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Blue State/Red District

Blue State/Red District: The Great Awakening of CD-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

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“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.”

CD-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 CD-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 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

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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 CD 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.”

Change

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 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.


CD 49 (Northern and Central San Diego County) — Kelly Candaele.

CD 48 (Coastal Orange County) — Judith Lewis Mernit.

Coming Soon:

CD 10 (Central Valley) — Larry Buhl.

CD 25 (High Desert) — Steve Appleford.

CD 21 (San Joaquin Valley) — Larry Buhl.

CD 39 (Orange County) — Steve Appleford.

CD 45 (Orange County) — Judith Lewis Mernit.


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