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Blue State/Red District

Blue State/Red District: The Great Awakening of CA-48

Co-published by The American Prospect
In the swank seaside hamlets of California Congressional District 48, people by custom and habit do not discuss politics. Many cannot name their congressman, Dana Rohrabacher.

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Judith Lewis Mernit




“I found out that nice, funny people I knew were harboring ugly, racist thoughts. I unfriended people I’d known for 40 years.”

Co-published by The American Prospect

Bethany Webb has lived in coastal Orange County for 40 of her 56 years. She rides a Harley and knows the surfers and served on PTA when her children were in school in Huntington Beach (“HB” to the locals). And yet she did not know the world views of some of her friends until the summer of 2016, when the heated presidential race forced people into their ideological corners.

“I found out that nice, funny people I knew were harboring ugly, racist thoughts,” Webb says. “I unfriended people I’d known for 40 years. I called one a racist to his face.” She also found out that other nice, funny people shared her beliefs. “We thought we were alone in our ideals. Now we know we’re not.”

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In the swank seaside hamlets of California Congressional District 48, which includes four consecutive cities whose names all end in “beach,” people by custom and habit do not discuss politics. In bars, coffee shops and HB’s enormous dog beach, I met people who couldn’t name their congressional representative, Dana Rohrabacher, despite his national notoriety. I met supporters of the congressman who refused to talk (and threatened to sue me if I quoted them), and others who thought that he was a she.

“I mention Dana Rohrabacher, and they say, ‘Oh, she’s that pot-smoking surfer, right? Yeah, yeah, I think voted for her.’”

“I’ve heard it about a dozen times in the last year alone,” Webb says. “I mention Dana Rohrabacher, and they say, ‘Oh, she’s that pot-smoking surfer, right? Yeah, yeah, I think voted for her.’”

Protesting Dana Rohrabacher in Huntington Beach. (Photo: Joanne Kim)

Every Tuesday afternoon, Webb gathers with 20 or 30 other activists and agitators on the corner outside Rohrabacher’s office, to protest everything from their congressman’s inaccessibility to his immigration policy. People with little prior interest in politics have become community organizers; people who were already community organizers are suddenly packing their meetings full. Small new groups have sprung up — including Webb’s own HB Huddle — to organize and educate voters; an Indivisible chapter has taken root.

Webb says that in all her time in the district she’s never seen so much political activity. It’s not partisan, she says, partly because she understands her community’s reflexive anti-liberal bias. “People have been brought out,” she says, “by their sense of decency.”

CA-48, which begins near the Los Angeles County-Orange County line and extends south to the city of Laguna Niguel, boasts a median income of $88,000 and a poverty rate of just under six percent — tied for the ninth lowest of the state’s 53 congressional districts. According to the most recent U.S. Census estimate, in 2016, the district is less than two percent African-American, and only about one-fifth Latino, a low figure for any Southern California community. The district has a laissez-faire, ambivalently libertarian sensibility to it; people in coastal Orange County mostly want to be left alone, to not have government taking away their money or policing their behavior.

People in coastal Orange County mostly want to be left alone, to not have government taking away their money or policing their behavior.

“We want a clean environment,” says Michele Williams Harrington, 45, a real estate broker and CEO of Star Estates. “But you also have to give people freedom.” She cites California’s pending legislation to ban restaurant servers from offering plastic straws as an example of governmental overreach.

Harrington lives at the southern end of CA-48 in Aliso Viejo and describes herself as a “typical Fox News viewer, typical Orange County Republican.” She was disappointed by the Republican Congress and the president’s inability to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which made providing health insurance to her 138 employees prohibitively expensive. She worries about Islamic terrorism more than North Korean belligerence, and has long wanted Congress to reform the country’s tax laws.

“I wrote on my Facebook page that the number one gift I wanted for Christmas was tax reform,” she says.

But she isn’t in lockstep with establishment Republicans in Washington. The bill that came out of the House, which capped mortgage interest deductions on new loans at $500,000, was not the gift she wanted. “It would have hurt a lot of people in Orange County,” she says, where most new mortgages are in the $700,000 to $800,000 range. It would have hit the real estate industry, which contributes significantly to Rohrabacher’s campaign, especially hard.

“I flew to DC right before the House was going to a vote, and asked Dana not to support it,” she says. “And he didn’t.” (The tax bill passed anyway, but with the cap lifted to $750,000.)

Rohrabacher also defends legal cannabis — clouds of it hang in the air along the district’s beachfront walks — and even admits using it himself, for a shoulder he injured while surfing. He opposed the re-authorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, explaining, in a Facebook video, that it “would open up the door to government surveillance of ordinary Americans.”

“Sea-level rise affects our tourist economy, our way of life,” says a 27-year-old from Costa Mesa. “We just want to protect all of that. I don’t see how that’s a super-partisan issue.”

But this year, due to the national political conversation, many coastal Orange County residents have heightened concerns about other issues, too — broader issues, such as immigration, racial politics and the environment. In past years, Rohrabacher had at most three or four opponents in the “jungle” primary, where the top two vote-getters face off in the general election, regardless of party. This year he has 13, including three Republicans, a Libertarian and an Independent.

“This is the first time in 30 years that Dana has had a spotlight on him,” says Aaron McCall, a 27-year-old from Costa Mesa who disagrees with Rohrabacher’s position on climate change. (“No aspect of the weather or climate currently being blamed on people is outside our planet’s recent natural variability,” Rohrabacher wrote in an open letter to Obama in 2014.)

“We’ve just come through a drought, and we worry about clean water and climate change,” McCall says. “Sea-level rise affects our tourist economy, our way of life. We just want to protect all of that. I don’t see how that’s a super-partisan issue.”

