By Emily Rasmussen and Eric Heinz, The Capistrano Dispatch
The five Democratic candidates running for the 49th congressional district gathered on Feb. 20 at San Juan Hills High School in San Juan Capistrano, for a debate that included topics ranging from The Tolls Roads to the investigations on President Donald Trump.
But a key topic candidates will have to contend with as they get closer to the California Democratic Convention on Saturday and into the primary race is how to move—not necessarily what to do—with the spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).
With the retirement of Rep. Darrell Issa this year, the Democratic candidates are hoping to flip the 49th district that runs from San Juan Capistrano to Solana Beach from Republican to Democrat. The Democratic candidates are Doug Applegate, a San Clemente based civil rights attorney and retired Marine colonel; Sara Jacobs, who is based in San Diego County and has worked with the U.S. State Department; Paul Kerr, a Navy veteran and small business owner in San Diego County; Mike Levin, a San Juan Capistrano based attorney who focuses on environmental issues and government affairs; and Christina Prejean, an Air Force veteran and attorney who represents veterans and sexual assault victims.
The moderator of the debate was Christine Mai-Duc, a political reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
SONGS operators started storing the remainder of its spent nuclear fuel rods onsite, which is right next to the Pacific Ocean, a move that has drawn ire from every corner of Orange and San Diego counties. But the waste can’t be moved until the Department of Energy finds a location for it or legislation is changed to allow for temporary storage.
When candidates were asked if they support the Trump administration’s plan to divert $120 million to find a nuclear waste storage facility and to reexamine Yucca Mountain until permanent storage is found, all of the candidates said they would support removing the fuel from SONGS campus, but they had varying answers as to what to do with the radioactive material.
Jacobs of Del Mar opened the answers by elevating SONGS to the most immediate issue needing to be addressed in the 49th.
“If something happens at San Onofre, it’s not only going to affect our favorite beaches and surfing spots; it’s going to affect the economy of the entire state of California and this country,” Jacobs said. “I do not think President Trump’s proposal to reopen Yucca Mountain is going to work. It is universally hated by Nevadans, and as the state becomes more and more purple (politically), there will never be political will to reopen it.”
Prejean, who grew up between Vista and Oceanside, took a different approach than her counterparts, saying she would like a balance between which communities eventually accept the spent fuel.
“Our country definitely needs to find a long-term solution to figure out where we’re going to put these rods,” Prejean said. “I think that it’s also important to have someone in Congress who ensures that these rods are not buried in just the poorest neighborhoods.”
With homelessness as another hyperlocal issue that also affects the nation, candidates also discussed factors of the homeless crisis, including affordable housing, opioids and veteran health.
“When you think about it from a broad perspective, you don’t realize there are so many people struggling to get by and can’t afford a simple place to live,” Levin said, noting that there are 2,000-plus homeless in the 49th district. “I’ll do everything I can to expand the Section 8 program, expand the availability for affordable housing, I think we should make it embedded in every new project we build.”
Another topic discussed related to homelessness in the district was opioid addiction. Last year, The Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHA) released a report that saw county increases in drug- and alcohol-related deaths from 2013 to 2015, with San Juan Capistrano as one of the cities with the highest rates in the county for deaths and hospitalization for drug and alcohol abuse.
Applegate said that big pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable for overprescribing patients with opioids and that there needs to be more funds allocated to finding cures to illnesses and diseases.
“We need research in biotech to come up with a cure, big (pharmaceutical companies) hate cures,” Applegate said.
Jacobs said that the opioid crisis is “tearing apart families” and that sober living homes need more regulations. Levin noted that there are a disproportionate amount of sober living homes in the 49th district, and added that there are rights for sober living homes and for the communities surrounding them.
Also related to health care, Prejean said that as a veteran who continues to work with veterans, she sees these types of issues on a daily basis. Prejean also said that women veterans are one of the highest growing homeless populations.
“Issues with military sexual trauma, PTSD, issues with (traumatic brain injury)—these are all military service related issues that they received while serving,” Prejean said. “Then they become a part of the criminal justice system because they’re service related issues are in connection with a crime.”
Kerr mentioned that as a veteran himself, that he struggled with finding affordable housing and a job when he got out of the service.
In addition to more hyperlocal issues, the candidates also discussed topics that affect the nation as a whole, including gun reform. All of the five candidates said that they were in favor of some form of gun regulation.
Jacobs said that assault weapons and bump stocks should be banned, and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should be able to conduct a study on gun violence in the nation. Citing the recent shooting at Marjory High School in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead, Jacobs said that the younger generations will make gun regulations happen.
“This insanity has to stop,” Kerr added, after noting he is a gun owner and believes in the 2nd amendment.
Although one of the most contentious issues facing San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano is a state, county and local one, candidates were asked about their opinion of continuing toll roads through South Orange County and if it would alleviate traffic.
Jacobs and Levin spoke during the public comment session at a Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) meeting on Feb. 8.
Jacobs named the grocery list of worries San Clemente residents have expressed for about a decade.
“I think that arterial roads will solve much of the traffic issue,” Jacobs said. “An east-west toll road will not solve our north-south traffic. I really want us to alleviate traffic, but this toll road is not the way to do it.”
Levin said San Juan would be affected by toll road options 9 and 18. Options 13 and 17 would also affect his constituents. Still, Levin criticized the methods of administrators of The Toll Roads.
“I think we should ask, if there was no TCA, would any of you want it to be created? Probably not,” Levin said, “But you have bonded indebtedness, and you have under-utilized toll roads, and you have PR firms and lobbyists who are at the public trough, and that is the problem with these privatized infrastructure projects.”
Levin pointed to the trillion-dollar tax cut the president made in his administration’s tax bill that gave substantial breaks to the top earners in the nation, citing Republican infrastructure plans would only benefit the extremely wealthy.
The Democratic candidates must receive 60 percent of the caucus vote for approval at their party’s state convention on Saturday, Feb. 24 in San Diego in order to be considered for endorsement of the California Democrats.
The Republican candidates are Rocky Chavez, a state assemblyman; Kristin Gaspar, a San Diego County supervisor; Diane Harkey, a former state assemblywoman who is currently on the California Board of Equalization; Brian Maryott, San Juan Capistrano’s mayor pro tem; Craig Nordal, a real estate appraiser from Encinitas; and Joshua Schoonover, an engineer and attorney from San Marcos.
Joshua Hancock is running on the Libertarian ticket, and Jordan Mills is running for the Peace and Freedom Party.
This article has been updated to reflect that proposals 9 and 18 are still on the TCA options.