Congressional candidates Adam Bolaños Scow and Jeff Gorman sit at the head of the packed main room of the Louden Nelson
Community Center. 

At a debate over the future of U.S. climate policy, Adam Bolaños Scow, Democratic challenger for California’s 20th congressional district seat, faced off against an opponent who wasn’t there.

“It’s not personal with Jimmy, we just have different priorities,” Bolaños Scow said, speaking of incumbent Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D). “[…] But we’ve got to get off fossil fuels and not cut a deal with them.”

Hosted by the Santa Cruz chapter of the Sunrise Movement, the debate drew about 120 spectators to the Louden Nelson Community Center on Feb. 20. Joining Bolaños Scow on stage was Republican candidate Jeff Gorman, a businessman turned party chair from Monterey.

The event came after Bolaños Scow requested a campaign endorsement from Sunrise Santa Cruz in December of last year, said chapter co-founder Grant Black. Since Rep. Jimmy Panetta ran his initial 2016 campaign on a platform emphasizing agricultural interests — a sizable constituency on the California Central Coast — Sunrise organizers reasoned that bringing the two Democrats together would offer much-needed nuance to the conversation around climate issues.

“We wanted to give [Panetta] a fair shot because he is a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, and he has put forward a climate plan,” Black said.

Plasha Will, Panetta’s campaign manager, said that while the congressman was in California at the time of the debate, he was scheduled to meet with a group of local politicians, California fire chiefs and others to discuss the effects of the climate crisis on the state’s wildfire regime.

This left Bolaños Scow and Gorman on opposite ends of a line of three tables, flanking a seat that lay conspicuously empty throughout the night.

Sunrise moderators asked the two candidates a series of questions, ranging from their stances on public transportation to their plans to deal with the millions of soon-to-be refugees of global sea level rise. Stark ideological differences emerged between the two candidates. Bolaños Scow made no bones about his support for aggressive climate policies like the Green New Deal and a federal tax on carbon emissions, while Gorman took a far more libertarian tact.

“My concern with the federal government and state government is that they never saw a tax they didn’t like,” Gorman said. “So I will pledge to you I will not vote for the carbon tax unless we get a corresponding revenue-neutral cut in income taxes in the lower brackets.”

Though with all the self-awareness of a Republican who somehow finds himself in deep-blue Santa Cruz, Gorman admitted that many of the finer details about the climate crisis, like its greater effects on low-income communities and people of color, lay outside his area of expertise. But as a general rule, he said he’s “leery of any kind of use of government to control people,” and that the focus of environmental policy should be on the conservation of natural resources, not on mitigating the effects of  the climate crisis.

Santa Cruz residents packed the main room of the Louden Nelson Community Center last Thursday evening.

These issues, by contrast, form a central plank of Bolaños Scow’s platform. Raised in nearby Watsonville, Bolaños Scow spent many of his 36 years organizing grassroots support around various local environmental issues. In 2014, he helped pass bans on fracking in both San Benito and Santa Cruz Counties and again in Monterey County in 2016.

But most of his attacks on debate night targeted his Democratic peer, Jimmy Panetta, who he argued has taken too much money from groups with a vested interest in maintaining the current structure of the U.S. energy and agricultural markets. Where Panetta favors climate plans that would aim for carbon neutrality by 2050, Bolaños Scow supports plans that would meet this goal by 2030.

“I say, judge politicians in three ways,” Bolaños Scow said. “What’s their record, what have they really been doing? What are their specific plans, their platform? And who’s funding their campaign? […] Panetta has raised over $1 million, 50 percent from corporate PACs, that are going to constrain what is and what isn’t possible.”