On immigration, Rohrabacher hailed the administration’s plan to end protections for the undocumented adult children of undocumented immigrants, saying in a statement that “legalizing their status sent a message throughout the world that our doors were open to share all the benefits accorded American citizens.” More recently, he blamed the government shutdown on Democrats putting “800,000 illegals” ahead of law-abiding Americans.

Harrington, though she agrees with Rohrabacher on most issues, has a more forgiving take on immigration. “I don’t think it’s fair to send people who have made a life here back to another country,” she says. “But we do need to fix border security so we don’t have this situation again in another 10 years.” She also believes immigrants should be able to come to the U.S. with the support of a sponsoring family. Two of her three 16-year-old children were adopted from Ethiopia, and she’s been frustrated that she couldn’t bring over their family members, too. “I want it to be easier to get into this country legally, and harder illegally,” she says.

“There are definitely things that keep me up at night,” says one Republican. “But Russia isn’t one of them.”

Huntington Beach resident Mary Kyle, 61, says she voted for Rohrabacher in every election but the last one. “Like most people here, I didn’t pay attention to down-ballot races. I’d get to the voting booth and think, you know, things are okay here. It’s pretty nice. I’ll vote for the incumbent.” But Trump’s build-the-wall, Mexicans-are-rapists rhetoric turned her off. “Yes, we have to control the borders,” she says. “Yes, we have to have strong immigration laws. But the people are being targeted are people in our community. They’ve been here for decades. I just think there should be a way to work things out.”

Polls and surveys suggest that Kyle is not alone. Only 32 percent of adults in Orange and San Diego counties, as surveyed by the Public Policy Institute of California in 2017, approve of the job Trump is doing; 68 percent of Republicans statewide want to find a way for undocumented immigrants to stay in the country as long as certain issues are met.

“History,” Kyle says, “will damn us for not taking Syrians in more, like we did prior to World War II, when we turned Jewish people away. That was not our most shining moment.”

Rohrabacher has been prominently in the news over the past year in connection with Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s influence on the 2016 election. The long list of allegations include one from fellow California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who in a meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other congressmen, named Rohrabacher as one of the people who takes a check from Moscow. (McCarthy has said he was only joking.)

But it’s not clear how much it matters to Rohrabacher’s constituents. “There are definitely things that keep me up at night,” says Harrington. “But Russia isn’t one of them.” Her indifference, she says, is common to her fellow Orange County fiscal conservatives. “It’s been going on for so long now that as soon as someone says ‘Russia,’ people just tune out.”

Lulu Hammad, a Palestinian immigrant who also lives in Aliso Viejo, maintains that “it’s important to call out the connection” between Rohrabacher and Russia. “But I don’t want Russia to distract from the issues,” she says. “The dynamics of our representative’s interaction with his district, his process and his policies — all of those matter to me more.”

Hammad likely speaks for many people in the district of all political persuasions. This is the year when their neighbors have begun to pay attention. The recently announced retirements of two other Orange County Republican representatives, Ed Royce and Darrell Issa, alerted her fellow conservatives not to take any seat for granted. “That threw everyone for a loop,” she says.

Laguna Beach resident Joe Moreno, manning a literature table at the Democratic candidate forum, says he was never politically active before last April, but he can now recite statistics — about the Republicans’ 11-point voter registration advantage in the district, about the numbers of no-party-preference voters — like a professional analyst. He shows me a new button he’s handing out. It says “Woke AF.”

“Do you know what that stands for?” he asks me. I tell him I do; I spend a lot of time on Twitter. Woke As Fuck. “That’s how the kids say it.”

Mary Kyle, sitting on a bench overlooking Huntington Beach’s sun-washed pier, might not use those words. But they apply, all the same. “This has become my year of listening,” she says, as wave after perfectly formed wave rolls toward the sand. “I’ve been learning more and more, about communities of color, gay communities. I’ve attended seminars at the LGBT center in Santa Ana.” She has also learned that the Southern Poverty Law Center considers coastal Orange County a hotbed of hate groups. “I saw the dots on their map, right in my neighborhood,” in both HB and Newport Beach, she says. “That’s something I never really understood before last year.”

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Blue State/Red District

Blue State, Red Districts: Investigating California’s Conflicted Constituencies

Our Blue State/Red District series investigates seven red districts that returned GOP incumbents to the House but voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the policy rifts between congressional representatives and their constituents.

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In 2016, California’s 14 Republican-held congressional districts returned all GOP incumbents to the House of Representatives. However, majorities in seven of those districts chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump for president. The districts were located in places long associated with rock-ribbed conservatism: The High Desert, Orange County, interior San Diego County and the Central Valley.

Our Blue State/Red District series investigates those seven red districts, the challenges shaping their destinies and the policy rifts between congressional representatives and their constituents. Our reporters spoke to residents, both Republican and Democrat, to learn which issues they consider important as well as which may be flying under the radar — but could have profound effects on American politics.

CA 49 (Northern and Central San Diego County) — Kelly Candaele. Co-published by International Business Times.

CA 48 (Coastal Orange County) — Judith Lewis Mernit. Co-published by The American Prospect.

CA 10 (Central Valley) — Larry Buhl. Co-published by International Business Times.

Coming Soon:

CA 25 (High Desert) — Steve Appleford. Co-published by International Business Times

CA 45 (Orange County) — Judith Lewis Mernit.

CA 21 (San Joaquin Valley) — Larry Buhl.

CA 39 (Orange County) — Steve Appleford.

