TJ Cox and David Valadao did manage to talk about important congressional issues like COVID-19, the economy and forest management. But, the first half of their hour-long debate centered on responding to each other’s campaign ads.
Cox (D-Fresno) is running for his second term against former three-term congressman Valadao (R-Hanford) for the 21st Congressional District seat, covering parts of Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties. This is a rematch from 2018, when Cox won by 862 votes.
“Lie/liar,” “false” or “dishonest” was said at least 15 times between the two. They met live on TV at the KGET-17 studio in Bakersfield. The debate was also broadcast on KSEE-24 in Fresno.
Several times, Cox and Valadao accused the other of not delivering for the people of the Central Valley.
The only substantive issue the candidates agreed upon is that improved forest management is needed to prevent further devastating wildfires.
Loan Defaults and Trump Comparisons
Responding to attack ads that his family farm went bankrupt and was found liable for an employee’s arm amputation injury, Valadao said he did the right thing and recused himself from day-to-day operations while in Congress. Cox has not done the same, said Valadao.
“Hell, he hasn’t even disclosed the majority of his businesses and those interests in the whole process. So following the rules, yes, I did what I was supposed to do and it was a tragic accident and sadly, someone was hurt,” Valadao said.
Cox responded by mentioning the Valadao family’s Triple V Dairy defaulting on loans. Valadao was named in the suit from the bank, which eventually took over the farm.
He then made the first of many comparisons between Valadao and President Donald Trump.
“It’s just like you and Donald Trump. It’s never your fault. It’s not my responsibility. It’s somebody else’s. All these excuses. That’s why people booted you in 2018. They’re tired of the excuses,” Cox said.
At one point when Valadao appeared to interrupt Cox, the incumbent congressman said “Sorry, Donald. It’s my time on the floor.”
The Fake Tweet
Cox defended a fabricated Tweet from his campaign manager, saying “it was obvious that was a joke … Spare me the crocodile tears about it and the victimization and playing the victim when you base your entire campaign on a smear campaign, on a bunch of lies because you don’t have the record to stand on.”
Last week, Cox’s campaign manager Amanda Sands altered a Tweet to make it appear Valadao retweeted Trump’s message that “California is going to hell.”
She seemingly brushed it of when caught.
“Leadership starts at the top with this one. And sadly, he has been dishonest through his whole career,” Valadao responded. “When you deceive and you lie and continue distort the truth, people get sick and tired of it.”
Debating the Issues
Moderators Alexan Balekian of KSEE and Jim Scott of KGET managed to question the candidates about substantive issues for the last half-hour.
Each candidate said they were better on immigration and Dreamers.
As the discussion turned to COVID, each side brought up accusations of the other not wearing a mask in public.
Cox said he would support a second round of pandemic stimulus funding.
“We passed the Heroes Act, which provides the opportunity and investments to do all those things some four months ago. His party and his president, Mr. Trump, don’t want to do anything,” Cox said.
Valadao said he wouldn’t support a bill that has other things in it, such as cutting funds to law enforcement.
“Playing politics and using stuff like COVID to cut funding to law enforcement is just — I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s just one of the dirtiest political tricks,” Valadao said.
Cox said he would take a COVID vaccine when NIH Director Dr. Anthony Fauci takes it. Valadao says he’s “never been a huge fan” of vaccines, but would take it after the FDA approves it.
Climate change is one issue Valadao said he breaks with Trump on. Both candidates said they believe climate change is real.
TJ Cox said he’s introduced more bills in two years than Valadao did in six. Valadao replied that Cox hasn’t gotten a bill out of committee.
In his six years in Congress, Valadao sponsored 22 bills and resolutions. Seven passed the House, and one became law, HR 624 about Social Security fraud.
After this story first published, Cox’s campaign said that two of his water bills he sponsored, HR 5347 and HR 5316, were included in HR 2 which passed the House. They also pointed to several other bills that Cox co-sponsored or introduced that were included in other bills that passed.
Cox said Valadao didn’t sponsor the WIIN Act.
“See if you can find the WIIN Act (a 2016 water bill) with his name on it. You won’t be able to. It’s the Dianne Feinstein bill that was pushed through by Jim Costa and other members. The fact that he signed on to it. You’re taking a lot of credit where it isn’t due,” Cox said.
Valadao accused Cox of credit-grabbing.
“You’ve literally taken credit for my work with the WIIN Act. Every dollar that’s come to the Valley that’s helped with water infrastructure has come from the piece of legislation that I helped get signed into law,” Valadao said.
If Cox is referring to the bill known as the 2016 WIIN Act (S.612), then Valadao was not a sponsor or co-sponsor. He did vote in favor of the bill.
According to his campaign, Valadao helped negotiate on behalf of Republicans on the WIIN Act. It included provisions of a prior Valadao bill in 2015 — HR 2898, the Western Water and American Food Security Act — that was approved by the House but not the Senate.
Cox said Valadao voted with Trump 99% of the time.
According to political-tracking site FiveThirtyEight, the number is close, 97.9% of the time. Valadao says those numbers are inaccurate.
“It’s not a legitimate deal because they literally took a small amount of votes and compare that to a whole congressional record and said, well, this is how we vote because of these 30 compared to the thousands. It’s not an accurate representation,” Valadao said.
Valadao said Cox voted 100% of the time with Nancy Pelosi. Cox said he hasn’t.
Cox said he hasn’t always voted with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), a lightning rod for conservative attacks.
According to ProPublica, Cox and Pelosi have voted the same on legislation 100% of the time in the current Congress.
Valadao says he’s taken on his own party.
“I’ve taken on my own party leadership. I signed a discharge petition, which is about the ultimate thing you can do to take on your own party leadership,” Valadao said.
In 2018, Valadao signed a discharge petition, a congressional procedure that would force a debate — in this case on immigration — if a majority of Congress signed on. Fresno Democrat Jim Costa signed as well, but the measure did not achieve sufficient support to move forward.