In an otherwise peaceful debate Sunday, two Democrats with military backgrounds launched salvos against the front-runners in the race to replace Rep. Susan Davis in the 53rd Congressional District.

Their targets: Qualcomm heir Sara Jacobs and San Diego Councilwoman Georgette Gómez (with the local Democratic Party as collateral damage).

Janessa Goldbeck — a former Marine addressed as Capt. Goldbeck by the moderator — called out Jacobs after an opening shot: “We need more democracy in this country, not more oligarchy.”

“You said you’re not taking any money from any corporate PACs,” Goldbeck said, addressing the granddaughter of tech giant co-founder Irwin Jacobs. “But in the last quarter you received a couple hundred thousand dollars from folks whose last name were Jacobs.”

Goldbeck, who stood third in the money race as of Sept. 30, said millionaires and billionaires can “come into office based on … having money and not necessarily credentials.”

Jacobs, 30, said 66% of her contributions were $100 or less. Noting her work in the Obama administration, she said she supported campaign finance reform and the need to “urgently pass” a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

But also in her own defense, she said she was proud of everything her family had done for San Diego.

“I’m very blessed,” she said, “and I know that my family has been given a lot. And that’s why I’ve dedicated my life to building a fairer and more equitable world in San Diego. It’s why I’ve spent my career working at places like UNICEF. I spent the last year creating a countywide initiative on childhood poverty.”

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Alluding to TV ads, Jacobs said she was “honored that we are able to communicate with voters.”

“But no amount of communication matters if you don’t have a message that resonates with voters,” she said, “and when we talk to voters we know that I’m the most qualified candidate and I’m who voters want to represent them.”

  • Question for Goldbeck, others: Racism and anti-Semitism are once again in the news. What steps will you take to counter hate and intolerance?
  • Question for Gómez, others: What is the biggest problem with America’s immigration system and how will you fix it?
  • Question for Jacobs, others: President Trump has frequently criticized NATO. What is your view of America’s military alliances?
  • Question for Vázquez, others: We live in extremely partisan times. How will you balance the interests of your party with that of your constituents?
  • Question for Caballero, others: Political campaigns require money. What is your stance on campaign financing, donors and the possibility of public financing?
  • Question for Goldbeck, others: Tariffs and trade wars have been a feature of the current administration. What are your views of free trade versus protectionism?
  • Question for Gómez, others: Susan Davis was known for her policy work on education and women’s health. What issues do you see yourself taking a leadership role in addressing?

Sara’s mother, Jerri-Ann Jacobs, was in the audience of 200 at the La Mesa Community Center.

She said her daughter responded “perfectly” to the put-down.

“We’re blessed to have the moneys because of somebody’s brains to create the cellphone and the abilities it can have,” she said, noting that family members give back to the community.

“I still volunteer at High Tech High elementary school every week, helping kids so they’re ready to go to middle school and be prepared for high school and college,” she said. (She and her husband’s name are on High Tech High.)

Was Goldbeck’s shot a fair one?

“I think they have every right to say what they want to say,” Jerri-Ann Jacobs said. “I think Sara answered it perfectly, where she’s giving back to the community.”

Afterward, Talmadge resident Goldbeck, 34, expanded on her concerns.

As co-founder of the San Diego chapter of the Truman National Security Project, she said she knew Jacobs as a member.

“So I think she has the best of intentions and is a very intelligent person,” Goldbeck told Times of San Diego. “That said, we are in a time of income inequality in this country — it has never been higher. …. It is incredibly important that we have members of Congress who are willing to call out the corruption and the infiltration of our democracy by corporate special interests.”

While expressing appreciation for the Jacobses’ work, native San Diegan Goldbeck said: “I think if Sara Jacobs were serious about not using her family’s money as an advantage, she wouldn’t accept any of it.”

In 2018, Jacobs ran to replace Rep. Darrell Issa in the 49th Congressional District straddling Orange and San Diego counties. (She didn’t make the November runoff, won by Democrat Mike Levin.)

San Diego Jewish World reported: “In that campaign, Jacobs spent $2 million of her own money in a $3 million primary election effort.”