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Blue State/Red District

Blue State/Red District: The Dream Coast Under Pressure

Co-published by International Business Times
Darrell Issa, like the voters in his district, was a man under pressure. He put his finger in the air to test the political winds and then realized it was the ground beneath his feet that was moving.

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Kelly Candaele




The 49th District is where changing demographics and Trumpism’s existential jolt have exposed political fissures that
have yet to be re-aligned.


Co-published by International Business Times

Cole Morgan is a 21-year-old student at Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, California and lives with his parents in nearby San Clemente. He worries about the skyrocketing cost of obtaining a college degree and what he claims is the unwillingness of insurance companies to pay for treatment of a rare form of muscular dystrophy that he suffers from.

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Like many people who struggle with serious health issues, his own pain has opened him to the pain of others. Soft-spoken and measured in his assessments, he comes across as a seasoned politician, speaking a language less of “resistance” than of aspiration. When he looks at the world around him, Morgan, a registered Democrat, sees “class stratification,” “casual racism” and a “parallel reality” of pseudo facts that cripple our ability to make coherent political judgments. He’s especially concerned that other young people are not discerning enough about where they obtain information and how they assimilate it.

One Oceanside mother of three military sons believes that periodic wars are inevitable and plans to vote for politicians who can keep our enemies at bay. She is a fan of Donald Trump.

Darrell Issa is the Republican Congressman representing the 49th Congressional District, which includes Cole Morgan and many other constituents troubled by the California they find themselves living in. Issa recently announced that he would not seek re-election in CA-49, although he’s left open the door to running in a neighboring and more conservative District. The 49th runs from San Juan Capistrano in the north to La Jolla in the south and inland from Oceanside to Vista; it is geographically divided between Northern San Diego County and Southern Orange County by Camp Pendleton and the nearby San Onofre nuclear power plant.

For years U.S. Marines, both active at Camp Pendleton and retired, have anchored the district in patriotic and conservative politics. Teresa Jones, an Oceanside resident and mother of three military sons, believes that periodic wars are inevitable and plans to vote for politicians who can keep our enemies at bay. She is a fan of Donald Trump, emphasizing that she has “a sound mind” and is “not influenced by the media.”

(Meanwhile, the power plant, which began operating in 1967 and shut down in 2013 after a radiation leak, now sits inert. It still, however, holds 3.5 million pounds of spent radioactive waste, a gift that keeps on giving.)

The 49th District is now a turf where changing demographics and Trumpism’s existential jolt have exposed political fissures that have yet to be re-aligned.

“I want to see one house of Congress independent from the presidency,” says a Vista attorney and registered Republican.

According to Jim Hagar, a Vista attorney and registered Republican, the city has grown from a small community heavily populated with retired military personnel when he first moved there 45 years ago, into a suburb of 100,000 sustained by new business parks and the nearby California State University, San Marcos. “Younger folks represent a higher percentage than they [did] when I first moved here,” he said at a local farmer’s market.

Hagar believes President Trump is a “14 year old trapped in a 70-year-old man’s body,” and wants to see a congressman who will not simply follow the line of the national Republican Party. “I want to see one house of Congress independent from the presidency — that will be a factor in my vote,” he said.

Growing Latino Clout

Now Hiring,” reads a large plastic sign hanging on the outside wall of the Customs and Border Patrol Station on the I-5 just north of Camp Pendleton. The message indicates one of the sources of tension that divide the district. Anti-immigration hard-liners want beefed-up border security and “the wall.” Younger voters, including some moderate Republicans, would prefer that investments be made elsewhere – in education and health care.

Vista, which is home to Issa’s Congressional office, is over 48 percent Latino, the highest percentage of any sizable city in the 49th District, but has only one Latino on its five-member city council.

“It’s sad to hear about families being separated, especially when [the] moms and dads [are] being taken away and their kids have to stay here,” says Marlen Martinez.

As a result of voting rights lawsuits threatened by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, Vista, Carlsbad and Oceanside — all of which currently have at-large elections which diminish minority representation — will be conducting districted elections for the first time in 2018. Local activists believe that districted elections will increase turnout this November, impacting the congressional election as previously disenfranchised voters show up to vote.

Demographic Balances in Five Cities

In Barrio Carlsbad, one of Carlsbad’s oldest neighborhoods, Simon Angel sits at a table outside of Lola’s Mexican Market & Deli as the sun fades. Angel regards Issa as a polarizing figure. “I look at his votes over his 16-year career, which shows he just has no empathy or feeling for everyday working men and women,” he says. “Issa says he wants to work with us on DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) but the truth is he has supported President Trump in almost all his policies.”

Next door to Lola’s, Christmas lights still flicker on the porch of Marlen Martinez’s small wood-framed home that she shares with her children and her mother. Martinez, who works as a monitor at the local elementary school, stands next to her son and mother in her yard behind a chain link fence and talks politics, kissing her son’s forehead when the conversation lags. At her school, she has talked to undocumented immigrant parents who worry about deportation and separation from their children. With teachers and other staff having been laid off due to budget cuts, the main wall she is concerned about is the one that inhibits economic advancement.

“It’s sad to hear about families being separated, especially when [the] moms and dads [are] being taken away and their kids have to stay here,” she says. She is undecided about the November congressional election but the candidates’ positions on DACA will be significant in determining her vote. “DACA is an opportunity for those students that came here to work, to go to school.”

Angel, who is a retired union representative for the Communications Workers of America, used to see the “Hispanic community” as complacent, too willing to accept the status quo. He sees a different attitude in the younger generation living in enclaves invisible to drivers along the I-5. “In Encinitas they called it the Tortilla Flats, in Solana Beach they called it La Colonia,” he says, naming historic Latino neighborhoods that trace back to the early 1900s, when vast avocado and citrus groves required dependable cheap labor.

