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News Brief: Pa. Senate race debate, LA City Council scandal, Haiti's hunger crisis


Pennsylvania Senate candidates held their only debate last night. Democrat John Fetterman faced Republican Mehmet Oz.


One is a former small-city mayor and current lieutenant governor. The other is a TV doctor. Each has questioned the other's fitness for office, but beyond their personalities is a question of power. The U.S. Senate is closely divided, and the way the math works out, a Democratic win in this one race would give them a good chance to keep control. A Republican win in this one race would sharply increase their chance to regain power.

FADEL: NPR's Don Gonyea was in Harrisburg to see the candidates. Good morning, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what impression did they make?

GONYEA: Well, Fetterman's health was a big question going in. Recall, he had a stroke...

FADEL: Right.

GONYEA: ...Almost six months ago. He's still recovering. His doctor says he's fit to serve, but he does have some auditory processing issues. So video monitors on stage provided him with written text of everything being said in real time during the debate, sponsored by Nexstar TV stations. Fair to say he did not put concerns voters may have about his health to rest. He often spoke haltingly. This is his opening statement.


JOHN FETTERMAN: Hi. Good night, everybody. I'm running to serve Pennsylvania. He's running to use Pennsylvania. Here's a man that spent more than $20 million of his own money to try to buy that seat.

GONYEA: Oz, on the other hand, was clearly very much at home in a TV studio. It felt like a performance. And while his answers were smoother than Fetterman's, he did dodge questions, choosing instead to attack his opponent.

FADEL: So let's talk about the issues they were debating. There's probably no issue more contentious this year than abortion. How did they address that?

GONYEA: It was a moment when you could feel Oz trying to reach into the suburbs to convince moderate and independent voters that he has a moderate position on abortion. He says he is pro-life but supports exceptions for rape, incest or protecting the life of the woman.


MEHMET OZ: As a physician, I've been in the room when there's some difficult conversations happening. I don't want the federal government involved with that at all. I want women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that's always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves.

GONYEA: What he doesn't say is that many states have or may yet pass laws without those exceptions that he supports, including Pennsylvania, where the Republican gubernatorial candidate pledges to do just that. Here's Fetterman's response.


FETTERMAN: Roe v. Wade, for me, is - should be the law. He celebrated when Roe v. Wade went down. And my campaign would fight for Roe v. Wade and, if given the opportunity, to codify it into law.

GONYEA: And that was one of Fetterman's most direct, most focused attacks on Oz.

FADEL: OK, so Democrats want to hammer Oz and other Republicans on abortion as a pivotal issue in these midterms, and Republicans have been successfully using crime as a wedge issue. What did that look like last night?

GONYEA: Oz hit that hard. He accuses Fetterman of wanting widespread release of violent criminals, and he attacks Fetterman's record from his time as mayor of the small town Braddock, Pa. Here's Oz.


OZ: A part of the problem is that we have taken away the ability of police to do their job, and that's on John Fetterman because John Fetterman has taken such a harsh position against them. He's undermined them at every level, taking away some of their funding.

GONYEA: Fetterman countered that gun violence went down during his time as a mayor. But it's still an issue that polls show works broadly against Democrats.

FADEL: NPR's Don Gonyea covering last night's U.S. Senate debate in Harrisburg. Thanks, Don.

GONYEA: You're welcome.


INSKEEP: OK. Two Los Angeles City Council members are refusing to leave their jobs.

FADEL: Yeah, they're among three lawmakers who were secretly recorded talking about redistricting and political support, and the conversation included racist language. One of the Democrats resigned under pressure from President Biden, among others. The other two have not. And though they have not been turning up at work, they're collecting their paychecks.

INSKEEP: NPR's Vanessa Romo has been looking into that. Hey there, Vanessa.


INSKEEP: So if they haven't quit - I get politicians who refuse to resign; people do that - why haven't they been showing up at City Hall?

ROMO: Well, both have said that they think that it would be very distracting in terms of the process and the things on the agenda of the City Council that need to move forward. They also are probably being kept out because of the giant crowds of people who are there who have consistently berated them, even when they're not there.

INSKEEP: So it would be problematic, to say the least, for them to show up. But they're being paid. How much?

ROMO: Well, they make a pretty good salary. According to the California State Controller's Office, who gets their information from the city's W-2s, pay for all city council members is roughly $218,000 a year. They also get lots of other perks. They earn about $66,000 a year in pensions. And on top of that, they also get a city car to drive around, and they have budgets for meals and travel expenses. So when you add that all up, it's a pretty staggering figure.

