Can We Help You, Democratic Strategists from Out-of-Town? (Seriously, I’m Wondering)

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Can the national Democratic Party help transform OC Democrats into a Congressional winner county-wide? (And yeah — this graphic is taken from exactly the story that old-timers will think it is.)

Today’s news is that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is going to park its Political Director for the Western U.S. here in Irvine, the first time since 2000 that the DCCC will have had a staffer (and an office) out here, coordinating strategy for a dozen or more Congressional campaigns.

The committee will send staffers in charge of overseeing House races in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington to work out of an Irvine office in an effort to make inroads in Republican strongholds that have traditionally been sure bets for the GOP.

The committee’s new western political director, Kyle Layman, has experience in Southern California politics, having managed Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert) to a much talked about upset win over Republican congresswoman Mary Bono Mack in 2012.

This move, while an honor for (and a vote of confidence in) Orange County, has already been met with some skepticism:

Darry Sragow, a veteran campaign consultant who helped Democrats regain control of the state Assembly in 1996, said: … [m]ore than anything … the committee will need to find a way to deal with the political micro-climates unique to California.

“The political landscape of California is littered with bodies of operatives from other places who thought they could come in here and achieve amazing results and they never do because they don’t understand the place,” he said.

True enough in general (although the “never” is exaggerated.)  The most notable example of this, which still sticks in people’s craws, is when Sacramento operatives came down and took over Sharon Quirk-Silva’s 2014 re-election campaign, which most Orange County residents with any experience with it report that the steered off a cliff.  Quirk-Silva, bolstered by a much more simpatico Sacramento team, retook the seat in 2016.

By contrast, the decisions of the state legislature to jump in with funding (which they did pretty much too late with Quirk-Silva in 2012, and a little late but with plenty of time left on the clock with Josh Newman in 2016) are generally welcomed by locals.  The issue then becomes: who is not going to waste their money?  Newman made exquisite and parsimonious use of his; others who have gotten copious state support in the past, such as OC Dem Insider Jose Solorio’s hideously wasteful State Senate campaign against Janet Nguyen in 2014, have not.

And that raises the real underlying topic at hand here: we can complain, as many on Facebook have in response to this story, along the lines of “oh, they had better listen to us, and if they don’t they’re doomed!”  But is that really true?  How many Democratic leaders here in OC really ARE worth listening to about how to win local elections?  Not as many as claim they are — and I don’t exempt myself from the criticism.  (I just exempt myself from the criticism of not being the least willing to own up to it.  And I’ve successfully called some upsets!)

Here’s the problem: most of the Democratic establishment in OC — by whom I mean former DPOC Chairs Frank Barbaro, John Hanna, and Henry Vandermeir; some current leaders whom I judiciously won’t mention (and this is not a reference to our new Chair Fran Sdao, whom I basically like but on whom the jury is out); and entrenched (or once-entrenched) politicians like Miguel Pulido, Lou Correa, Tom Daly, Jose Solorio, Bruce Broadwater, Jordan Brandman and others will sing you the same tune over and over:

Oh, we’d like to be more liberal, of course, but that’s not how you can win in Orange County.

(Not really a well-tested theory among well-heeled candidates.)

They will claim to be “progressive,” though — which they define as sort of a pro-trade-union, pro-business-subsidy, middle-class-and-above-but-n0t-poor focused, unquestioningly pro-police, social libertarian feminist who will be pro-minority and environmentalist whenever it doesn’t conflict with the rest of us — but, look it up, that’s not how Democrats have to win in Orange County anymore.

The way that these Business Democrats (their term, not originally mine) win is by having a lot more money than other people.  This does not necessarily translate, however, to more electoral success.  It tends to perform well in primaries, where money — especially given lots of outside independent expenditures from the likes of the state Chamber of Commerce’s “JobsPAC,” which propelled Daly to a primary victory over Julio Perez in 2012 — and it can flatten liberals and what the rest of the country would call “progressives,” as Correa did to Joe Dunn and then Bao Nguyen last year.  But it doesn’t seem to have a strong effect against Vietnamese opponents (see Solorio, Correa, the more liberal but still “one of the gang” Michele Martinez) at all.

(The mention of Martinez reminds me that there as some county Democratic leaders who are with, but not of, this “establishment.”  Larry Agran has been tied in with this group for a long time, since back when Pulido actually WAS a liberal, but himself is liberal and progressive in the better sense — although he has gotten his pockets picked by some of his more centrist associates with less probity.  Loretta Sanchez was always a tough call — like Quirk-Silva and Martinez she was not really one of the boys, but did what she had to do to get by.  In her worst moments, she was not as repulsive as some of the above, though often funnier.)

Meanwhile, back at the storyline:  Quirk-Silva is cautiously perched between moderate and liberal — and seems to get credit from her voters (rightly enough) not only for being sharp but for not being bent on personal enrichment.  (She concedes to financial power — like, say, Poseidon — only as much as she feels she must, and only for as long as she must.)  The Democratic establishment above would never support her against a Jordan Brandman, had he run for her Assembly seat while it was open — yet it seems to me that she has a lot better idea of how to win in Orange County than he does.  It follows that if the DCCC people talk to the formerly wholly dominant party regulars, they’re likely to get bad advice.

