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For some voters, Gaza takes center stage in California’s Senate race

Voters cast their ballots in San Francisco.
Todd Lappin
Flickr / Creative Commons
Voters cast their ballots in San Francisco.

San Francisco’s Heart of the City farmers market was abuzz last week as shoppers made difficult choices like, “kale or chard?” Today, they and thousands of other Californians will make another choice: which Senate candidate to vote for.

About half the people KALW surveyed at the market said they plan to vote, but don’t yet know which candidate they’ll support. Others have already inked their top choice. Boston Palacios, a 22-year-old San Leandro resident, said he already voted for Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents the East Bay.

“Her stance on what’s occurring in Gaza is definitely one of the greatest reasons I’m supporting her,” Palacios said. “We need her voice calling for a ceasefire in the Senate.”

Representatives Adam Schiff, of Los Angeles, and Katie Porter, of Orange County, are the other two Democrats running. Steve Garvey, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1970s and ‘80s, is the leading Republican.

Oakland resident Jennifer Li is also planning to vote for Lee.

“She’s the only one who actually supports a ceasefire and doesn’t double-talk,” Li said.

Most of the people KALW informally polled who had made up their minds said they support Lee. Unfortunately for these voters, Lee is polling at about nine percent, according to an average of polls compiled byFive Thirty Eight. That’s well below Porter and especially Schiff, who has a commanding lead at over 25 percent. Republican candidate Steve Garvey is trailing at about 20 percent.

KALW heard from other Californians — via email — who said their politics were more aligned with Lee than with Porter, but that they would vote for Porter anyway because she had a better chance at beating Schiff.

Jerry Geffner – a Jewish activist who has been organizing against Israel’s occupation of Palestine for 25 years – had been planning to vote for Porter for exactly this reason. But now, he explained over coffee, he’s changed his mind.

“I had mixed feelings,” Geffner said. “I don’t think she has a shot at getting into the runoff, but I voted for Lee out of my heart and her stand on the ceasefire.”

Geffner has not always been a Barbara Lee supporter. In fact, he picketed a screening of her documentary, Speaking Truth to Power, after she sponsored a 2022 House bill that gave Israel more than three billion dollars in military aid. But Lee’s call for a ceasefire in October was enough to win his support.

Adam Schiff has been unwavering in his support of Israel since Hamas’s October 7th attack, and has opposed a ceasefire. Katie Porter called for a “bilateral ceasefire” in December, but the progressive voters I talked to said it was too little, too late.

But not everyone at the farmers market was fixated on Palestine. Nelson Hyde Chick, a San Francisco resident since 1986, told me he hadn’t paid much attention to candidates’ stances on the war. He said he was voting for Porter because of her viral whiteboard presentations during congressional hearings.

“I’m afraid Barbara Lee’s time has passed,” Chick said. “I mean, Biden is too old. She’s too old. Six years? No.” 

San Francisco resident Rakie Harris is undecided. She said her top issues were housing affordability, homelessness, cleanliness, and crime. At the same time, the violence weighs heavy on her mind.

“Genocide is just not okay,” Harris said. “We all know wrong from right. People should not be murdered, mass murdered. Their schools and their homes, their lives, everything is just being blown up. It’s not okay. Period.”

Max Harrison-Caldwell is a summer intern at KALW and a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where he is studying audio reporting and photojournalism. Before going back to school, he covered streets and public space for The Frisc. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Thrasher Magazine.