“Younger Latinos are more militant. They are more willing to speak out for their individual rights and exercise those rights,” Angel says, adding that the role of “older folks,” should be to lend a hand in their struggles.

Coast of Dreams

California historian Kevin Starr, looking at a broader state history but also at the same beach subculture that Tom Wolfe did in his 1966 essay about Southern California surfers, “The Pump House Gang,” worried that the “mythic brandings” of that world would engender a “psychological passivity,” a life void of serious civic engagement. A commitment to laid back “lifestyle” choices might populate California with millions of Jeff Spicoli clones.

“I know the stereotype of surf riders is that we are all hippies,” says one surfer at Swami’s State Beach. “But  I think that the American Dream
has sort of been spoiled.”

Marty Benson, who lives in Encinitas and surfs at Swami’s State Beach, is a committed political activist. He has a full life, rather than a lifestyle. Before heading out for late afternoon waves, he spoke about the importance of political action and the destructive impact of economic inequality.

“I know the stereotype of surf riders is that we are all hippies,” Benson says before pulling on his wetsuit, “but my issue is equity and I think that the American Dream has sort of been spoiled.” His surfing colleagues, many of them local professionals who have merged a desire for physical well-being with ecological concerns, also plan to vote.

Glancing over his shoulder at the four-foot waves, Benson says recent initiatives coming from Washington are pushing the 49th District in a new direction. He believes the Republican tax bill, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ threats to marijuana users and the push towards increased offshore oil drilling are creating difficulties for whoever the Republican nominee will be.

Some higher-level Republicans agree. Wayne Eggleston, a former mayor of San Clemente, admitted that he had not yet endorsed Issa before he dropped out. Eggleston’s silence came across as a shout. Standing on the sidewalk on Avenida Del Mar in San Clemente, which voted overwhelmingly for Issa two years ago, Eggleston was either unwilling or unable to characterize the current feelings of San Clemente voters towards Issa. He spoke with the hesitancy of  someone who knows that the political views of even this wealthy and conservative community are shifting.

Eggleston sees no concrete federal plan to remove the waste from San Onofre, an issue that he believes should be key in the election, and stated adamantly that increased offshore drilling “is just not going to happen.”


Political change is rarely linear, moving without resistance from Progressive Point A to Progressive Point B. Disquieting elements from our past can resurface to haunt us in grotesque political forms. Polls can reveal an unexpected political movement and elections can consolidate an unforeseen trend, capturing part of a new spirit of the time.

On a more fundamental level, political change takes place when the institutions, economics, laws and whatever shared sense of identity we have cannot solve problems that those same institutions have partly created. Pointing to a house on his block that was purchased for $6,000 and is now on the market for $700,000, Simon Angel worries that the long-time families who provide the neighborhood its cultural foundations will be eventually pushed out.

Other 49ers have their own concerns. Eighty-eight-year old Marilyn Nelson from Oceanside wants the Social Security tax applied to higher incomes above its current $128,400 limit to assure its solvency. San Clemente art student Tom Douglass is tired of the avatars of big data prying into his identity. And micro-biologist Stephen Thomas feels that “the parties are the same” because corporate donors dominate the whole terrain of politics.

Darrell Issa, like the voters in his district, was a man under pressure. He put his finger in the air to test the political winds and then realized it was the ground beneath his feet that was moving. As the political paradigm shifts in the 49th district, voters are looking in new places for inspiration, playing with different ideas in an attempt to expand the range of public action. Expectations about what our country is and can be have been violated, but the flickering images of other possibilities are coming into focus.

In the 49th District, a 21-year-old community college student who is struggling with medical challenges articulated the choices. Sitting on a public bench on the main street of San Clemente on a radiant Sunday afternoon, Cole Morgan looked towards the future with a measure of hope. “Young people’s voices must be heard because even if they might not have a desire to participate, their landlord will, their boss will, their insurer will. So if they don’t play the game they will lose the game.” If politics is a game, Morgan knows that it’s a serious one.

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Blue State/Red District

Blue State/Red District: Pro-Trump House Votes Could Haunt Heartland Incumbent Jeff Denham

Co-published by International Business Times
Unease about rising rents, access to affordable health care and the vulnerability of Dreamers characterize this once-reliably GOP district.

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Photos by Larry Buhl

A Central Valley congressman’s supporters tend to be single-issue voters, while detractors say his voting record doesn’t match his rhetoric.

Co-published by International Business Times

Last January I stopped by a classic car show in the spacious parking lot of a Modesto Pep Boys store as the second annual Women’s March passed by on McHenry Avenue. Despite the men and women marching just feet away, people at the car show offered few answers as to which issues might be animating the local red-blue divide — or why Republican Congressman Jeff Denham, who represents California Congressional District 10 here, has been bucking the district’s decidedly blue-ish voting pattern for the past eight years. Since Donald Trump took office, Denham has voted with the president nearly 99 percent of the time, though he represents a district where Hillary Clinton beat Trump by three percentage points in the 2016 election.

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Some responses suggested that voters here are politically disengaged. On the polite end, one woman told me she didn’t follow politics because it was all so negative. On the less polite end one man told me to “get outta here with that politics crap.”

But the more people I met in CA-10, the more specific opinions I heard about the direction of the district, if not about this year’s political candidates. More than one person mentioned the growing homeless population, which is concentrated downtown, and whose members are often casualties in the one-sided war of rising rents. People also worry that Modesto is becoming a far-flung bedroom suburb for people working at high-paying jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area – but not high-paying enough to afford to live there — and who don’t mind commuting four hours-plus daily. One 24-year-old man said he commutes to a restaurant waiter job in San Jose because it pays far more than anywhere in Modesto.

