Costa’s challengers face off in Atwater

05/16/2014 10:02 PM

05/16/2014 11:16 PM

Three of the five people looking to take the 16th Congressional seat from Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, made their cases for being the best candidate to unseat the incumbent at a debate held this week.

Costa skipped the debate organized by the Merced-Atwater Tea Party, indicating in a statement that he would debate the June primary winner in the fall.

Three Republican challengers – Steve Crass, Joanna Garcia-Botelho and Mel Levey – faced off Thursday night on topics such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the Common Core school curriculum, voter ID and executive power, among other topics. Their stances on the issues were largely indistinguishable, but the candidates have varying backgrounds.

“There’s not a whole lot of separation on the issues,” Crass, 40, said. “Really what it boils down to is who’s the best alternative, who (has) the best chance of beating the incumbent.”

Crass made the case that his education as an attorney makes him the best choice. The Merced native is an attorney for the Baker Manock & Jensen law firm.

“I was born and raised here. I feel very passionate about the valley,” he said.

Crass served six years as a Navy officer, working as a judge advocate at the Washington Navy Yard and later advising SEAL Team 6’s commander during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He was a deputy district attorney in Merced County, and then an assistant U.S. attorney in Fresno’s federal courthouse before moving into private practice. Crass said his different roles have given him the experience necessary to hold the congressional seat.

Garcia-Botelho, 29, has an agricultural business degree from Fresno State University and a law degree from the San Joaquin College of Law.

“Given my background and my knowledge and my skills and my personal experience, I can help try to solve some of these problems (with) practical solutions that actually work,” she said.

A resident of Chowchilla, she is listed as the chief executive officer of LJB Farms and the owner of Joey’s Well Drilling & Construction. As a businesswoman, she said, she has the know-how for making decisions that could help small business owners.

Garcia-Botelho said she has no plans to be a career politician but would want to serve through a few election cycles. That makes her a good candidate, she said. “We need to have leaders who are not politicians,” she said.

Levey, 29, of Merced is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and has served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. “When you’re looking who you can vote for, all I can say is I’ve spent my entire adult life serving our country,” he said.

Making certain that leaders in Washington, D.C., clean up the backlog on veterans benefits claims is of particular interest, Levey said. The veteran – and some of his friends – are backlogged themselves.

Levey said his time in the military proves he knows how to lead and will remain accountable for his decisions. He will carry over the philosophies he learned while in the Army, he said, where soldiers eat before their commanders.

“Leaders put their organization and their people ahead of themselves,” he said.

His mother, Barbara Levey, is Merced County’s assessor-clerk-recorder.

Candidate Johnny Tacherra did not attend the debate. A representative speaking on Tacherra’s behalf said the 38-year-old dairyman and business owner was at a Fresno Chamber of Commerce event. Tacherra, a Republican from near Riverdale, sought to challenge Costa two years ago.

Job Melton, 40, a mental health clinician, was also not there. He is a Democrat.

Monday is the last day to register to vote in the June 3 primary, the Merced County Elections Office reported.

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