The central question for many in the California Senate race this year is, what’s the difference between two Democrats? While there’s a lot to like on both sides of the race, there are some differences, and I’ll try to explore those in hopes of reaching a decision.

Most of these differences came out in the single debate, so that is where I’ll focus, bringing in additional context where appropriate. I won’t touch on every debate question, just the ones where I think substantive policy questions have been raised.

The election is Tuesday, November 8th. Don’t forget to vote!

Overall Impressions

On their websites [Harris] [Sanchez], both candidates take very similar stances on issues like immigration reform, climate change, and the economy. But while Loretta Sanchez focuses primarily on what she’s accomplished in Congress so far, Kamala Harris takes that a bit further—not only does she discuss what she’s done as Attorney General, she also talks specifically about what she would do once elected.

This distinction was apparent in the debate as well. Overall, Sanchez spent most of her time focusing on the work she’s already done, especially in her home community of Santa Ana. Harris, meanwhile, spent a little less time on her past work and more time laying out her proposed policies.

This is about what I would expect; Sanchez has a seat in Congress, and between the two candidates, she has more directly relevant experience. Harris has plenty of experience as Attorney General, but that experience is perhaps less relevant to a US Senate seat.

In the debate, one theme that came up consistently from both sides was how the other side needs to “show up”, or “actually do things”. But neither Sanchez nor Harris could really make these attacks stick. Harris accused Sanchez of consistently failing to show up in Congress, but the reality is more complicated. Similarly, Sanchez repeatedly accused Harris of “just talking”, but in general I found Harris’ policy positions to be more coherent and specific, and therefore more likely to succeed.


Crime and Policing [Harris]

The question posed during the debate was: should we quickly release law-enforcement video?

Harris says she recognizes the “crisis of confidence in law enforcement”, and that she recognizes the racial disparities present in the justice system. She supports the use of body cameras and increased training on “use of force, implicit bias, and procedural justice”.

Sanchez also recognizes that the “trust factor has gone down”, and said that she wanted to build trust back up in our communities, but offered no specific policy changes to do so.[1] Instead, she gave an example where she did this by inviting cops into her predominately black church in Santa Ana to “break bread”.

Later in the debate, the candidates were asked if they supported Proposition 57, which offers more opportunities for parole for non-violent offenders. Harris said yes, and drew a clear distinction between violent and non-violent crime, referring to the state’s high recidivism rate[2] as evidence that being tough on crime doesn’t work. Sanchez said no, falsely claiming that Prop. 57 would release felons convicted of various gun offenses.

Additionally, during what was ostensibly the “cyber-security” portion of the debate, Sanchez claimed that gun-related crimes and sexual assault has been increasing. PolitiFact checked a related claim, and found that nationwide, violent crime has actually been decreasing over the past 25 years (although they did not break out sexual assault into a separate category, and they did find a recent uptick in murder rates).

To me, this is a pretty clear win for Kamala Harris—not only does she have her facts straight, she has a clear position, and the background as Attorney General to execute on it. Sanchez, by contrast, seems to have fear-mongering and anecdotes.

Immigration [Toss-Up]

Both candidates support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Sanchez spent her time sharing stories of actions she’s taken to help specific people, but once again struggled to connect that back to a general policy position.

Harris seems to have a slightly more nuanced command of the issues faced by immigrants. For example, she mentioned that immigrants are at high risk for fraud, since they are less likely to go to law enforcement when they are the victim, for fear of being deported. Harris also wants to see a path forward for unaccompanied minors (e.g. refugees fleeing violence in Central America).

On immigration, both candidates have very similar policy positions.

Marijuana [Harris]

Marijuana is another topic on which both candidates are in broad agreement. Both agree that it should be moved from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2, but neither candidate went so far as to say it should be legalized.

Again, Harris has done her homework—drug addiction and abuse disproportionately affects minorities, and Harris believes we should treat addiction as a public health issue, not a crime. She believe the war on drugs has been a failure.

Sanchez did not go quite that far, but she left me with the impression that she believes marijuana should be taxed and regulated, not illegal. She gave one example in which she worked with the Santa Ana city council to regulate medical dispensaries, and another in which she pressured the President not to interfere in California’s implementation of medical marijuana. But I didn’t hear much about what she would do going forward.