One Modesto resident quipped that his city is “90 minutes from everywhere you’d rather be.”

Congressional District 10 contains all of Stanislaus County, part of San Joaquin County and spans the fertile northern San Joaquin Valley, also known as “the northern valley.” The land between towns hasn’t been bulldozed for development, at least not yet. Amid the constellation of small cities – Turlock, Patterson, Ripon, Manteca — there are the same almond, peach and walnut orchards and ranches that have existed for generations. “Pray for Rain,” urges a prominent sign in one orchard off the 99.

The largest city, Modesto, has just over 200,000 residents. Big-box retailers and plentiful Starbucks make sections of Modesto resemble Southern California’s megalopolis. One resident quipped that his city is “90 minutes from everywhere you’d rather be.” Another man complained that a trip across Modesto, which used to take 20 minutes now takes 30. But nobody I spoke with expressed a desire to move away. Houses in Stanislaus County are less than half the price of those in the Bay Area’s Alameda County, according to RealtyTrac.

Some metrics underlie unease in the district. The median income for CA-10 is just under $50,000, far less than the California median, which was $67,739 in 2016. The unemployment rate for San Joaquin County was 6.6 percent in December. For Stanislaus County it was 6.8 percent in December. Both are well above the statewide rate of 4.2 percent. The high school graduation rate is just over 77 percent for the district, but the college graduation rate is 17.6 percent. In one of its less auspicious statistics, Modesto sported one of the highest rates of vehicle theft in the U.S. in 2016.

None of these figures illuminated the reason Denham why supporters I met with tended to be single-issue voters (“he’s pro-military”), while Denham detractors often said his voting record didn’t match his rhetoric, and many of them cited immigration reform and health care as their core issues.

Sitting Out the War on Smog

None of the people I spoke with cited the environment as a top voting issue, though they did say that the influx of commuters to the Bay Area was probably worsening the air quality. And the air quality in CA-10 is already pretty bad. The Modesto-Merced area, which Denham represents, has the fourth-worst short-term particle pollution in the country, and suffers the sixth-worst long-term particle pollution nationwide. Modesto-Merced also has the sixth-worst ozone pollution in the U.S., with an estimated 16,164 current  cases of pediatric asthma. Stanislaus County, which accounts for most of CA-10, ranks number four in highest short-term particle pollution levels of all counties in the U.S.

Jeff Denham has collected more than $900,000 from industries that stand to benefit most from the gutting of the Clean Air Act.

Denham has drawn fire for his support, in the House, of the Ozone Standards Implementation Act, dubbed the “Smoggy Skies Act” by critics for its proposed weakening of both ozone limits and the Clean Air Act. One of the most controversial elements of the legislation is a provision that would compel the Environmental Protection Agency to take into account factors other than public health in establishing pollution standards. Among those factors is the financial burden on business.

In 2016, the oil and gas industry donated $188,999 to Denham’s campaign. During his time in Congress, Denham has received $421,250 from Big Oil. In addition, he has received $229,050 in contributions from the trucking industry and $250,250 from the railroads, both of which rely heavily on diesel engines that emit ozone and particulate matter. All in all, he has collected more than $900,000 from industries that stand to benefit most from the gutting of the Clean Air Act.

First, Do No Harm

In early 2017, estimated that 15 percent of Affordable Care Act (ACA) enrollees in CA-10 could lose coverage if a Republican repeal-and-replace plan, such as the American Health Care Act (ACHA), were to pass. During the Obama administration, Denham voted with his party to repeal the ACA (also called “Obamacare”) several times. Under Trump, he promised constituents that he would repeal ACA only if it were replaced with a law he considered better. But in early May, Denham voted for the ACHA, even though the bill had a 33 percent approval rate in CA-10.

Denham has a long history of voting against Obamacare, which is highly popular in his district.

Denham has a long history of voting against popular health-care legislation. As a member of the California Legislature, he opposed numerous bills that were ultimately passed by both chambers and signed into law by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Denham voted against domestic partner coverage, protections for elderly members of continuing care facilities, enhanced consumer protection for denial of coverage, prohibition of smoking in cars with minors and required coverage of HIV testing, among other health-care bills. He also opposed the law that created the California Health Benefit Exchange, the agency charged with implementing the Affordable Care Act. During his time in the Legislature, Denham received extensive financial support from health-care insurance companies and providers.

Yamilet Valladolid manages a community health clinic in a rural section of Stanislaus County. Nothing lies between the clinic and Modesto’s hospitals but 25 miles of orchards.

Valladolid’s clinic offers general health care — for specialized treatment and dental care, patients must go to Modesto, an hour-long bus trip away. “There is a critical physician shortage here in Stanislaus County,” said Valladolid. “We’re not the Bay Area.”

Denham’s vocal support for Dreamers has not always translated into a broader embrace of immigrant rights.

There are many Medi-Cal patients at Valladolid’s clinic, which also offers a sliding fee scale for other payers. She said her patients, who are primarily Latino and low-income, often suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure. “Many of the rural communities here have seasonal workers, and they wait until the off-season to see a doctor. By that time they might be very sick,” said Valladolid.

She added that the other health issue is opioid addiction, which “doesn’t discriminate based on age, class or education.” Getting off opiates can be difficult. Suboxone, a new drug for treatment of opioid dependence, isn’t widely available or often covered by insurance. When I asked what Congress, and by extension, her representative, could do to alleviate some of the health-care woes in the district, she demurred.

“We can’t just look to the federal government to fix problems. I want to see our representatives working together with health providers like us and with faith groups. It takes a whole village, not just government money.”

