By Claire Trageser | KPBS
Members of the La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club couldn’t find enough differences between two Democrats, state Sen. Marty Block and his challenger, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, to endorse either one Wednesday night.
After the two San Diego Democrats debated for an hour, the club’s 56 members voted on an endorsement and it ended in a tie.
The two candidates for Senate District 39 squared off over questions about affordable housing, climate policy and whether the city of San Diego should spend public money on a new stadium for the Chargers. There was little disagreement between Atkins and Block on any of the issues.
The most contentious moment of the night came when the moderators asked them why they were running for a state office when no Democrat is challenging San Diego’s Republican Mayor, Kevin Faulconer, in his bid for re-election.
“I would be more than happy to put my resources behind Sen. Block in his run for mayor,” Atkins said, to laughs from the crowd.
She went on to say that like in the presidential race, she’s glad Democrats have substantive choices in the 39th District race. The former San Diego city councilwoman also said that she feels she can best serve in the state legislature, not city government.
Block responded with a joke of his own.
“As far as who should be mayor, there’s no question it should be Toni, despite whatever shortcomings she might have,” he said.
He added that his goal is to work on education policy, and that’s best done in the state legislature, not at the city level.
The two candidates also challenged each other over whether Atkins had gotten enough done during her time as Assembly Speaker. She was elected to the post in 2014 and will leave it early this year, probably in March.
The dispute came from a question over why a state requirement for 50 percent reduction in petroleum products in cars and trucks did not make it into Senate Bill 350, the recently-passed Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act.
Atkins said she helped ensure the bill passed, but there “weren’t the votes in the Assembly” to approve the petroleum reduction.
Block then said he supported the full version of the original bill, and he suggested Atkins was unable to lead the Assembly on that bill or others, including raising the age to buy cigarettes to 21, further regulating the use of electronic cigarettes and raising the state minimum wage to $13 an hour in 2017.
“She’s right, she is the leader of the Assembly, and that is an important position and I respect her greatly for that,” Block said. “But if you take credit for what the Assembly has done, you also have to take blame for their severe failures last year.”
Atkins defended herself, saying she had to work with the votes she had in the Assembly.
“I believe in getting things done,” she said. “If SB350 had failed in the Assembly because we weren’t able to negotiate changes, that would have been disastrous for California.”
She then added, “I will take responsibility for successes and failures because you have to keep working to get things done. We got the most aggressive piece of legislation passed when we passed 350, and we’re going to continue to work on it to get it done.”
She added that the minimum wage increase bill is not dead, but is in the Appropriations Committee.
Neither Block nor Atkins said public money should be spent on a new stadium for the Chargers. Both also commented on a presentation from attorney Cory Briggs on a ballot measure he’s behind: The Citizens’ Plan for the Responsible Management of Major Tourism and Entertainment Resources. Briggs described the measure to the La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club before the debate.
Both Block and Atkins said they liked what they heard from Briggs but needed to examine his measure further before they’d officially endorse it.
Block was first elected to his Senate seat in 2008 and could serve until 2020, when he would be termed out. Atkins will be termed out of her Assembly seat this year.
When announcing her run, Atkins told the Los Angeles Times that Block promised her he would not run for re-election this year. Block denied that conversation happened.
Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, told KPBS Midday Edition in September that it’s unusual for an incumbent like Block to face a challenge from a member of his own party. He said the internal squabble between the candidates could hurt the local Democratic Party.
“Here’s the real sadness,” Luna said. “They are really good people. We’re going to have good Democrats ripping each other apart. It’s bad for the brand.”
–Claire Trageser is the Multimedia Enterprise Reporter for KPBS. Follow her on Twitter @clairetrageser.