The political showdown to determine the next person to represent the Mother Lode and the rest of the Central Sierra in Congress got off to a noisy start Sunday in a packed high school auditorium in Mariposa, where the incumbent representative for California District 4, Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, faced off against challenger Jessica Morse, D-Pollock Pines.

The gloves of politesse came off in each candidate’s opening statements, as McClintock and Morse sought to distinguish themselves from each other. McClintock is seeking a fifth consecutive term since voters first sent him to Congress in 2008.

“In this hyer-partisan environment it’s hard to to find truly neutral places to hold these debates,” McClintock said in opening remarks. “This past year we instituted tax cuts that are working. Consumer confidence is high. Working families will pay $1,900 less in taxes this year.”

Morse talked about her roots as a fifth-generation Northern Californian and her background as a national security strategist. She portrayed herself as a public servant and accused McClintock of being a career politician.

McClintock distanced himself from President Donald J. Trump at least two times during the debate. At one point he said, “This is is not about Trump vs. the Resistance. This is about policies that work.”

In addition to Republican-backed tax cuts, McClintock also talked about strategies to reduce wildfire threats by returning to pre-National Environmental Policy Act practices before 1970, when “we carried timber out of the forest” rather than burning it out, a reference to heavy fuel loads, tree mortality, drought and increasingly massive wildfires in recent decades.

Later in the debate, when asked by the moderator about Trump’s targeting of the news media as an enemy of the people, McClintock said, “I wish the president would be a little more careful about what he tweets.”

McClintock emphasized he supports First Amendment freedoms, and the rights to speak and publish are essential to pursuing balance in government.

Both candidates drew loud, raucous rounds of applause from their supporters in the audience of 360, who stood in line to get in before the debate started at 2 p.m.

The organizers and hosts of the event, Nicole and Greg Little, the publisher and editor, respectively, of the Mariposa Gazette & Miner weekly newspaper, told people they needed to respect both sides of the political fence and anyone getting too loud would be escorted out by law enforcement.

A gateway beef

Morse tried to score points on McClintock by portraying the 2013 shutdown of the federal government and Yosemite National Park as a devastation of local, tourism-based economies, including those in the town and county of Mariposa.

“That shutdown came on the heels of the Rim Fire,” Morse said. “That was a disaster and they had to close to the park. Tom McClintock voted to shut down the government and put us through another disaster just to make a political point.”

Furthermore, Morse said, McClintock favors the commercialization of Yosemite National Park, but she provided no specifics. She also said McClintock doesn’t live in the 4th District, which includes all of Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Mariposa and Tuolumne counties, and parts of Fresno, Madera, Nevada and Placer counties.

McClintock said it’s true, he lives right outside the 4th District in Elk Grove. But Morse, McClintock said, didn’t live in the 4th District until last year, and “she came here to run against me as a carpetbagger.” Common usage for the term carpetbagger in today’s politics is to denigrate an opponent as someone seeking election in an area where they have no local connections.

Some people in the audience, apparently including Morse supporters, laughed in irony at McClintock’s point. He carried on, though, saying, “I find her attack hypocritical. It’s not where you live, it’s where you stand,” emphasizing his focus on natural resource issues, including water storage, and budget policies.

McClintock also attempted to contrast the 2013 closures of Yosemite, during the Rim Fire and the federal government shutdown, with the recent closure of Yosemite during the Ferguson Fire, arguing the Trump administration did their best for local tourism-based economies and the outcomes in 2013 and 2018 were different.

Climate change

Greg Little asked both candidates about an assessment that climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the Department of Defense worldwide. He asked each if they believe climate change is real and if it’s caused by humans.

McClintock reiterated a line he’s used before, “This is the Holocene era and the world’s climate has been changing for 4.5 million years.”

He asked whether we as a society should act on climate change by raising people’s taxes, and he answered his own question, “No, we should be building more reservoirs to conserve water, and we should be thinning our forests, which are suffering from four times the natural timber density, without delay.”

Morse said climate change is not an existential threat in the 4th District, and thanks to wildfires it’s a matter of life and death. Earlier in the debate she thanked firefighters working the 390-acre Oak Fire that broke out near Ahwahnee in Madera County, and she talked about people she met in Sonora during the Detwiler Fire last year. She said climate change in the Mother Lode is an opportunity to create new higher-paying jobs in different parts of the 4th District. And she added, “When Tom McClintock talks about dinosaurs, it’s important to remember dinosaurs are dead.”

McClintock and Morse also sparred on questions about immigration, health care and affordable housing. The debate was kept to about 90 minutes, and it was streamed live on Facebook by the Mariposa Gazette. Audio was also streamed live online by Mariposa’s KRYZ Radio. Video was recorded for airing later on C-SPAN, the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network.

Who came to a debate on a Sunday?

Ken Boche, a Mariposa resident who owns Yosemite Close Up Tours, said before the debate he came to support the challenger Morse.

“I'm concerned about the Republicans, especially McClintock, because he helped engineer the government shutdown in 2013,” Boche said. “That wrecked the tourist season for all the people who want to come visit our crown jewel. That's our livelihood, and McClintock does not get it.”

Jane Burdick, a resident of Mariposa with the Mariposa County Republican Central Committee, came to the debate to support McClintock. Burdick said she believed the 2013 shutdown was the fault of environmentalists who were trying to protect frogs. Both McClintock and Morse talked about the 2013 shutdown to try to score points in the debate.

McClintock supporters Jack Cox of Copperopolis and Dennis Mills, District 4 supervisor in Calaveras County, waited outside with McClintock’s campaign director Jon Buey about an hour before the debate began. Tuolumne County residents who came to the event included Democratic organizer and activist Elaine Hagen.

Helga Anker, a resident of Big Oak Flat in Tuolumne County, said she was born in Belgern, Germany, in 1933 and she grew up under Hitler’s Nazis during World War II. She came to United States in 1956 and became a citizen in 1959.

“I feel as a citizen my only voice is my vote,” Anker said. “I'm always on the liberal side. McClintock doesn't even live in the district.”

Mariposa County sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers provided security. No one was ejected and there were no major incidents involving protesters outside the Mariposa County High School auditorium.

There will be at least one more debate between McClintock and Morse, scheduled Oct. 8 on Capital Public Radio KXJZ in Sacramento, staged in the studio with broadcaster Michael Krasny as moderator. McClintock said after Sunday’s event there is a chance of a third, at Granite Bay High School in Placer County.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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