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Energy, economy and abortion animate debate for 49th Congressional District

At a candidate forum for the 49th Congressional District election Tuesday evening, Rep. Mike Levin described his opponent as a far-right Republican bent on slashing federal services. Challenger Brian Maryott portrayed the incumbent as an out-of-touch progressive with few tangible accomplishments.

The two repeat opponents detailed their positions on issues ranging from gas prices and nuclear waste disposal to pandemic spending and small business relief at the debate, sponsored by MiraCosta and 10 local chambers of commerce. Hundreds of supporters of both candidates turned out for the event, which was extended to overflow rooms after the main hall reached capacity.

Levin emphasized his efforts to work across party lines and the millions of dollars in appropriations he negotiated for local projects, including veterans’ services, transportation infrastructure and coastal protection.

“I created a bipartisan caucus to address getting the nuclear waste of San Onofre off our coast,” Levin said in his opening statement. “I have passed 20 bipartisan bills signed by both the former president and by the current president, everything from helping our veterans to helping the environment to helping get health care costs under control.”

Maryott dismissed Levin’s legislative announcements as “four years of press conferences at the beach” without concrete results. He cited his own background as a financial planner and characterized Levin as part of a progressive, Democratic regimen engaged in reckless spending.

“Unfortunately, accountability is missing in government and the results are simply awful,” he said. “Government is failing us. Government is broken.”

The 49th District stretches up the San Diego and Orange County coast from Del Mar to Laguna Niguel. It is one of the Democrat-held swing districts that Republicans hope to capture in November in their bid to retake the House of Representatives.

Levin and Maryott have fought over the seat twice before. In 2018, Levin won the seat against Republican Diane Harkey after Maryott was eliminated in the primaries, and in 2020 Maryott made it to the general election, but lost to Levin by about six points in the general election.

This year the race will likely be tighter, after a statewide redistricting effort cut the southern portion of the district and replaced it with Laguna Niguel to the north. That narrowed Levin’s comfortable Democratic voting advantage to a three-point lead, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which analyzes congressional races. Cook ranks the 49th District as “leaning Democratic” — a change from its “likely Democratic” ranking earlier this year.

Despite the high stakes, the 49th race has lacked the shock value of other swing races around the country, and Tuesday’s debate followed suit.

Acknowledging the volatile political climate of the midterm election, event organizers noted their expectation of “civil discourse,” forbidding “booing, hissing, jeering, or any other form of interrupting the candidates,” said moderator Priya Sridhar of NBC News.

Although they sharply criticized each other’s backgrounds and positions, the competitors remained cordial, shaking hands at the outset and thanking each other at the close of the debate.

They didn’t shy away from attacking each other’s background or performance, however.

Supporters of Rep. Mike Levin cheer at a candidate forum sponsored by the Tri-City Chamber of Commerce at MiraCosta College

Oceanside, CA – October 11: Supporters of Rep. Mike Levin cheer him on during a candidate forum sponsored by the Tri-City Chamber of Commerce at MiraCosta College on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022 in Oceanside, CA.

(Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Maryott assailed the incumbent for voting in favor of federal spending packages including the Inflation Reduction Act, calling it the “Baby Build Back Better” Act.

“Every bit of this wild spending spree has created massive consequences for all of us,” Maryott said.

Levin defended the legislation as an investment in domestic clean energy, health care and other sectors, arguing that prescription drug price reductions in the act would save trillions of dollars in coming decades.

He criticized his opponent’s knowledge of immigration policy, noting that Maryott acknowledged to the Union-Tribune that he has never visited the U.S.-Mexico border.

The candidates also sparred on the matter of nuclear waste disposal, pointing to the spent nuclear fuel that remains in limbo at the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

Levin touted his leadership of a bipartisan caucus to seek U.S. communities willing to provide long-term storage for the spent fuels, noting that San Onofre is the nation’s highest priority site for nuclear waste removal.

Maryott argued that legislators should resume abandoned plans for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, a Nevada site that was designated for high-level radioactive material, but rejected amid political protest from local lawmakers, communities and tribal leaders.

They also presented diverging views on education spending. Levin called for free community college, increased Pell Grants and other investments in higher education, while Maryott argued for school choice in K-12 education, with opportunities for families to use their children’s school dollars for private or charter schools.

While both candidates acknowledged the need to tackle energy prices and availability, they differed on the means and timeline. Levin said Maryott favors oil companies and would prolong dependence on fossil fuels.

“We both want energy independence,” Levin said. “We both want lower energy prices. I just want clean energy independence.”

Maryott argued that Democrats are rushing the conversion to sustainable energy and hiking gas prices in the process.

“We have to be pragmatic about this transition,” he said. “The high gas prices have to do with a determined attack on fossil fuels.”

Asked about the Supreme Court’s reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which guaranteed federal protection for abortion rights, Levin proclaimed the decision “horrifying,” and called for codifying abortion rights in federal law.

“I believe the decision (to end a pregnancy) should be one between a woman and her doctor,” he said. “I don’t believe that Ted Cruz or Lindsey Graham or Brian Maryott should have anything to do with that decision.”

Levin said his opponent opposes abortion rights, but on Tuesday Maryott staked out a more nuanced position that contrasts with the blanket bans on abortion that some Republicans have advocated.

In June Maryott posted a tweet proclaiming the reversal of Roe v. Wade a “historic day” and praising the end of federal abortion laws. On Tuesday, he pledged that he would not support a national abortion ban if elected.

“I believe abortion should remain safe and legal in the first trimester, and always in case of rape or incest and the life of the mother,” Maryott said. “I would never vote for a national ban on abortion.”

Mail ballots for the November midterm went out this week, and early voting begins in person at Vote Centers in San Diego starting Oct. 29, through Election Day Nov. 8.