But she said that the expansion of Medicaid through Obamacare was helping many in the district and suggested that the very least government could do is no harm; that is, don’t take it away. “Patients have had a lot of fear about the possibility of the ACA going away,” Valladolid said. “It would affect a lot of people who need constant coverage.”

Erin Gama, a paralegal who lives in Patterson, said, “I earn too much to get state assistance but not enough to pay for insurance without the ACA. It’s not a perfect law, but we can’t go back to the way the insurance market was.”

Pablo Paredes, a professor, organizational development consultant and member of the Modesto and Tracy Hispanic Chamber of Commerce who considers himself a progressive, said he has noticed more people talking about Denham’s vote for the ACHA. “Friends have become more politically active in the past several months, and they all attribute that to Denham’s vote on [Obamacare] repeal.” He wouldn’t speculate on whether that vote would be pivotal in November, but he said he was encouraged to see an increasing number of millennials and members of the younger “i-gen” cohort getting involved in politics.

Living the Dream

CA-10 has a Latino plurality of 43 percent. They are some of the least engaged voters in the district, said Melissa Santos, Stanislaus regional coordinator for Mi Familia Vota. “Latinos here typically have a low participation rate, about half of the actual capacity.” But Santos added that, even more than the Trump’s administration rescinding of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, Republicans’ vigorous campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act has made many Latino voters in the district start to become politically active.

Infographic: Define Urban

Denham has long touted his support for Dreamers, the young immigrants who were brought here by their parents. He has said more than 10,000 Dreamers, who “contribute more than $11.3 billion a year to the state’s annual GDP,” live in his district, and it’s one policy area where Denham has signaled a break with the conservative direction of Donald Trump. After Trump’s administration ended DACA in September, Denham was one of 10 House Republicans who wrote a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan urging Congress to protect Dreamers. In January, Denham co-sponsored the Uniting and Securing America (USA) Act, a bipartisan bill to protect DACA recipients — but while adding new border security measures.

Denham’s support for Dreamers has not always translated into a broader embrace of immigrant rights. In June, he voted for a bill supported by Trump that penalized states and localities that adopt sanctuary laws. In September he voted in favor of legislation that gives the government increased authority to deport or deny admission to immigrants suspected of being in gangs.

A training session of voter-outreach volunteers in CA Congressional District 10.

At the women’s march I met Levi Tull, 19, whose bright pink bow tie, worn “in solidarity,” made him stand out. He told me he wanted to see comprehensive immigration legislation and a “clean” Dream Act from Congress, and less incendiary rhetoric about immigrants from the White House.

Denham’s vocal support for Dreamers and insistence on a reasonable compromise on immigration has given him a sympathetic, pro-immigrant reputation that Tull says is unearned.

“That statement he signed with House members? That’s just words, and actions speak louder than words,” Tull said. Tull was able to meet face-to-face with Denham once. “I noticed across the street an almond processing plant — that wouldn’t even be possible without cheap, immigrant labor.

“My classmates, my coworkers, my friends, my family, they’re not criminals,” Tull continued. “They pay their taxes. They are American in every way except on paper. It’s time for Congress to make that final step. They keep on being marginalized.”

A few days later, I talked again with Tull, when he was between classes at Modesto Junior College, where he studies political science. Tull, who was born in Modesto, told me several of his friends are Dreamers, including “one who is very scared right now and doesn’t want to talk about it.”

William Broderick-Villa, an attorney and lifelong resident of Waterford in the rural eastern part of the district, said many in CA-10 understand the importance and contribution of undocumented workers, which can lead to “inconsistent” opinions. “Some people will say the undocumented should be deported, but if you mention, ‘Well, your friend and neighbor is undocumented,’ they will say, ‘Of course don’t deport him.’”

Pablo Paredes told me that he has seen more examples of nativist sentiment, mostly on social media, in the past year: “I marched for the Dreamers and I did encounter jeers from the side of the road, people telling us, ‘Go home.’ Okay, well I’m from Florida.” Paredes, who moved to Modesto from the Miami area three years ago, said he’s glad that nativism, while more pronounced than in south Florida, hasn’t made its way into the business community. Nor has political animus been an issue.

“The local business community is very respectful of political candidates of both parties at events and [there’s] no outward hostility to differing political views. I find that refreshing,” Paredes said.

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Blue State/Red District

Blue State/Red District: Is Steve Knight Too Out of Touch to Be Reelected to the House?

Co-published by International Business Times
From the 25th Congressional District’s high desert to its mountain valleys, even Republican voters are wondering about their congressman.

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Co-published by International Business TimesResidents of California's 25th Congressional District gather for a candidates' forum in Newhall. (All photos by Steve Appleford.)

In 2016 Donald Trump lost this deep-red district by more than six points and now Steve Knight could be in the political fight of his life.

Co-published by International Business Times

Alaina Brooks has lived the last eight years in Lake Los Angeles, a small community located on the eastern edge of California’s 25th Congressional District. It’s a place she calls “kind of a sanctuary,” after living within Los Angeles’ city limits most of her life. “I’ll never go back. I sleep much better here,” says the 53-year-old nurse. “It’s a town where I get to know my neighbors, where I have time to participate on my town council. I have time to be concerned about issues that are impacting our community.”

The district includes large, arid tracts of northern Los Angeles County, and parts of Ventura County. Once dependably conservative, CA-25 has evolved politically and economically over the decades, delivering new prosperity and problems to the Santa Clarita and Simi valleys, as well as to the less affluent Antelope Valley, whose largest cities are Lancaster and Palmdale. The district is freeway close to urban Los Angeles yet represents a romantic notion of wide-open spaces that still exist amid the region’s accelerating development. (It’s probably best known to TV viewers and film buffs for the jagged landscape of Vasquez Rocks.)