I’d give a slight win to Harris here, who took a strong stance against the war on drugs, and tied it in nicely with her criminal-justice reform position.

Terrorism and National Security [Harris]

Again, both candidates are similar in their stated policy approaches, but Harris shows she has done her homework, covering not just terrorism but also criminal organizations, and even climate change and cyber-security (more on that later).

Sanchez goofed hard on terrorism, however; prior to the debate, she made a categorical statement about Muslims as follows:

We know that there is a small group, and we don’t know how big that is—it can be anywhere between 5 and 20%, from the people that I speak to—that Islam is their religion and who have a desire for a caliphate and to institute that in any way possible, and in particular go after what they consider Western norms—our way of life. … They are willing to use, and they do use, terrorism, and it is in the name of a very wrong way of looking at Islam.

While she doesn’t directly equate terrorism with Islam, she does paint the Islamic community with a very broad brush, and she repeated this mistake in the debate, saying, “We need our Muslim-American community with us, to help us, to get some of this that’s coming in from ISIS.”

Terrorism is not the Muslim-American community’s problem, it is everyone’s problem. Asking the Muslim-American community to police itself in this way reeks of prejudice. It has unpleasant similarities to the rationale for placing Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II.

And, when Harris called Sanchez out on her “5 and 20%” comment, Sanchez didn’t apologize—far from it, in fact; she dug in further, claiming that she was purposefully misrepresented. Frankly, I don’t buy it; I believe both her original comment and her response during the debate are evidence of implicit bias, if not prejudice, against Muslims.

Harris, by contrast, recognized the need to avoid inflammatory rhetoric that plays into ISIS propaganda.

On terrorism and national security, Sanchez crashed and burned. Harris wins.

Water [Toss-Up]

I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the drought; but here the candidates seemed to have pretty similar views. Both candidates touched on recycling, conservation, and desalination. Harris additionally touched on capturing storm water, and improving water storage generally. She also emphasized that water is a national issue, making the foreboding prediction that wars will be fought over water.

Sanchez talked more about what she’s done in the past within her Congressional district. She mentioned that SoCal and the Central Valley have taken the brunt of the drought, and her district has the largest water recycling plant in the world.

Overall the candidates seem to have substantially similar views, although (as seen throughout the debate) Harris seems to have more clear and coherent policy positions.

Abortions [Harris]

In the debate, both candidates were asked a short question about the Hyde Amendment; Harris specifically stated that she was in favor of repealing it. Sanchez did not answer the question directly, but made a general statement in favor of giving women choice in their lives.

I’m giving a slight win to Harris, since she made a very specific statement in favor of repealing the amendment. It’s not clear to me why Sanchez wasn’t willing to make a similarly strong statement, even as she made a generally pro-choice statement, but that’s often a sign of limited/no support. It may also be a sign that Sanchez just hasn’t done her homework.

For-Profit Schools [Harris]

In 2013 Harris, in her capacity as Attorney General, sued Corinthian Colleges, Inc. for false advertising related to its job-placement rates. That lawsuit, among others, ultimately led to the bankruptcy of Corinthian, and closure of all of the colleges it operated, including Everest, Heald, and WyoTech.

When asked about what the federal government should do to protect students, Sanchez struck a balance between condemning the behavior of Corinthian while defending for-profit schools more generally. She recognized that for some students, for-profit colleges fill a gap in the education system by providing night classes, or classes not offered by public institutions.

Sanchez also accused Harris of going after the entire industry. Harris, for her part, agreed and argued that this is a good thing, because she saw that some schools were taking advantage of students.

Both candidates accused the other of taking money from for-profit colleges, Harris from Trump University while it was being investigated by the AG’s office, and Sanchez more generally, including from Corinthian Colleges.[3]

Both candidates, it should be noted, also advocated for free college tuition. (Harris specifically stated that she wanted free tuition for families with incomes less than $140,000.)

