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Democrats vying for Kihuen's House seat pressed on gun confiscation, Obama deportation policies and more in debate

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
Jackie Valley
Jackie Valley
Election 2018Yucca Mountain

The five candidates hoping to succeed Rep. Ruben Kihuen in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District gathered for a debate Friday that provided a glimpse into their policy strategies for guns, immigration, Yucca Mountain and privacy concerns in the technology age as well as other topics.

The hour-long debate, hosted by KTNV Channel 13 and The Nevada Independent, rarely veered into barbs or bickering. Instead, the congressional hopefuls used their air time to outline their visions and share a bit more about themselves.

Contenders include former Rep. Steven Horsford, the first person to represent the district after it was created in 2012; state Sen. Pat Spearman; Medicare for All activist Amy Vilela; Nevada System of Higher Education Regent Allison Stephens and high school principal John Anzalone.

Horsford has a wide cash advantage and is seen as the frontrunner in the contest to replace Kihuen, who isn’t seeking re-election after facing allegations of sexual harassment. Horsford counts on support from the politically powerful Culinary Union, as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the SEIU union and former Vice President Joe Biden.

The winner will face the top finisher in the Republican primary, where former Rep. Cresent Hardy is considered a heavy favorite. The 4th Congressional District leans Democratic and includes urban North Las Vegas as well as central Nevada.

Here’s a roundup of the candidates’ responses to questions posed during the debate:

Democratic Congressional District 4 candidates John Anzalone, left, State Sen. Pat Spearman, Alison Stephens, former U.S. Representative Steve Horsford, and Amy Vilela during a live debate at KTNV on Friday, May 25, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Should Democrats have shown more outrage for immigration issues during the Obama administration?

Immigration surfaced when candidates were asked whether Democrats are hypocrites for not showing as much outrage when the Obama administration was deporting people. Spearman kicked off the dialogue by arguing this era is different because families are being separated under President Trump.

“This is the first time that we have ever watched deportation that tears children away from their parents,” she said. “That is not only draconian. That is immoral.”

Stephens disagreed with that characterization of Democrats as well. She quickly pivoted to addressing comprehensive immigration reform, which the regent said should go beyond the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to ensure families aren’t torn apart. She also said the country shouldn’t ignore the plight of immigrants who have Temporary Protected Status (TPS) through a program that Trump is phasing out.

Horsford, meanwhile, hearkened back to his previous stint representing the 4th Congressional District. He touted being one of the original co-sponsors of H.R.15, which would have created a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, during the 113th Congress.

“The fact that we’re even talking about DACA alone is not a permanent solution,” he said.

Vilela expressed the most openness to the characterization, calling it a “fair” question.

“We have seen immigrants protesting for their rights for many years — even when we had a Democratic president,” she said. “We need to send a strong message to Washington, D.C., and send some strong Democrats who have a backbone that are going to fight for immigrants.”

Anzalone took a more personal approach to the question. He said the matter isn’t about hypocrisy. The high school principal recalled welcoming a student about four years ago who was separated from her family at the border and arrived with only a pillow and a suitcase. One year later, the girl was speaking English fluently and, two years later, she graduated, he said.

Still, he said many students are fearful of deportation.

“I have children that come to me and they look at that classroom door, wondering if someone from this administration is going to take them out of their classroom and send them to a country that they know nothing or very little about,” he said. “To me, it’s wrong, and I’m going to fight against that.”

Should President Trump face impeachment proceedings?

Nearly a year and a half into his presidency, the investigation regarding whether Trump schemed with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election continues. The probe, which has dominated headlines with all the plot twists, has led to calls for Trump’s impeachment.

Most congressional candidates stopped short of demanding immediate impeachment proceedings, despite their negative views of Trump.

Stephens was the lone candidate who said she would support impeaching the president at this point in time. But she said Nevada residents need to push back on Trump’s agenda by electing a Democrat — not Republican Cresent Hardy — to represent them.

“We know that he will go along with that Trump agenda,” she said.

The other candidates largely favored letting Special Counsel Robert Mueller complete his investigation into the matter before deciding whether to pursue impeachment.