Times of San Diego editor and publisher Chris Jennewein moderated debate from table in front of stage. Photo by Chris Stone

The other veteran on stage — former Navy nuclear engineer Jose Caballero — went after Gómez, the San Diego City Council president considered a favorite in March to make a top-two runoff in November.

“The Democratic Party is an administrative body that picks and chooses who their endorsees are,” Caballero said. “One of the candidates on this stage has been endorsed by that body, but that’s only 60 people in a room.”

He guessed the audience wouldn’t know the ones in that room, apparently referring to the county Central Committee.

“So the reality is when you’ve run for office and the Democratic Party endorses you, that’s friendships — that’s not actual policy,” he said.

Gómez, also endorsed by the California Democratic Party, defended herself.

The former community organizer, 44, said the backing doesn’t mean she’s in the party’s pocket and argued she was elected in 2016 “when I wasn’t supposed to win.”

She said she won her District 9 council seat “without selling my values. … I’m beholden to the people who elected me.”

The two-hour debate — with a rest break — was moderated by Times of San Diego editor and publisher Chris Jennewein and sponsored by three local Indivisible chapters, which videotaped the event for later online posting.

The fifth candidate was Joaquín Vázquez, who like Caballero entered the race before 10-term incumbent Davis announced her retirement effective in January 2021.

Drawing on questions submitted by the audience at registration, Jennewein asked all but a couple he planned. He quizzed the five about their qualifications, plans to combat climate change, universal health care, the defense budget, immigration, and hate and anti-Semitism.

Also: military alliances, mass shootings, student-loan debt and what their trademark issues would be in Congress. (He didn’t have time for a homelessness query.)

To the audience’s far left was Caballero, the most left-leaning candidate of the five. (The Bernie Sanders disciple noted that he founded the San Diego Progressive Democratic Club.)

Also a Talmadge resident, Caballero, 33, said that if Trump can declare a national emergency to justify shifting Pentagon funds to building a border wall, he would argue for the same to pay for climate change efforts.

“If [Trump] wants to open a Pandora’s box, let’s do it,” he said.

He also called for licensing of most guns, and said he was “disgusted” with San Diego’s Democratic congressional delegation voting for the latest higher defense budget — $738 billion for “more bombs and more war.”

He said laws should be enacted to prevent media outlets like Fox News from “spewing hate.” And he’d cancel all college-student debt, paying for that effort by placing a $70 tax on every ton of carbon emissions.

Goldbeck, relatively moderate in the Democratic-leaning 53rd District, called herself a “pro-Second Amendment Democrat” who wants to create “space” for responsible gun owners.

(She said her seven years in the Marines were a “master class” in political communication because “I really learned how to couch my beliefs and values in a way that actually resonated with people who might have come from a different background.”)

She said she’d support the appointment of a national climate czar (suggesting Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the short-lived presidential candidate) and require the Pentagon to be “carbon-neutral” by 2030.

But she called the defense budget “completely out of control” and wanted funds steered to more serious threats to national security, including climate change.

Unlike the rest, who appeared to support a Bernie Sanders-style Medicare for All health-care plan, Goldbeck favors a Pete Buttigieg “Medicare for All who want it” program.

“Give Americans a chance to transition to universal coverage,” she said.

Vázquez, 48, said “urgent, drastic action” was needed to fend off the worsening of climate change. He would push for declaration of a “national climate emergency.”

He favors a ban on military style weapons like the AR-15 and backs a national gun buy-back program.

Among the mostly middle-aged and older audience was Doug Porter, the blogger and former San Diego Free Press editor who volunteered at the Indivisible debate.

“We wanted voters to see how the candidates handled themselves,” he said.

Going into the debate, he said, it was known there weren’t huge differences between the candidates. But he thought Caballero and Goldbeck showed the most “passion and focus.”

Fireworks weren’t foreseen, he said, but “a couple of elbows got thrown. I liked Jose’s critique of the party.”

Porter called the event less of a debate than a “political runway. But given the wonkiness of Indivisible, it met expectations.”

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