Julie Damon, 18, a high school senior, sits outside a Democratic candidates’ forum for California’s 25th Congressional District, held at Vincenzo’s Pizza in Newhall. She will vote for the first time in 2018. (All photos by Steve Appleford.)

“People generally call it a soccer-mom town – a little red dot in a blue area,” says College of the Canyons student Eric Garcia-Duran, 22, of the district. He is a Trump voter in Santa Clarita whose major is biblical studies, with plans to join the military or law enforcement.

Voters here went solidly for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, but also reelected Rep. Steve Knight, a second-generation Republican office-holder whose father, State Senator William “Pete” Knight, was a former test pilot who wrote the successful 2000 ballot initiative that temporarily outlawed same-sex marriage in California. Trump lost the district by more than six points, but Steve Knight has still voted with the new president nearly 99 percent of the time, according to the nonpartisan political analysis site FiveThirtyEight.

Economic progress has been accompanied by growing homelessness, which once barely existed here.

A year ago, hundreds of protesters crowded outside Knight’s office in Santa Clarita, demanding that he not vote to roll back the Affordable Care Act. But working with his fellow Californian, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), Knight was a dependable vote against Obamacare – as were all 14 of the state’s Republican congress members. (The bill later failed in the Senate.) Knight has also stood with the president by supporting the repeal of an FCC rule barring Internet providers from sharing data on their customers. Knight additionally voted to dismantle Dodd-Frank’s financial regulations, to delay raising ozone standards and to ban abortions after 20 weeks. And he voted in favor of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which looked to many like a direct hit on California homeowners — as well as in New York, Massachusetts and other blue states that have the nation’s highest property taxes.

In affluent Santa Clarita, the largest local employer remains the Magic Mountain theme park, but it’s also home to several aerospace manufacturers, the California Institute of the Arts, health-care companies and many other industries. In 2008, bond money was invested in large-scale capital improvements, redeveloping Old Town Newhall into a quaint enclave of shops and restaurants, while adding a major new library. The Antelope Valley is famously home to the Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin aerospace companies, and has seen significant investment in solar energy. It has also experienced accelerating demographic changes. In Palmdale, the Antelope Valley’s second-largest city, the Latino population grew from 37.7 percent in 2010 to 59.4 percent in 2016. Like other parts of the district, the valley is just as well known as a bedroom community to commuters who daily spend well over an hour on the road or on the rails, including 53 percent of Palmdale residents who travel to work.

Residents of the 25th Congressional District gathered for a candidates forum in Newhall.

As of 2016, median household income in the broader district was more than $75,000. Economic progress, however, has been accompanied by growing homelessness, which barely existed here when Peggy Edwards first arrived 40 years ago. She’s now president of the board of directors at Bridge to Home, a nonprofit homeless services agency in Santa Clarita.

As in other parts of the country, Edwards says, the current crisis of homelessness is rooted in the Reagan years, when public mental health facilities began to close during state and federal cuts to the social safety net “and the promise of community-based mental health was never funded.” In the district, increased affluence and “tremendous development” also led to rising housing costs. In 2008, many families lost their homes in the financial crisis. Some, Edwards adds, became homeless as a result.

During winter months, Bridge to Home offers an overnight shelter with 60 beds, and plans to soon go year-round and add another 20 beds. “You’ll find that most of the people experiencing homelessness have lived or were born and raised here,” she says. “So it’s not [like] people are moving here because we have extra special services or this is a great place to be homeless. We have a number of people who are employed. They just don’t have a home to go to.”

Carole Langford, 75, a retired union employee of Los Angeles County and lifelong Republican voter, outside the Newhall branch of the Santa Clarita Public Library.

Small-business owner Rebecca Johnston, 56, doesn’t remember the last time she voted for a GOP presidential candidate, but has previously voted for Knight without hesitation. On a recent afternoon at her interior design and home décor shop in Old Town Newhall, Johnston is at her computer crunching numbers and checking email. A local voter since 1986, she calls herself “a middle-of-the-road independent” uncomfortable with ideologues from either direction.

“I’m socially liberal, and I’m fiscally a little bit more conservative,” Johnston explains. “In a lot of ways, [Knight’s] been good for business, good for aerospace. But I don’t think he represented Californians well in this tax legislation.”

Republican Voter: “I really dislike this concept of creating legislation behind closed doors and then trotting it out just in time to pass without giving anyone time to pay attention to it.”


Johnson is referring to the GOP’s sweeping new tax law, which Knight voted for and which no longer allows taxpayers to deduct more than $10,000 of local and state income and property taxes from their federal filings. The law also allows taxpayers to deduct interest on up to $750,000 of mortgage debt. Johnston said she didn’t expect the new law’s modest benefits to her business to offset the hit in property taxes.

“I think everybody on the extremes is blind to what’s going on,” Johnston says of Congress. “The people in the middle you can have a dialogue with, and are willing to listen to ideas. … I really dislike this concept of creating legislation behind closed doors and then trotting it out just in time to pass without giving anyone time to pay attention to it.”

Carole Langford, 75, is a retired union employee of Los Angeles County and lifelong Republican voter. Standing outside the towering Newhall branch of the Santa Clarita Public Library, where she takes a computer class, Langford says she is an admirer of President Trump.

Trump Supporter on CA-25: “It’s new and it’s clean, and it’s orderly and safe.”

“I thank the Lord every day for him. He is doing a great job,” says Langford, who has lived in the district 30 years, and welcomes the growth she’s witnessed across the decades. “It’s new and it’s clean, and it’s orderly and safe. We don’t have to worry so much about someone breaking into our home or the children being safe.”