“I would absolutely vote for impeachment, if elected, if the evidence was clear and factual,” Anzalone said.

Spearman also called for the conclusion of the investigation, even though she had been more vocally in favor of impeachment in earlier interviews.

Vilela and Horsford also lamented how the Russia investigation has shifted attention away from some of the everyday problems facing Americans. Horsford mentioned health-care affordability, school violence and the economy.

“While we complete this investigation, let’s not get too distracted by what really are the kitchen-table issues that families are faced with each and every day,” he said.

Should assault-style weapons be confiscated?

The five candidates easily agreed on one matter: They all favor banning assault-style weapons.

But their views diverged a bit when asked whether the government should confiscate assault-style weapons from people who already own them if a ban were to move forward.

Horsford, who lost his father to gun violence, didn’t directly answer the question. Instead, he offered his vision for comprehensive gun reform, which he said should include implementing background checks, banning assault weapons, closing gun-show loopholes, eliminating bump stocks, increasing mental-health funding and addressing bullying in schools.

When pressed on the confiscation issue, Horsford responded this way: “I believe we have to be very careful under the Second Amendment not to take away someone’s right, but to be clear, assault rifles and weapons of war are not the same as other forms of weapons, and we need to be very careful and make a clear distinction.”

Anzalone also used the word “careful” in his answer. He worried about the logistics of confiscation and whether the National Guard would need to be involved.

Vilela said she would support “some confiscation” if red flags, such as domestic violence or imminent harm to one’s self or others, existed. But she wants gun violence addressed at a variety of levels because it’s a “comprehensive problem.”

Stephens and Spearman didn’t support outright confiscation, but they advocated for plans that would incentivize people to voluntarily give up their assault weapons.

“It does us absolutely no good to ban future sales if we already know that there are weapons out there on the streets,” Stephens said. “While I don’t agree with confiscation per se, I do think we can be a little more creative than that.”

Why should Kihuen not resign?

All candidates but Vilela jumped into the race after Kihuen announced he wouldn’t run for re-election. While he has denied the sexual harassment allegations lodged against him by multiple women, he said the accusations would overshadow any attempts of his to keep the seat.

But he didn’t heed calls to resign over the situation, and candidates were asked why he shouldn’t step down immediately, in the middle of his term.

“He definitely needs to resign,” Vilela said, pointing out that she was the first to say publicly that he shouldn’t run again. “We cannot be distracted by behaviors that unfortunately, it was said, it was an open secret.”

Anzalone said he believed in due process.

“That ethics committee should have met right away,” he said. “To drag their feet — I don’t know if that was a political move or what — I would’ve liked to know exactly what happened and to hear all of the facts.”

Spearman agreed with Anzalone, saying the investigation should’ve been done “posthaste.”

“You know how hard I worked to make sure that one of my former colleagues paid the price for his indiscretions,” she said, referring to her role in the 2017 legislative session ensuring that former Sen. Mark Manendo’s conduct was investigated. “It doesn’t mean I don’t believe the women, but we have to have evidence.”

Stephens said the focus should be on looking to the future, focusing on “federal policy that’s going to provide protections that women need in the workplace and outside of the workplace,” she said. “We should not be having these Me Too moments anymore … I’m not saying it’s fine, but I’m here to talk about the need to have a representative in CD4.”

Horsford said it’s “a problem” that six months after the allegations emerged, an ethics committee has still not presented findings. Pressed on whether it bothers him that Kihuen’s female accusers wake up each morning seeing him still in office, Horsford said “it absolutely does, and that is why we should expect more of every elected official and every person in power.”

Is facial recognition technology for law enforcement too intrusive?

Moderators noted that Amazon is developing facial recognition software that would identify and track people who are in public and haven’t necessarily committed a crime, and asked candidates if the innovation is “a bridge too far” for privacy.

“It’s definitely crossing a line,” Anzalone said. “We saw that the sale of personal information for monetary gain really crept into people’s personal lives to the point where it became almost stalking. And I can see that happening here. So let’s learn from our history.”

