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Denham, Harder trade barbs at debate
• Congressional candidates square off in rare showdown
Rep. Jeff Denham and Democratic challenger Josh Harder squared off Saturday at a debate hosted by the Turlock Journal and the Ceres Courier.

Congressman Jeff Denham and Josh Harder, the Democrat who wants to take his job away this November, squared off at a rare debate held in Turlock Saturday, each trading barbs and painting each other as too extreme for Valley residents.

The event was hosted by the Turlock Journal and Ceres Courier.

Those hoping for an energetic debate most likely left the Carnegie Arts Center pleased after Denham and Harder spent an hour and a half arguing about topics like healthcare, immigration, water and more, all while throwing in a few personal barbs throughout. 

After Harder called Denham out during the debate’s first question about water for failing to secure federal funding for Valley water storage projects — Denham’s most recent legislative victory in the House allows local irrigation districts to apply for federal loans to finance new water infrastructure — the congressman accused Harder of not having the Valley’s best interests at heart to begin with. 

“We call him ‘Bay Area Harder’ because he aligns himself with Bay Area issues,” Denham said, and later in the debate reminded the audience that Harder receives big contributions from outside of the district. He also noted that Harder did not show up at a recent Sacramento rally against the state’s proposed water grab. 

Denham hammered Harder’s lack of voting in 17 out of the 20 elections and suggested that his reckless healthcare plan would cost taxpayers $32 trillion with no way to pay for it other than raising taxes. Harder accused Denham of failing to bring about new water storage projects; of voting for legislation to promote the Twin Tunnels to send water south; and of legislation to strip 100,000 of their healthcare coverage.

“We’ve had water bond issues on the ballot two different times in the last decade,” charged Denham, “and he didn’t vote for either one of them. You got to at least show up and vote. It’s one thing to criticize those that are in office, but you ought to at least show up to vote.”

Harder acknowledged that he had been “complacent about politics” and didn’t think his vote counted.  He said he really got interested in running for Congress since Trump’s election in 2016 and how Denham has voted with Republicans 98 percent of the time.

“You’re right, congressman, to call me out and say that I was complacent,” said Harder. “The reality is that complacency is gone and it’s all thanks to you.”

Turlock Journal editor Kristina Hacker moderated the debate. She pointed out that Harder is on record in favor of the repeal of SB1, the state gas tax while Denham has not stated his stand on the tax. She asked if either supported a new federal gas tax to improve infrastructure and what they would do to improve roads and bridges.

Denham, who is on the House Transportation Infrastructure Committee, said he fought to include funding for the extension of the Altamont Express Corridor (ACE) train to Ceres and Merced, and expand freeways. He said he snagged funding for the new Highway 132 connection to Highway 99. Denham said he is opposed to raising the federal gas tax and against SB1. He accused Harder of flip-flopping on the gas tax, saying “we’ve got him on video saying both ways.”

Harder said he’s been consistent on the issue and wrote an op-ed in the Turlock Journal, adding “if you read your local newspaper you might have seen it.” Denham retorted that Harder changed his position after he talked to unions.

“I think we have a huge infrastructure problem here in the Central Valley,” said Harder. “There’s 57 bridges in this district, in this county even, that are failing … We have not seen the transportation or infrastructure funding that was promised. This is something that I actually agreed with President Trump on when he was running in 2016. He said we needed a massive dose of infrastructure and what do we get? After he got elected, the biggest infrastructure problem that they took on was privatizing air traffic control.” He accused Denham of allowing the district’s roads and bridges to “erode and degrade further over the last eight years he’s been in office.”

Denham defended his record, saying he included an amendment in the 2018 Infrastructure Bill to allocate more money to bridge safety, including for the replacement of the Seventh Street Bridge.

The two sparred over healthcare. Harder said nearly 50 percent of the 10th congressional district is on Medicaid and accused Denham of voting to strip 100,000 residents to lose healthcare.

“I will fight every single day to make sure people with pre-existing conditions, cancer, diabetes, pregnancy, childhood asthma, are protected under the law, and second I will make sure that every American … has access to affordable and high-quality healthcare,” Harder said.

Denham said to Harder: “When you end Obamacare and cut or eliminate all of our employer provided healthcare, when you throw unions that have negotiated with Kaiser, when you end their plans, when you end the VA, our veterans, and do Medi-Care for all, it affects all of our healthcare, including the seniors. It will rob the seniors’ fund. But the biggest question is, with your plan, how do you come up with $32 trillion? Who are you going to tax beyond all the other taxes you’ve proposed? Not even Jerry Brown supports this plan.”

Denham said he has fought to bring more doctors to the Valley by doubling the residency programs and added teaching hospitals and health centers. “We also have to start paying doctors to see patients … on time.”

“Don’t tell me what we can afford,” answered Harder, “because the reality is over the last two years, where we’ve had a Republican House, a Republican Senate and a Republican presidency, healthcare premiums have skyrocketed. Estimates have they’re going to increase by over 50 percent for a family of four in this district next year. Tell me how we’re going to afford that?”

Denham hit Harder back on costs of his healthcare plan. He said once Harder is done repealing tax cuts – which had said means $2,100 per district family – and adding more taxes on the top two percent of wealthiest Americans, that only cover $2 trillion of the $32 trillion needed to fund it. Denham said the Harder plan would “bankrupt this country.”

The debate touched on immigration. Denham said he introduced a comprehensive plan that included tough border security with technology and a physical barrier debated on the House floor.

“I did everything I could,” said Denham. He noted that the vote secured over half of the Republicans on record as supporting a pathway to citizenship for so-called dreamers, children of illegal immigrants. Denham said his bill dealt with the visa system and a guest worker program. Denham said he introduced the only bill in Congress to address the issue of separating children from parents at the border.