At the American Legion Hall a few steps away, bartender Natalie Gibbs, 55, is on the front patio taking a smoke break. The bar is host to live music, birthday parties and billiards, and the clientele is discouraged from discussing politics. “Mostly, retired vets are all Republican,” she says. “You get a Democrat in there once in a while and it causes a little chaos.”

Gibbs hasn’t yet given the midterm election much thought. “I’ve been a Democrat, and this last year I went Republican,” says Gibbs, who voted for Trump and the GOP down the line. “I didn’t like the way things have gone the last eight years, so I decided I was going to make a change.”

Steve Knight, 51, stepped into politics full-time after an 18-year career with the Los Angeles Police Department, including time in its controversial CRASH gang unit. In certain ways, he remains emblematic of a large segment of the district’s population, as a former cop with many years experience of driving the same dreary commute as so many of his constituents. But his opposition to progress on LGBT rights and his general support of Trump puts him at odds with many in the state.

Knight has voted to make concealed carry permits valid across state lines and to repeal the Obama regulation that made it difficult for people with documented disabling mental illness to purchase guns. He did split from the president on Russian sanctions and, like many House Republicans, called Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum imports “bad for business” and “ill-advised.”

The district has tilted Democratic before, going for Barack Obama in 2008, but otherwise voting for the GOP candidate in 2000, 2004 and 2012, before choosing Hillary Clinton in 2016. Whether or not that reflected genuine local affection for Clinton, recent polls hardly suggest that Trump’s popularity has improved in California.

A 56 percent majority of voters in the 25th District are currently disinclined to reelect Knight, according to the latest Berkeley-IGS poll — which finds that among likely voters his votes for the president’s tax bill and against Obamacare make 52 percent of them less likely to support him again. The survey also reveals that the same percentage of voters in the 25th District have decided that GOP control of both houses of Congress is “a bad thing.”

High School Senior: “That was the one thing I was excited about when I turned 18 — I can vote. I can do something now.”

One night at Vincenzo’s Pizza in Newhall, there’s an overflow crowd for a Democratic candidate’s forum. The mood is upbeat but serious as voters sit at tables piled high with pizza and soft drinks, and a row of candidates takes questions.

Standing just outside the pizzeria is one of the district’s newest voters, Julie Damon, 18, a high school senior who will cast her first ballot this year. “A lot of us can’t watch the news now without getting mad or worried,” Damon says of her friends. “There’s a lot going on. And it’s really scary when you feel that you don’t have a say. Coming here and getting involved is really important.”

Damon was on a school trip to Washington DC early last year, and witnessed the massive Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration. “It’s really cool to see a lot of like-minded people around me, and to see people that want change in the world,” she says. “That was the one thing I was excited about when I turned 18 — I can vote. I can do something now.”

As younger generations move into the district, that feeling is only growing in CA-25. One recent arrival is Chris Sorelle, 27, a photographer and musician who voted for Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary. Since arriving from Virginia last year, he’s closely kept up on the weekly controversies in the White House and Congress.

“If there’s one blessing to be had in that, it’s that people are now active and researching things,” says Sorelle, standing outside the Brave New World Comics store in Santa Clarita with his Chihuahua, Louie.

At the Bridge to Home shelter, Peggy Edwards has taken notice of the influx of young new residents. “People moving in tend to be more progressive in their thinking,” she says.

White House bullying and porn-star stories aside, it’s the practical issues of health care and economic growth that have got the attention of many voters at the congressional level.


At a quiet coffee house near his apartment, student Eric Garcia-Duran sits with his Bible and laptop, catching up on his religious studies homework. In 2016, he voted for Trump, Knight and the GOP down the line, but he’s lost faith in his choice for president. “If I could go back, I would not vote at all for the president and just leave a blank spot,” says Garcia-Duran, who identifies as solidly conservative. He fully supports some Trump policies, but has been alarmed by other aspects of the current administration. “The kind of ethics and morals that he’s espoused — ultimately I don’t think those are ideal for the whole nation.”

White House stories of bullying and porn stars aside, it’s the deeply practical issues of health care and economic growth that have got the attention of many voters at the congressional level.

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Construction supervisor Patrick Peters, 59, is an independent voter who wants to see illegal immigration stopped, but accompanied by an easier path to legal immigration. He’s opposed to Trump’s border wall. In his industry, he says, fewer young Americans are attracted to construction work: “Everybody wants to work on computers.” If the flow of immigrants ended, so would many of the kind of development projects that have fueled growth in CA-25. “I think it would stop some of the construction because they would have to pay more to get the buildings built,” Peters says. “I don’t think they’re willing to do that now.”

Peters, who lives in Saugus, was in the military for five years as a member of the Navy Seabees construction unit. On the chest of his blue hoodie is a bald eagle. He’s lived in the district since 1986 and is deeply irritated by Congress. “It seems that they won’t work together enough,” he complains, and says of the ongoing health-care debate there: “The plan that Congress gives us, they should be on. They shouldn’t be on a separate plan.”

Health care, and the Republican attempt to end the Affordable Care Act, will likely play a major role in the election. The ACA remains popular across the state, and Lake Los Angeles’ Alaina Brooks was among those to turn up outside his office and at town hall meetings last year, inspired by Knight’s attempts “to dismantle the Affordable Care Act,” she says. “Working as a care provider caring for the disabled, I was really concerned. ”

What happens in the state’s 25th Congressional District will have major consequences, both for the community and for events in Washington DC. For nurse Brooks, it will be a long season of community activism and suspense.

“I’m not taking anything for granted,” she says. “I’m doing a lot of praying.”

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