But he said he’d have to learn more about the technology before saying he’d block law enforcement from using it.

Spearman reiterated privacy concerns and said authorities shouldn’t over-emphasize technology in policing.

“We live in a day and age where technology has brought us many conveniences, but I don’t think that we should sacrifice our personal security or our privacy just to have those same conveniences,” she said. “I think the real thing law enforcement should do is be a cop — constable on patrol — meet with the people in the neighborhoods where they walk the beat … I would say let’s put more money into patrolling neighborhoods, more money into cultural competency.”

Stephens called for a comprehensive look at policing policies.

“We need to be looking at our policing system overall — what are the tools that we’re giving officers? Why do we have such a militarized police force out on the street?” she said.

Horsford touted his experience on the House’s homeland security committee, and said he’d seen how the Fusion Center, a collaboration between federal and local law enforcement, monitors Southern Nevada to keep it safe.

“I think it’s a false choice that we can’t balance local and national security and privacy,” he said. “That’s why we need representatives who understand the need to balance security and privacy and I’ve had to take those tough votes and drill down, and you can have both.”

Vilela said the technology was “definitely an infringement” of privacy.

“We’ve seen disastrous results and a lot of public outcry just from the Patriot Act. This to me is just another extension,” she said. “We should instead be putting in efforts to community policing, building those relationships with our police force. They do a job that’s really imperative, but to protect their safety as well as the citizens, we need to look at different avenues.”

How do you respond to people who want to take back public land in Nevada from the federal government?

Moderators asked the candidates how they’d respond to a push to release more federally managed land — which accounts for about 87 percent of all the land within Nevada’s borders — to the control of the state.

Spearman said public lands should stay public, but powerbrokers should consider their economic development potential.

“One of the things we need to learn how to balance is how we might be able to use those treasures for the betterment of those communities,” she said.

But she added that state lawmakers have asked — and have yet to receive a clear answer — on how much it would cost the state to assume responsibility for lands if there were such a transfer.

Stephens pointed out that one of the first projects in her career was helping arrange a transfer of land from the Bureau of Land Management to the Southern Nevada Water Authority for a water infrastructure project.

“There are definitely scenarios where we need to be able to work with the federal government to do some sort of land transfer,” she said, adding that those goals should be balanced with conservation.

Horsford highlighted his work on public lands issues during his one term in Congress, including an agreement that allowed for the designation of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument and the designation of about 50,000 acres of wilderness in north-central Nevada. But he questioned the practicality of wholesale land transfers.

“Nevada hasn’t been able to properly fund education. How is it going to be able to manage 87 percent of public lands that are now currently managed by BLM, Forest Service and wildlife? Let’s be realistic about our priorities and let’s continue being partners.”

Vilela called for a flexible approach on the issue.

“The public lands belong to the people and they shouldn’t be sold off to the highest bidder,” she said. “But with that being said, we also need to make sure the protections that we have in place make sense and that we’re working with local constituents to make sure that they’re not so hardened and steadfast that local constituents are having difficulties having access to the lands.”

Anzalone said the push for a land transfer is rooted in a lack of trust among some rural constituents toward their representatives.

“What I’m hearing, it’s more of a trust issue,” he said. “If you’re willing to listen and you’re willing to return — many representatives have gone, but many haven’t gone back. They talk the talk to get elected and they don’t return. That’s why we need to elect someone in this district who actually is trustworthy.”

How do you stop the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository?

Candidates were asked how they’d block the federal government’s proposal to resume work on Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste disposal site.

“The most important thing is working with allies and understanding our communities and making sure they have a voice,” Stephens said. “At the end of the day, our answer is no.”

Horsford suggested that “our position should be a legal one, because it’s not consent-based. Nevada doesn’t want it, and they need to find alternatives.”

He threw out the idea that the site could be used for housing data centers.

Vilela said the state could consider ways to make nuclear waste storage safer.

“If we cannot stop it from coming to the state of Nevada, we need to fight to ensure it comes in dry storage ... there's other methods that makes it safer,” she said, adding that the country should more aggressively move toward clean energy, especially as a way to create jobs. “In the meantime we need to be working really hard in Congress to push for a federal jobs guarantee.”