“I’m a leader on the issue. I will continue to lead on the issue because it’s a critical issue for our community. Again, his position is more with the Bay Area of sanctuary cities and abolishing ICE. Those are things that I cannot support.”

Denham repeatedly referred to Harder as “professor,” which he seemed to question by stating that his son, who attends Modesto Junior College where Harder serves as an adjunct professor, was unable to find the Democrat’s office hours. 

Harder smirked at much of what Denham had to say during the debate, and twice referred to the congressman’s statements as “alternative facts” — particularly, when Denham stated Harder had a “Bay Area” position on immigration and supported sanctuary cities and abolishing ICE.

Harder denied those claims but Denham underscored that they were recorded on tape.

“Of me saying I want to abolish ICE?” shot back Harder. “I’d love to hear that. I have never said it and I don’t support it.”

“Of sanctuary cities you did,” came back Denham, which Harder did not correct.

Harder said Congress needs to pass a bill to allow the two million dreamers to stay without fear of deportation.

“They’ve been in our school districts for decades, they’re a part of our fabric of our entire community. And what can we do? Jeff Denham has released an awful lot of press releases on this issue.” He tried to tie the Congressional vote to his effort, though. Denham fired back that immigration was not settled when Democrats controlled the White House and Congress. He also pointed out that it’s been a difficult issue when he speaks to conservatives in his party who don’t favor dreamer protection and to Democrats who don’t want border security.

Harder accused Denham of kowtowing to Republican Party leadership despite the fact that Denham bucked that leadership in April and signaled he had enough votes needed to force a vote in the House on four immigration bills to protect Dreamers. At the time Denham hoped the announcement would prompt Speaker Paul D. Ryan to voluntarily bring up the bills for a vote, rather than risk the embarrassment of being forced to do so by fellow Republicans. But Ryan said he didn’t support Denham’s idea of a “Queen of the Hill” vote on immigration because Trump would veto it. Additionally, he said the Senate already had rejected versions of the bills Denham wanted to bring to a vote.

When asked what they would do to help stimulate the Valley’s economy, both men acknowledged this part of California has a lagging economy. Harder noted that Seneca Foods cannery went from 10,000 jobs to bankruptcy. He said there are not enough good paying jobs but went onto attack Denham’s vote on tax cuts.

“It also added $2 trillion to the national debt.”

He suggested the federal government investigating in educational programs like the manufacturing academy at Ceres High School. “It’s a program that works and yet programs like that are federally funded and they’re getting zeroed out in the Trump budget that made room for more tax cuts,” said Harder.

Denham mentioned how his business is hiring people. He then accused Harder’s healthcare company of raising premiums by 30 percent. He said as a venture capitalist, Harder invested in another company that received government assistance, retrained the people and shipped jobs to India. Denham said he believes in tax cuts which have translated to more jobs, bonuses and raises for employees.

“When I first took office, we were at $47,000 median income; we’re at $63,000 median income today. Our growth rate is 4.2 percent. We actually have more jobs now than people looking for jobs. And while we had 17 and a half percent unemployment rate when I was first elected, it’s down to six (percent). Can it be better? Absolutely it can and I’m working right here in our community to continue to make our local economy better.”

Denham said raising taxes “would set us back.”

Harder said Denham’s attack on his business record was “a bucket of lies.” He said he never was a member of a board that directed increases in the healthcare market. “I’ve never outsources jobs. That’s ridiculous.  You’re just trying to make me seem as scary as possible because you know that you can’t defend the actual record that you voted for in Congress because you know it’s unpopular. You call it a tax cut. It raised taxes in California where Californians are going to pay $12 billion more in taxes.”

He claimed the tax cuts were for corporate America to be paid out of MediCare and Social Security funds.

Denham stuck to his $2,100 per family figure.

When asked about party loyalty, both candidates said they would vote district interests over party bosses. Denham said he bucked the GOP over immigration reform. He also said he looks forward to the next speaker in Kevin McCarthy and thinks he will help the Valley. Denham also castigated Harder as being “in line with Bay Area policies of Nancy Pelosi.”

Harder repeated that Denham votes mostly along party lines and said that “the purple district” needs a representative to “not be beholden to one party or the other and certainly not beholden to any corporate interests.” He said he wouldn’t take a dollar of PAC money while claiming 70 percent of Denham’s war chest comes from PACs and special interests. Denham fired back that those PACs have included the Farm Bureau and firefighter interests.

Harder accused Denham of avoiding Town Hall meetings. That gave Denham a chance to bring up a 2017 Harder gathering where he said he supports taxpayer funded late-term abortions. Harder claims he didn’t understand the abortion question. Denham, who is pro-life, said the fact that Harder followed up with “no exceptions” proved otherwise.

“It’s a very extreme liberal position that might sell in the Bay Area but I don’t think it sells here in the Valley,” Denham charged.

Harder said he is pro-choice but denied being in favor of late-term abortion.

“I support California law, which is a woman has a right to choose up to 24 weeks after conception,” said Harder. “If you want to roll back protections and go back to the 1950’s then that’s your decision. I think that the world we live in now is a lot better than the one we had five decades and I think a woman’s right to choose is a big reason for that.” 

The congressman said he has been consistent in his views no matter who he is talking to.

Harder baited Denham to say climate change is real and manmade, which has been a hotly debated controversy. But Denham stopped short, saying the climate does change but that liberal environmental policies have only hurt farmers and business.

Denham and Harder debated on a variety of issues including water, immigration, healthcare, bipartisanship and more. To view the full video of the debate, visit 

Angelina Martin contributed to this report.