You can find no better example of this than Newman’s victory in SD-29 — which still raises hackles among some of the more establishment Democrats in the County who supported Irvine import Sukhee Kang.  At first, some of those in North OC looked like they were not even going to lift a finger to elect Newman. Former DPOC Northern Vice Chair Monika Broome — who, I must state my interest here, was a Henry Vandermeir protege who spearheaded my removal from, and her insertion into, that position — announced election activities the North County at a DPOC meeting last July or August and did not even mention getting people to work on Newman’s campaign!  Instead, she talked about local Dems organizing phone banks to call into Nevada for Hillary Clinton.  This was not entirely spite: the so-called “smart money” among OC Democratic insiders in the approach to the election is that Newman could not win because he was just too liberal.  (Getting the sense of what these insiders think, and being able to keep track of it later, is essentially the only useful function of The Liberal OC.)  But Newman did win –largely with an army of dedicated and motivated volunteers.  That’s the other way to win — but it is not, we’re told, “the OC way.”

And that brings us to the present cycle.  If the DCCC folks are going to come into OC, what are they going to be told?

Before getting to that, the Times article does contain one telling error, in stating that:

Democrats targeted Issa, an early Trump supporter, relatively late in the 2016 election cycle and gave him a run for his money: The eight-term incumbent eked out a victory against political newcomer Doug Applegate with 50.3% of the vote.

NOOOOOOO!  Darrell Issa was targeted very early in the election cycle — just not by the Orange County Democratic establishment.  Col. Applegate won 45.5% of the vote in the June primary for CA-49, with Issa taking 50.8% and a third candidate taking 3.7%.  You don’t get that sort of result without “targeting” the guy.  It was relatively late that DPOC figures got involved — and, as Vandermeir told the DPOC in washing his hands of responsibility for Applegate losing by 0.6%, after cleaning Issa’s clock in the larger San Diego portion of the district (where Issa lives!) but getting creamed in the smaller OC portion — told Applegate that “he should concentrate more on OC.”

What?  How loony do you have to be to think that Applegate did not already know that?  I don’t know exactly what plan Vandermeir pitched to Applegate that the latter supposedly did not take, but if it had anything to do with “give money to the DPOC” then Applegate’s willingness to play along might have been attenuated by the fact that DPOC had shown very little ability to turn out votes in southernmost Orange County within recent memory.  Saying “concentrate more on Orange County” means very little from the Democratic Party of Orange County unless it can show a candidate that it can help him or her do well in OC.

And that leads us to one of the first things that DCCC will get to do in OC: look at the CA-49 race.  Applegate is running against Issa again — but first he has to get by a challenge from “progressive Business Democrat” Mike Levin, who was the first Executive Director of the DPOC early last decade and is still quite tied to former Chair and party insider par excellence Frank Barbaro.  (Barbaro’s PAC, referred to as “The Victory Fund,” is run by OC’s new Democratic National Committee member and Brandman loyalist Melahat Rafiei.)  Levin will have a lot of money from the rightward wing of the Democratic Party (and probably from Republicans and their associated PACs as well.)  The calculus here is that activists will have to come out to work their little fingers to the bone for Levin to beat Issa in the general election no matter how much Levin may tilt to the right — not so much on social issues, of course … at least maybe not so much — because otherwise Issa will be re-elected and that in and of itself can be counted upon to get people to the polls.

(Does any of this sound familiar?  Yeah, to me too.)

I’ve told a few people from outside the country that the more conservative wing of our party wants to oust the guy who came within 1,622 votes of beating Issa last year in the general election — and, Readers, they do not believe me.  Given the documented benefits of running for a second time, it seems like utter madness to them — and it does to me as well.  BUT, while Applegate is a former Marine Colonel, he also supported Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton — and, despite so many centrists baying for kumbaya, that is just not easily forgiven in these parts. When I explain that to my out-of-state friends, they get it — and even over Facebook I can hear them quietly weeping.

I think that a progressive populist Marine Colonel who almost won last November is a much better bet to win against Darrell Issa in 2018 than a someone like Levin, who is not really so dissimilar from Jerry Tetalman (2012) and Dave Peiser (2014) — smart professionals who respectively held Issa to margins of 16.4% and 20.4%.  (This is particularly true given how the many excited Applegate volunteers will react if Levin beats Applegate with more money — which would almost surely mean more and better attack mailers, as it would likely have to do for Levin to win.  Applegate volunteers will not break their backs for Levin.) But, again, that is what the smart money will probably say that DCCC should do.

So that’s why I’m not nearly as optimistic about the DCCC presence here as I’d like to be.  It’s not solely — even mostly — that “they don’t know the lay of the land.”  It’s that the people to whom they’re most likely to speak will be those who think that the nominee should be decided by the support of donors, not activists — and I think they’re wrong.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose worker's rights and government accountability attorney, residing in northwest Brea. General Counsel of CATER, the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility, a non-partisan group of people sick of local corruption. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Occasionally runs for office to challenge some nasty incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed. (Someday he might pick a fight with the intent to win rather than just dent someone. You'll know it when you see it.) He got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012 and in 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level, nor do they now. A family member co-owns a business offering campaign treasurer services to Democratic candidates and the odd independent. He is very proud of her. He doesn't directly profit from her work and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he truly hated.) He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)