Overall, I felt Harris’ prosecution of Corinthian was appropriate, and conducting an industry-wide review is equally appropriate, to suss out any other misbehavior that may not be immediately apparent. While I understand and agree that for-profit colleges have a place in our education system, I also believe a for-profit organization’s interests are not aligned with the students’ interests, so strict oversight is important to ensure students receive a quality education. I’m giving this one to Harris.

Cyber-Security [Sanchez]

I’ve saved what is perhaps my favorite topic for last — cyber-security. This is another area in which the candidates differ sharply. During the debate, one of the panelists asked, “How would you strike a balance between the privacy rights of Americans and the need to protect individuals and corporate transactions and records online?”

Before we dive in, I should note that I have a problem with the question as framed. I believe that “privacy vs. security” (or “privacy vs. protection”) is a false choice; there is no need to sacrifice one to get the other. To the contrary, I believe sacrificing one will likely lead to the loss of the other, because the two of them are actually the same thing—online, privacy is security.[4]

To the question at hand: during the debate, Sanchez made some very strong, eloquently-stated points. In her own words:

The time when we are most scared, is the time when we need to protect our liberties. When the PATRIOT Act was voted [on] right after 9/11, I said no. And Snowden showed us a few years later what we had given up.

She goes on to say that Apple has the right to refuse to create software to unlock the iPhone. As someone who both understands the underlying technology, and values individual freedom and privacy, I wholeheartedly agree with Sanchez’s position.

Harris, by contrast, stuck to some rather vague policy positions, emphasizing the need to prevent attacks, and to build resilience into our systems so we can bounce back immediately after.

However, outside of the debate, Harris has mentioned that she supports a “middle ground” when it comes to the Apple encryption question. Unfortunately, as I’ve discussed previously, there is no middle ground. You will very rarely hear me make such an absolute statement, but in this case I have strong reason to believe it’s true. To quote my earlier article:

… enabling “special law enforcement access” to encrypted communications would most likely enable “special terrorist access”, or “special identity-thief access”, or “special nation-state access” to the same.

I cannot support a “compromise” that would make it easier for terrorists, identity thieves, Russians, or whomever to gain access to protected information, whether that information is individual information or national secrets. This is a strong win for Sanchez.

Verdict: Harris

Overall, Kamala Harris seems to have a much better general command of the issues raised in the debate, and more clear and coherent policy positions compared to Loretta Sanchez. Issues like crime, policing, education, and drug abuse affect us all, and Harris clearly has the background, experience and attitude necessary to address them head on.

Sanchez, by contrast, was straight-up wrong on several important issues related to crime and terrorism, and while she clearly has a lot of experience working within her district to get things done, I don’t feel she was able to translate it into comprehensive, coherent positions that apply across the state.

Cyber-security is a major issue, to be sure—Harris’s lack of knowledge in this area is a significant drawback. And while it weighs against her, I don’t believe it’s sufficient to tip the scales when compared to her experience in other areas. That’s why I’m voting for Kamala Harris.


[1]Nor does Sanchez’s website speak to the issue of trust in law enforcement, or police practices in general. Indeed, I couldn’t find any reference online to Sanchez’s opinions on police practices or bias in the justice system.
[2]Harris did not cite any statistics on recidivism during the debate. However, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation publishes an annual Outcome Evaluation Report which follows up with felons for up to three years after their release. The report was last released in January 2014, and it shows that after three years, a staggering 61% of felons released from prison in FY 2008-09 have been convicted and returned to prison for a different offense.
[3]Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to research either of the candidates’ campaign finance contributions, so I can’t say for sure whether Sanchez actually received this funding or not.

To expand on this a bit, I believe that privacy comes from having robust security in place. By “security”, I mean users should be able to make clear, informed decisions about their information, and those decisions should be enforced by robust security technologies like encryption and digital signatures. This enforcement, in turn, gives users a greater sense of confidence and control.

There is also the issue of collective security (sometimes mistaken for national security by political insiders). I don’t believe the potential gain to collective security (in the ability to prosecute child molesters, for example) outweighs the loss to individual security, which faces far more prevalent threats online from repressive governments, identity thieves, and other purveyors of mischief and mayhem. But that is a discussion for another day.