INSKEEP: Is that a lot more than other city council members in other cities?

ROMO: It's more than what city council members in San Francisco and New York make by about $70,000. And actually, the city council members make more than the governor of California.


ROMO: Right. But, you know, the greatest discrepancy is actually between what the city council members make and the people that they serve, especially when you take an even closer look at the incomes of the people who live in Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo's districts. LA is a huge sprawl, obviously, so, of course there is going to be a lot of range there. But in Boyle Heights, for example, which is a largely Latino working-class neighborhood in de Leon's district, the median income there, according to the latest census figures available, is about $44,000 a year, and about 26% of people are living in poverty. And then in Chinatown, which is in Gil Cedillo's district, the median income household is less than $50,000.

INSKEEP: But they're still collecting this pay. So what, if anything, would force them out?

ROMO: It really doesn't seem like that's going to happen. Kevin de Leon, who has had people protesting outside of his office and even people camped out in front of his home, he went on television and flat out said he's not resigning. He said that that would be the easy way out, that in order to do the real work of healing, he needs to stay. And he's got another two years left in his term, so that's about $568,000 in salary and pension. Meanwhile, Gil Cedillo was actually already on his way out. His term ends mid-December. Officially, he said through a spokesperson that he remains, quote, "at a place of reflection." And if he waits it out, at $18,000 a month, that adds up to a minimum of $36,000 in salary.

INSKEEP: Place of reflection, OK. But is there any way to force them out?

ROMO: No, they cannot be forced out. The only thing that could happen is a recall election. But other than that, there's no way to push them out.

INSKEEP: NPR's Vanessa Romo. Thanks so much.

ROMO: Thank you, Steve.


FADEL: Haiti is now in the sixth week of a fuel blockade by armed gangs in the capital of Port-au-Prince. That's making a hunger crisis in the country more dire by the day.

INSKEEP: Yeah, the Haitian Health Ministry says the number of suspected cases of cholera has nearly doubled in the past few days and is now close to 2,000.

FADEL: NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Port-au-Prince, and he joins us now. Good morning, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So I understand you spoke to officials from the World Food Program there in Haiti. What are they saying?

PERALTA: I spoke to Jean-Martin Bauer, the country director for WFP, and he paints a dire picture. He says that in some areas that are currently under gang control, some mothers are heating up water with salt for dinner. That's all they have. A study that the WFP did found that 19,000 people are facing catastrophic levels of hunger, and that's a technical designation - the worst level of hunger before a famine is declared. And that is the first time it has happened in Haiti or in the Americas. I pushed Bauer, telling him that if this is such an extraordinary situation, then why have we seen so little presence of the WFP in Port-au-Prince? And he said that they're doing their best. Let's listen.

JEAN-MARTIN BAUER: Yes, we need to do more, but it will be very hard for us to do more when armed groups hold the fuel port. The rest of the borders are controlled by armed groups. When my staff can't come to the office because they're being threatened of being attacked or raped or burned, there's only so much that can be done in this kind of environment. So we're doing our best, and we're hoping that we'll have the opportunity to support the Haitian population in security and dignity.

FADEL: So it's not safe for a lot of people to try to help. I know the U.S. and Canada sent two big planeloads of security equipment to the Haitian police earlier this month. Has that changed anything?

PERALTA: The armored vehicles that were sent haven't made it out to the streets. So not much has changed. When we're in downtown Port-au-Prince, we can hear the gunfire coming from the neighborhoods that are under gang control. The people we've spoken to who live there say they live through daily gun battles, that they have to risk their lives to go to work or to go to the supermarket.

And yesterday, the violence hit the journalism fraternity. One of the most well-known journalists in Haiti, Robertson Alphonse, survived an assassination attempt. Alphonse is known as a sharp critic of the government because he drew a connection between public officials and criminal gangs. He was driving to his radio show when gunmen opened fire. They fired at least 10 bullets. Alphonse was hit several times. He was helped by people on the streets. He was taken to the hospital. And luckily, friends tell us that he's in stable condition.

FADEL: Wow. And what is the government saying about all this?

PERALTA: Not much. We've been asking for an interview over and over with the acting prime minister or anyone at his office, and we have heard nothing. But more importantly, the people of Haiti have heard nothing. We're now going on almost six weeks of this fuel blockade, and the prime minister has not spoken to the nation. So the government at the moment seems almost completely absent. Prime Minister Ariel Henry did call for an international intervention, but that also seems stalled. At this point, it seems unlikely that the U.N. will even vote on the matter this week.

FADEL: NPR's Eyder Peralta reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Thank you so much, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.