Rep. Adam Schiff, running for U.S. Senate, speaking in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In Santa Cruz, Adam Schiff tries to separate himself from rival Senate candidates

Santa Cruz County received its second visit of the week from a major U.S. Senate candidate Tuesday as Rep. Adam Schiff arrived in town for a Democratic fundraiser, only days after Rep. Katie Porter stopped to make her own appeal to local voters. Rep. Barbara Lee, the other major Democratic candidate in the race to replace Dianne Feinstein, is expected to make an appearance later this year.

As the sun set Tuesday night on the Victorian-style home of Santa Cruz power couple George Ow Jr. and Gail Michaelis-Ow, a crowd of about 140 Democratic donors packed into the breezy, tree-lined backyard to hear one of Congress’ most polarizing members talk about why he is the best fit for California’s open U.S. Senate seat next year.

Rep. Adam Schiff, donning his party’s colors with a crisp cobalt-blue oxford shirt, took the microphone from former congressman Sam Farr and, in the same measured tone so many Americans came to rely on (or detest) when he led the first impeachment of former President Donald Trump, began his pitch, trying to distinguish himself from a candidate pool that has been described locally as an “embarrassment of riches.”

After a few thank-yous and an uncanny Bill Clinton impression during a story about his come-up in Congress, Schiff’s timbre turned solemn as he emphasized the gravity of the forthcoming criminal trials of Trump.

“Even as this is going to be a hugely jarring and tumultuous time for the country, I want to say that it is enormously important that we go through this trial,” the Burbank Democrat said. “Because the alternative is really unthinkable. … A country in which if you are president of the United States, and you lose your reelection, you can do whatever it takes; you can violate the law and constitution and if you’re successful you become president for life. If you fail, there is no repercussion. That is a sure way to the end of our democracy.”

Schiff’s visit came only two days after his most popular opponent, Rep. Katie Porter, appealed to an auditorium of 175 people in downtown Santa Cruz. (Rep. Barbara Lee, the other marquee name in the race, has committed to visiting Santa Cruz before the year ends.) Although there was some fundraising for Schiff, tickets to the event helped raise money for the Santa Cruz County Democratic Central Committee (DCC).

The 63-year-old congressman drew a who’s who of the local mainstream civics set, with electeds, hopeful candidates and behind-the-scenes politicos. Farr, Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley, Rep. Jimmy Panetta’s aide Rachel Dann and local DCC chair Andrew Goldenkranz crowded in one corner; District 2 County Supervisor Zach Friend, stepping down at the end of next year, passed by supervisor candidates Monica Martinez and Kim De Serpa; Santa Cruz City Council candidate Joe Thompson stood with the UC Santa Cruz political set; and David Tannaci, entering the city council race to replace termed-out Martine Watkins, hung out with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) political organizer Liam McLaughlin.

Schiff’s role in leading Trump’s first impeachment turned him into a household name and cleared a path for him to contend for the seat Sen. Dianne Feinstein will vacate at the end of next year. Similar to how Trump’s campaign seems to benefit with each indictment, Schiff’s field-leading war chest only grew after the Republican-led House of Representatives voted in June to censure him for his role in the impeachment. As of June 30, Schiff had raised more than $30 million, against Porter’s $10.4 million and Lee’s $1.4 million.

Protecting democracy in the wake of Trump is central to Schiff’s Senate campaign. However, he has also spent a lot of time talking about broad issues in the economy and how, despite record-low unemployment, working people still have a difficult time making ends meet. He ties the election of Trump and other “autocrats” across the world to “seismic changes in the nature of work, as a result of globalization and automation and, increasingly, [artificial intelligence].”

Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley shaking hands with Senate candidate Adam Schiff as DCC Chair Andrew Goldenkranz looks on.
Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley (back to camera) shaking hands with Senate candidate Adam Schiff as DCC Chair Andrew Goldenkranz looks on.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The central challenge to our democracy is to make the economy work for people,” Schiff told the crowd Tuesday night.

Schiff walks the party line when talking about the big issues. He supports and has even introduced legislation to expand the Supreme Court to more than nine justices, and he wants to see fixed term limits and a code of ethics for the court. He wants universal health care and Medicare for all who want it, and to get rid of the Senate’s filibuster. He said the first thing Congress should have done in President Joe Biden’s first two years — when Democrats held majorities in both houses — was to pass voting-rights protection. He said, as a senator, voting rights legislation would be his “first priority.”

Throughout his time on the campaign trail, aside from being the face of the first impeachment trial, Schiff has distinguished himself from Porter and Lee as the one with a record of “getting things done.” In an email from his campaign team, four of the seven accomplishments listed were from his days in the California legislature from 1996 to 2000, when Democrats held a comfortable majority.

I caught a few minutes with Schiff after he stepped down into the crowd to schmooze, shake hands and take selfies. I asked the congressman why he is the person who can make progress in an increasingly polarized political landscape, especially as he wears a target on his back from the impeachment and, as a member of Congress, has been part of Democratic majorities that weren’t able to get the big things, such as health care and voting rights, done.

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With unbroken eye contact, Schiff offered a long list of bipartisan legislation he helped pass, such as working with former Texas conservative Rep. John Culberson to shape NASA’s budget, as well as put money into the intelligence community to “enact new civil liberties and privacy protections.” Sometimes, he said, one just has to “compartmentalize.”

“These were bipartisan initiatives of great national significance,” Schiff said, as the crowd of people waiting for their few minutes with the candidate grew closer and louder around us. “We didn’t talk about immigration, we didn’t talk about guns, we didn’t talk about abortion. We focused on the things where we have common ground and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. I think Californians are looking for that kind of leadership. Californians are used to having a senator who’s in the middle of the fight, not on the sidelines.”

Adam Schiff speaking to a crowd of supporters in Santa Cruz on a warm Tuesday evening.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

When it comes to housing, perhaps the most important issue to Santa Cruzans and Californians, Schiff told me “we need to dramatically increase supply” and expedite the permitting processes. He talked about the legislation he’s carried in the past to federally fund housing tax incentives, provide money to convert hotel/motels into shelters and permanent supportive housing, and how, as senator, he wants to see the creation of Congress’ first housing council. However, he most views the housing crisis as something that can be addressed through fixing the economy.

“I think, most globally, it’s about making the economy work for people so they can afford a place to live,” Schiff said.

Following the speeches from Schiff, Farr and Michaelis-Ow, and as the fundraising part of the evening began, Wendy Harris, a local real estate agent and DCC alternate, lingered in the Ows’ backyard, thinking about the Senate seat. She said she still planned to vote for Porter but left the evening believing Schiff would win the race.

“I just love being in a position where we have three amazing candidates,” Harris said. “I’m 43 years old and I’ve spent my life voting for the lesser of two evils. Whether Lee or Schiff or Porter wins, California wins because they’re all fantastic.”

Santa Cruz resident Lauren Suhd said the event only affirmed what she walked in feeling — it’s Schiff’s race to lose.

“I thought Adam would be the best candidate for a lot of different reasons,” Suhd said. “I like the other two candidates a lot, but I don’t think they’re on the same level as Schiff [experience and policywise].”

Gabrielle Gillette contributed to this report.

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