With Ed Royce Out of CA-39, ‘King of the North’ Jay Chen Steps In

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Jay Chen speaks before Vets & Military Families Council @ Dem National Convention

Chen again? With Royce gone, the school trustee and 2012 candidate who made Royce spend $3 million — much of which had been supposed to go to campaigns in other seats, which then went Democratic — may have the easiest Democratic path to the runoff in CA-39. Here, Chen speaks to the Vets & Military Families Council at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

A handful of hours after incumbent Rep. Ed Royce bailed out of the CA-39 race, Royce’s 2012 opponent and Mt. San Antonio Community College Trustee Jay Chen announced that he would be joining the field of Democrats running for the seat.  Chen will be the only elected Democrat in the race; perhaps more critically, as it stands he will be the only one residing in Democrat-rich Los Angeles County.  (Hence, in this part of OC where LA is to the north rather than west, I call him “King of the North.”  If you don’t recognize that as an amusing Game of Thrones reference, just forget about it.) While Royce beat Chen soundly in 2012, it was only after Chen scared the hell out of him, forcing him to renege on his promises to fund other Republicans out of a selfish desire to stay in power.  By neutralizing Royce, Chen had almost as much to do with creating the 2013 Democratic Assembly supermajority as Sharon Quirk Silva did.

As an San Gabriel Valley incumbent (along with his ability to raise lots of money and attract IE money as well). Chen looks like the first candidate in the field whose presence might lead other Democrats to leave a race where they would likely serve only as spoilers.

This would be quite a bitter decision for the five Democrats who have been running in CA-39 for much of 2017.  But realistically, some winnowing has to happen: with Royce out of the race, the likelihood rises that more than one Republican will run for the seat.  If exactly two Republicans run, while around eight Democrats (plus two NPPs) do so, the odds are good that both Republicans would make the November runoff — at least in the absence of a Democratic standout taking the lion’s share of the Democratic vote.  It might take about four Republican candidates running — which is far from unthinkable, with the winner of this year’s election possibly situated to serve in the seat for two decades — before that many Democrats could feel comfortable that at least one of them would likely make the runoff.  (Even restricting ourselves to the boundaries of CA-39, Republican politicians from Brea, Fullerton, Yorba Linda, Placentia, Cypress, West Covina, and elsewhere might have plausible claims on the race — not just Young Kim and Ling-Ling Chang, in other words — so the legendary Republican party discipline might not be able to keep their number of candidates below three … or five.)

Because Chen has already run and won repeatedly for two separate positions in the Eastern San Gabriel Valley portion of the district, he has an advantage over the field of Orange County Dems (a good number of whom are not from the District.)  Now that a second Democratic Asian women, Suzi Park Leggett, has entered the race, Dr. Mai Khanh Tran might reasonably want to consider running against Republican incumbent Michelle Steele for the Second Supervisorial District — where she actually lives, and which has a sizable Vietnamese community — a position in which she could play a larger role in making health policy for a county of three million people.

Is there anywhere for the multimillionaire candidates, self-made insurance executive Andy Thorburn and mega-million lottery winner (and philanthropist since then) Gil Cisneros, to go?  Either might be situated well enough to take on what (thanks to Orange County) is supposed to be a safe Republican 4th District seat on the Board of Equalization against the ethically challenged incumbent Diane Harkey.  It may seem like a longshot — but with Chen’s entry it’s perhaps less so than Royce’s seat.  I’ve found Thorburn particularly impressive — and if he’s already moved into Yorba Linda (or wherever else he was headed from Villa Park) he could also take on Phillip Chen in AD-55 for the asking.  No, it’s not Congress, but being independently wealthy Thorburn would have a good chance at becoming a serious player in the legislature — especially as it gears up to discuss a state-based single-payer insurance plan.

I’m skipping Sam Jammal and Phil Janowitz for now; both of them have less likelihood of winning office this year (sorry, guys, but that’s how it looks to me) and therefore less reason to flee this race — although something more local (and, for Janowitz in particular, school trustee-like) may be within grasp.  Or, if they’re just two of a small number of Democrats, they can reasonably try their chances against Chen.

Other late-entering Dems in the race besides Leggett include Herbert Lee and Ted Rusk, who don’t seem to have made much of an impression either as candidates or fundraisers thus far.   As they’ve sacrificed less so far to get to this point, it’s hard to feel as sorry for them if they have to drop out.  But for the five main contenders pre-Chen — all of whom I like, but none of whom seemed that likely to beat Royce — they have the opportunity to find contests where they aren’t in each other’s way, fighting for Democratic support in the wrong side of the Puente Hills.  I hope that they’ll all seize that opportunity.  If they don’t, look for CA-39 to give us a choice between two Republican candidates in November — all because of math.

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.)