On TV debate, Canova and Wasserman Schultz clash over Middle East

U.S. Congressional candidate Tim Canova and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz shake hands after they debated each other on CBS4's Facing South Florida with Jim De Fede on Sunday , August 14, 2016.
U.S. Congressional candidate Tim Canova and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz shake hands after they debated each other on CBS4's Facing South Florida with Jim De Fede on Sunday , August 14, 2016. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and challenger Tim Canova clashed over Israel policy Sunday morning, with the incumbent accusing her rival of advocating for Israel to disarm itself.

Canova fired back that he wants other countries in the Middle East — not Israel — to disarm.

“I will say categorically right here that I was not referring to Israel,” he said. “I am a strong defender of the state of Israel.”

Israel and the Middle East are hot topics in the heavily Jewish Broward/Miami-Dade district. This was their first debate after several months of arguing about whether they would hold a debate at all.

When Canova and Wasserman Schultz argued about Israel, CBS4 debate moderator Jim DeFede read out loud Canova’s statement on his website page about Israel and the Middle East: “The U.S. must do everything in its power to reverse the militarization of the region, including full diplomatic efforts to negotiate a general disarmament for the entire region that includes nuclear, missile, and conventional arms reductions.”

Canova shot back that he wasn’t referring to disarming Israel.

“I support disarmament in that region,” he said. “I actually never singled out Israel whatsoever.”

Wasserman Schultz interjected: “Israel is the Middle East last time I checked,” and chuckled sarcastically.

Canova said he was referring to disarming Saudi Arabia and Iran, not Israel.

After the debate, when asked why his website didn’t make it clear that he was referring to disarming countries other than Israel, Canova said that was an “oversight.” His campaign plans to change the statement on his website. But he has made similar statements multiple times calling for general disarmament in the Middle East — including in a mailer to voters about his position on Israel.

DeFede asked Canova to explain whether he would have voted for the Iran nuclear agreement, which aims to extend the time it would take for Iran to make a nuclear bomb and creates conditions for lifting economic sanctions.

In a mailer, Canova sided with opponents of the agreement and bashed Wasserman Schultz for supporting it. However, he has been inconsistent in his own statements about whether he would have voted for it.

In January, Canova told Sun Sentinel political reporter Anthony Man that he would have voted for the agreement but has also said other times — including during the debate — that he doesn’t know how he would have voted and that he wasn’t privy to classified information about it. He has consistently criticized aspects of the deal, including the release of assets to Iran.

“Her vote has been condemned by an awful lot of folks who think she wasn’t looking out for Israel’s security,” Canova said.

In September 2015, Wasserman Schultz announced she would support the deal, saying that it wasn’t perfect but that it “promotes the national security interests of the United States and our allies and merits.”

Wasserman Schultz said she made sure the Democratic National Committee had the “strongest pro-Israel plank in our history” while “my opponent has been mealy mouth and waffling about his position on Israel since day one.”

Canova and Wasserman Schultz also argued about their positions on medical marijuana and fracking and discussed the DNC’s leaked emails in a debate on DeFede’s “Facing South Florida” show.

While Wasserman Schultz emphasized her deep roots in the district where she has been a politician for more than two decades, Canova — a first-time candidate and Nova Southeastern University law professor — highlighted where they diverge on key topics.

The race has drawn national attention because Canova has the backing of Bernie Sanders, while Wasserman Schultz has the support of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Canova’s campaign got a boost when Wasserman Schultz stepped down as DNC chairwoman in July, after WikiLeaks published thousands of leaked emails showing the party favored Clinton over Sanders during the Democratic presidential primary. The emails also showed DNC staffers talked about raising questions about Sanders’ religious beliefs and portraying the Jewish candidate as an atheist.

DeFede asked Wasserman Schultz if staffers were wrong to try to use Sanders’ religious beliefs against him.

“I condemned the exchange in that email...,” she said. “In that email exchange a staffer apparently specifically said that they knew the chairwoman would not be OK with that.”

Canova called out Wasserman Schultz’s email exchange in which she called on MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski to “apologize” to her after Brzesinski criticized Wasserman Schultz’s treatment of Sanders.

Wasserman Schultz tried to show off her knowledge of local issues and long roots in the district, telling viewers she had seen people in her district for years on her children’s ball fields and at Publix.

At one point, DeFede asked Canova — who has lived in Hollywood for about four years — to identify the mayor of Southwest Ranches, a tiny town in the district. When he declined, Wasserman Schultz interjected that the mayor is Jeff Nelson, who she added is also the assistant principal at Cypress Bay High School in Weston.

But the two Democrats agreed on many issues such as abortion rights, equal pay for women, immigration reform and raising the minimum wage.

One of their key areas of disagreement: medical marijuana, which Canova adamantly supports.

In 2014, Wasserman Schultz opposed Florida’s constitutional amendment that was supported by the majority of voters but failed by two points to hit the 60 percent passage rate.

Wasserman Schultz reiterated that she is “continuing to take a look” at a similar amendment on the ballot this year.

Canova attacked Wasserman Schultz for not co-sponsoring a bill to increase Social Security benefits — a charge he made in a TV ad. She countered that she had co-sponsored separate bills that would boost benefits. Senior citizens are a reliable base of Democratic primary voters in the district.

In a lightning round at the end, Canova said he would support a ban on fracking, while Wasserman Schultz called for “significant regulations.”

The last time Wasserman Schultz faced a primary opponent was 1992, when she ran for the state Legislature — she has easily won her congressional seat since 2004. The district leans left, so the winner of the Democratic primary is highly likely to defeat the Republican candidate on Nov. 8. The district largely lies in Broward but dips into northern Miami-Dade.

Canova had sought debates for months, but Wasserman Schultz refused to commit until earlier this month. She announced Wednesday she would debate on CBS4. On Thursday, Canova refused to join her until CBS4 agreed to double the length of the show to an hour.

The race has become one of the most testy primaries. That tension was evident throughout the debate Sunday.

At one point, Canova said, “May I interject?”

Wasserman Schultz shot back: “No, you may not!”

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