Anzalone said he’s “absolutely” against Yucca and thinks it’s dangerous. But he said a lack of jobs in rural communities is fostering support for the projects and suggested ramping up career and technical education to meet that need.

“What happened to our auto shops? What happened to our wood shops? What happened to our career tech ed in schools?” he said. “We’re doing an OK job in Clark County but I’ll tell you, in the rural communities, we have kids that are going into the mining industry because there’s really not much else to go into.”

Spearman compared Yucca to a family dirtying up dishes for Thanksgiving, then bringing them to a neighbor to wash.

“Wherever the waste is made, they should figure out how to store and dispose of it,” she said.

The focus in rural Nevada, she said, should be on more geothermal energy development.

Was moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem a good idea?

Horsford pointed out that the move had been in the works for many years, with help from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and former President Barack Obama.

“As someone who’s been a strong ally and advocate of AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee), and who has worked across the aisle to make sure that we preserve the U.S.-Israel relationship, I think we need to focus on the policy and not so much the placement of the embassy,” he said.

Pressed on whether he’d support the decision, Horsford said “in all honesty, it’s a distraction away from the important international issues we are right now faced with.”

The four other candidates were more direct in their disapproval of the move.

“I think it was reckless of Donald Trump to move the embassy ... in the manner he did. It’s adding fuel to the fire,” Vilela said, adding that both Israel and Palestine want peace. “I think that as allies to Israel and also to Palestine we need to make sure we are helping in that process and not making it worse.”

Anzalone criticized what he called Trump’s “jump decision.”

“When we’re throwing cogs in the wheel of something that’s thousands of years old, all we’re doing is creating more chaos,” he said. “I’m about evidence and listening to facts. All it did was stir the pot.”

Spearman condemned the move as reckless.

“Everyone is trying to still move toward that two-state solution and what the president did was another shiny object that he threw out there, to take attention off the fact that we pulled out of the Iran deal,” she said. “And it made not just us unsafe, but it made our allies in Israel less safe.”

Stephens acknowledged that the move had been in the works for some time, but was critical of the manner in which Trump did it.

“What we see is a pattern of the Trump administration of being reckless, not working with our allies and ultimately diminishing the credibility of the United States around the world,” she said.

Will you support Nancy Pelosi as the House Democratic leader?

Candidates were asked whether they’d support the current, polarizing Democratic minority leader in the next session of Congress.

Vilela, Spearman, Stephens and Anzalone said maybe.

“I will support anyone who will support the policies of the people,” Vilela said.

“I really respect and appreciate everything that Minority Leader Pelosi has done in the past,” Spearman said. “But I think what’s happening right now around the world, around this country, is that people are looking at different options with respect to bold leadership.”

Stephens said she’s focused on “bread and butter” issues and would back Pelosi if she is, too.

Anzalone said, “I would have to get to know Nancy Pelosi on a personal level.”

Horsford brought up stories of families rationing pills because of high drug costs, the rising cost of rent and children afraid to go to school for fear of a shooting.

“Those are the issues that people talk to me about,” he said. “I’ve had very few people talk to me about who the next leader of the Congress should be.”

Are there any policies of President Trump’s that you agree with?

Some of the Democratic candidates were at a loss when asked what policies of Trump’s they’d support.

“Umm, it’s difficult,” Spearman said, adding that she can work across the aisle but Trump hasn’t initiated such compromises.

“I don’t support the Trump agenda,” Stephens said.

“I like that he ignited the Democrats,” Vilela said.

Horsford said he liked that Trump talked about making prescription drugs more affordable, but said the plan he ultimately released didn’t help the problem and “was actually a giveaway to the pharmaceutical companies.”

Anzalone had praise for Trump’s work resisting a plan from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

"She zeroed out title funding and I applaud him for pushing back, and it saved a lot of schools,” he said.

Disclosure: The Culinary Union has donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.
This story was updated at 1 p.m.  on May 27, 2018 to add complete Amy Vilela quote on Yucca Mountain for clarity.

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