José Cortés took the stage Friday night in Valley Center, but he wasn’t one of the four who traded jabs in the race to succeed Duncan D. Hunter in the 50th Congressional District.
The Peace and Freedom Party candidate — and supporters with a “Let Jose Debate” banner — commanded an audience’s attention before sheriff’s deputies and hired security escorted them out of the Maxine Theater.
Also paying attention: GOP candidate Carl DeMaio.
“Hey, Jose. I will offer to debate you after the forum,” said DeMaio, seizing a microphone from the moderator’s lectern. “Stick around. I will debate you. Stick around. I don’t fear a good debate. … After the forum, I will do it.”
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Cortés, 29, told Times of San Diego that he challenged DeMaio to a debate as the former councilman and radio host left the venue, “but he backed out with the excuse that it is ‘too late.’” A DeMaio spokesman didn’t respond to a question on the matter.
About 2 1/2 hours earlier, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound candidate shouted from an empty stage: “Shame on the Valley Center Business Association, shame on the organizers of this debate for not allowing us to have a democratic voice.”
A “proud Socialist,” Cortés said he was there to represent people who have no voice.
“If democracy were being had here, we would have the opportunity to have a voice,” he yelled. “Let democracy be had in this country.”
William Del Pilar, VCBA president and lead organizer of what he called a forum, said he’d researched the 10 candidates on the ballot.
“I became pretty aware of Mr. Cortés,” he said. “They wanted on the stage, too, and contacted us about that. I told them we were reviewing all candidates.”
“People don’t believe me, but our goal wasn’t to ‘keep’ candidates off stage,” Del Pilar said. “Our goal was to create criteria and let that determine who came on stage.”
Del Pilar said he learned that the Cortés camp has disrupted earlier events.
“I’m not a psychic, but I knew we could be a target, so we kept an eye on them,” he said. “We saw them recruiting [debate-crashers] … to the event to get Mr. Cortes on stage. That translated as a potential scenario to disrupt it. So, yes, we knew.”
Organizers hired armed security, and the day they saw Facebook posts urging people to come and demand Cortés be on stage, they contacted the sheriff’s office.
“That prompted them to have deputies come out,” Del Pilar said. “We were grateful for that. … We told the candidates, and we had set up an exit for them if it had gone south. When he jumped on the stage, we weren’t shocked but ready.”
After the event, Del Pilar said he told Cortés and his group that he knew they were coming.
“We didn’t want them to protest, but I appreciated the fact they were nonviolent,” he said Saturday. “He stated: ‘We’re the Freedom and Peace Party, emphasizing peace.’ It worked for them as they got some coverage on one of the stations.” (It was Fox 5.)
Just after the 2-minute disruption, Del Pilar joked to the audience, “Well, there goes my schedule.” Then he noted having been born and raised in Panama and contrasted freedoms here and there.
“What makes this country great,” he said. But in Panama, “they would have done their protest, and [U.S.-ousted strongman Manuel] Noriega would have taken them somewhere.”
Cortés said about a dozen backers turned out for the mini-protest but wasn’t happy about the security staffers.
“They placed their hands on a couple of our people, which I didn’t appreciate, because we were peaceful and civil,” he said.
An El Cajon resident, Cortés said he works as a customer service representative at a Sorrento Valley call center, processing insurance claims and benefits.
He said he paid a “ridiculous sum of money” to get on the ballot. (In California, candidates each pay $1,740.)
“I am very much a Socialist,” said Cortés, a registered Democrat until several years ago, “and it’s very important for people to recognize that word and disassociate it from a lot of the talking points that have been spoon-fed to them by billionaires — that socialism is this foreign or scary thing, when in fact socialism never left the United States.”
He said he wasn’t afraid to call himself a “real Socialist” (as opposed to a Bernie Sanders style “democratic Socialist”), especially growing up in conservative East County.
(His bio notes that he was born and raised in the 50th. His Colombia immigrant father graduated from El Cajon High School.)
“If anything, I grew up around white supremacists and neo-Nazis and stuff like that who aren’t afraid to express who they are,” Cortés said. “And they’re horrible people.”
His main campaign points: “People deserve housing, health care and education, and there shouldn’t be war for profit.”
He also wants to show that Socialists have a human face.
“I worked with little children for years, like kindergartners with special needs,” he said. “I love my mom. My mom is here today. Like we’re real people with families and all that stuff.”