact that Peters knows how to work with a variety of people to accomplish difficult goals.
But the Tea Party controlled Republican Caucus in Congress is a horse of a different color, and is unlike any adversary he’s ever faced: They don’t believe in compromise, they don’t believe in facts, and they don’t believe in reason. Look no further than North County’s own Darrell Issa for all the proof you need. But if that’s not enough, Google Florida’s Allen West (see this clip too), or Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann, Iowa’s Steve King, Texas’ Louie Gohmert, or Illinois’ Joe Walsh.
When I spoke to his Democratic opponent, Lori Saldaña, about the conditions in Congress, she made an interesting point: For all of Peters’ experience on the City Council and as Chair of the Port Commission, he has never had to work within a caucus framework such as the one Saldaña experienced in the State Assembly, which she says would give her an advantage in D.C. It’s quite different than working with seven other members of the City Council and their staffs.
However, Democrats are an unusual bunch. The Democratic Caucus in Congress has a tendency to be an incredibly diverse throng with a lot of differing ideas and opinions, in contrast to the Republican Caucus that tends to simply vote in lock step along the party line. It typically takes a lot more work and compromise just to get Democrats on the same page, which is good in that it usually results in more balanced legislation; that’s been Peters’ specialty.
Perhaps having someone with a reputation for being a consensus builder would be a valuable asset to have representing San Diego as a member of the Democratic Caucus? And would it be such a bad thing for him to make a little extra effort to at least try to work together with Republicans, so long as he doesn’t compromise any of his core principles? He insists he won’t. He’s an experienced trial lawyer, he says, and he “knows how to fight.” But it’s still a risk.
And then there’s the question of electability. One argument goes that as a more moderate Democratic candidate, he’ll have a much greater appeal to those crucial “Decline to State” voters that make up roughly one third of the 52nd District, and who will decide the outcome of the November general election. There’s also the money and fundraising advantage he has over Lori Saldaña. Conventional wisdom says that these factors make him the stronger candidate most likely to defeat Brian Bilbray.
Then again, Saldaña’s grass roots efforts appear to be bearing real fruit, and there is polling data that suggests she will be the more appealing candidate to voters in November. As I said yesterday, there is no clear cut answer to this question. And San Diego has a very intriguing choice to make.