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Unfiltered: Salas slugs it out for South Bay district seat

This story was reported for the San Diego News Network on June 2, 2010.

See original copy of story.

It’s one of the most contentious political races South Bay has ever seen. Millions have been poured into the contest to fill State Sen. Denise Ducheny’s seat in the 40th District by either Assemblymember Mary Salas or former Assemblymember Juan Vargas.

There’s been plenty of spiteful talk, bashing mailers and a Vargas aid and a Salas supporter got into a slight fracas during an April press conference hosted by Salas with Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.).

Unfortunately, Vargas did not respond to repeated attempts for an interview by SDNN. However, Salas found time to talk campaigns, finances and more.

There has been plenty of talk about how different you are from Juan Vargas when it comes to financial backers, but what about the issues? How different can two Democrats be?

I’m glad that you brought that up, because I think there has to be more discussion about that. So, on the issues.

Juan was always the go-to guy for the insurance companies, and while I’ve been in Sacramento, I’ve been fighting hard for our community, and so I’ve been working really hard and fighting against the insurance companies, making sure they are accountable.

For example, I serve on the health care committee, making sure that when they [insurance companies] offer health care insurance, they are accountable for paying benefits to people. And they fight these things all the time, and so I’ve been very successful and really making them accountable.

I think that is a very big difference and I think that is why you are finding the difference in funding; the insurance and bank companies and oil are literally spending millions to get their buddy Juan back in office.

Can you give me an example of when Juan Vargas voted in favor of the insurance companies and another example of you voting in favor of the community?

I think the most glaring examples that people won’t forget is the whole incident when we were experiencing the wild fires here in San Diego; and when the people that were affected by the wild fires and had their homes destroyed went to Mr. Vargas and asked for some legislative relief, and instead Mr. Vargas made it harder for them to get their claims paid through their insurance companies.

Another one was that he championed what he called “Workers Compensation Reform,” but it ended up making it harder for injured workers to receive the compensation that they deserved for injuries on the job — and I think those are two glaring examples.

I voted and actually I had AB 1203 that was signed by the governor. That was a law that took effect this year that prohibits hospitals from balance-billing patients for services that they received in the hospital.

Literally, there were 14,000 complaints that I had before that bill was signed into law, where consumers were literally being driven into bankruptcy by medical bills. That bill had an awful lot of opposition, and I really fought hard to make sure that we had the needed votes to make sure that our consumers and our patients are protected.

Do you think you had trouble initially securing the votes for that bill because many elected officials are backed by major companies, like insurance companies?

I did. I really had to work hard on that bill. And the way that I got consensus and the votes is that I worked with each individual member of the health care committee and I went to their offices. It was an example of me being able to work in a bipartisan way to eventually get the votes that I needed, not only in the Assembly but in the Senate. It was a tough bill because the lobbyists for both the hospitals and the insurance companies were fighting the bill.

Would you say that you’ve never received a contribution from an insurance company, then?

I have, but nothing in comparison to what Mr. Vargas has received. I mean, there is no comparison to the amount of money [Vargas has received]. And not only that, that was a long time ago, when I was first elected to the Assembly. So if you look at my campaign contributions, you won’t see anyone coming from insurance companies.

What is your reaction to seeing a number of Democrats endorse Vargas?

Well, first off, I’ll be glad to compare my list to his list any day. If you will notice, I have the endorsement of the Democratic Party, I have the endorsement of Congressman Bob Filner, I have the endorsement of retiring Sen. Denise Ducheny. And, so he has three or four retired Democrats that are passé; it doesn’t really bother me.

Were you surprised when Vargas announced he was running?

No, I wasn’t surprised because I really think that, you know, his ultimate goal is to run for Congress. I really think that was his ultimate goal when he moved here from back East in the early ’90s. His first campaign was for Congress, he ran against Bob Filner and he lost; he ran against Bob Filner two other times and lost, and so I don’t know what his motivations are.

What’s your biggest concern with this race?

I think the biggest concern is the amount of money that is being poured into the race and that now there is an excess of $2 million that has been used to fund this stealth campaign for my opponent. And it’s all big corporate money and I think that is not good for democracy, and it certainly isn’t good for the working people in the state of California. There is no end to the deep pockets these corporations have to try to buy a seat and I think that’s my biggest concern.

You said on NBC that Vargas must be afraid of you. What does he have to fear?

Well, I have to ask a question: Why doesn’t he show up to candidate forums? Why doesn’t he appear in debates?

I think that he doesn’t because he would have to answer the question as to why did [he] take all this money from the insurance companies? Why, after [he] promised that [he] wouldn’t go work for them, [he] went to go work for them, and not only did [he] go to work for them, [he was] a lobbyist for them, and I think that’s it.

A Vargas campaign aid and a supporter of yours got into — I think it’s fair to say — a scuffle, during a recent press conference. Why the animosity?

There was no animosity on our part. That was a provoked and vicious attack by one of Vargas’ workers and I think that that just shows Juan Vargas has no control over his campaign.

What is going on in that situation, anyway?

You know what, we want to focus on the campaign and the issues and we don’t want to make that an issue — that’s not important.

OK, last question: How will the California budget crisis be resolved, and have you read the entire proposal by the governor?

It’s getting people back to work…that’s how our budget crises in the past have always been resolved. I have looked at the governor’s budget, and what you have to look at when you are looking at his budget is that it’s a job-killer. His budget is actually a job-killer.

It’s going to be tough but I’m very, very hopeful because we got leadership in place. We got a strong body of Democrats that are willing to fight for the people of California.

Hoa Quach is the political editor for the San Diego News Network.