DelBene, Celis air differences in first campaign debate

EVERETT — There were no “gotcha” moments or major gaffes when Democratic U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene and Republican challenger Pedro Celis had their first debate for the general election.

But their 45-minute matchup, which aired on an Everett public radio station Monday night, did illuminate the differences between the two on subjects ranging from immigration to ISIS, campaign funding to corporate inversions.

The candidates fielded 11 questions about domestic and foreign policy in the debate, which was recorded Friday for broadcast Monday evening on KSER-FM (90.7). It was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County and is archived on the group’s website at

Both agreed that Congress is stymied by partisanship, then disagreed on who’s to blame.

Republican leaders of the House are keeping legislation crafted by Democratic and GOP members from getting voted on, said DelBene, who is seeking a second term representing the 1st Congressional District. The district includes cities and farms east of I-5 in Snohomish County.

“What we’re doing wrong right now is being incapable of putting bipartisan solutions forward,” she said.

Celis said the “harsh division between both parties” on immigration, federal spending and other matters is due in part to “the lack of leadership from this president. He does not want to negotiate and talk.”

On foreign policy, they differed sharply on how the U.S. should respond to the threats posed by the Islamic State and to the conflict in Ukraine.

DelBene urged continued use of diplomacy and sanctions to pressure Russia to stand down and for uniting with allies in the Middle East to confront the Islamic State.

“I believe if the president wants to have any significant military presence” in the Middle East “he has to come to Congress,” DelBene said, adding that “boots on the ground” are not needed now.

Celis said President Barack Obama’s handling of the situations is an “embarrassment for this country” because he’s failed to put forth a clear plan.

“Suzan DelBene thinks all we need to do is talk. There’s evil in this world,” he said. “I’m a big believer in peace through strength. You avoid getting into situations by showing strength.”

On immigration, Celis, who was born in Mexico, said he wants to allow people to come to the U.S. legally and to enforce the rule of law against those who do come legally.

He opposes a comprehensive immigration-reform plan passed by the Democrat- controlled Senate, which would create a path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants now living in the country. Celis suggested the plan be broken up into pieces but didn’t specify which elements he’d support.

DelBene is one of 200 co-sponsors of a House bill that is similar to the Senate legislation.

“It is not a perfect bill,” she said, but it addresses many issues. However, it is being blocked from a vote by the Republican-led House.

Celis defended business interests in the areas of campaign funding and “inversions” — when corporations seek to avoid U.S. taxes by incorporating in other countries.

Though “way too much money” is needed for a campaign, he said, he opposes limits on how much an individual or company can contribute.

“I applaud the decision of the Supreme Court in saying free speech is not just for individuals but also for corporations,” Celis said. “That right is essential to this country.”

DelBene said she backs campaign finance reform that limits the influence of “super PACs” that spend on behalf of candidates and issues. She said she supports a constitutional amendment to undo the “damaging impact” of the high court decision known as Citizens United.

On the matter of firms moving to other countries to avoid paying taxes, Celis said it makes “absolute sense” given the existing tax system. Restructuring is needed to stem their interest in moving, though he didn’t offer specifics.

“I don’t criticize them,” he said. “They have to do what’s best for their business using current laws.”

DelBene said that without comprehensive tax reform, the U.S. is powerless to prevent the corporate exodus.

“We need a tax code that is fair for businesses and is fair for Americans and that support jobs right here in the United States,” DelBene said.

On the proposed Cherry Point coal export terminal, DelBene iterated a desire for a full environmental review but expressed neither support nor opposition for the project.

Celis, on the other hand, endorsed it, saying it will create jobs and improve U.S. trade with China.

Celis closed by painting the first-term incumbent as a follower of the president.

“This president has taken the country in the wrong direction, and Suzan DelBene is supporting that direction, and I don’t think that direction is the best for this country,” he said.

DelBene said she’s focused on “results, not rhetoric” and been part of several bipartisan successes, including passage of “probably the best farm bill we’ve had in our state.”

“I have been working across the aisle since I got to Congress,” she said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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