CA-39: Analysis of the Race and Why I’ll Vote for Jay Chen (UPDATED w/ video – Sharon endorses Jay!)




I won’t bury the lede: nothing has dislodged my original tentative conclusion that Jay Chen is the candidate most likely to beat a Republican rival in Ed Royce’s old seat of CA-39.  I’ve honestly wavered between him, Andy Thorburn, and Phil Janowitz, but Chen’s experience as both a candidate and officeholder, and his demonstrated fundraising ability, make him the only candidate in pretty much the same league as the three Republicans who are most likely to make the runoff: Shawn NelsonYoung Kim, and Bob Huff .  If I can get “having the best chance of winning” without compromising one bit on good policy and competence, that is decisive.

And, given the good possibility that none of the six major Democrats will make the runoff if they split the vote, it makes sense to consolidate support behind one or two (or at most three) candidates before the election.  If the candidates won’t winnow themselves out — and they haven’t — the state party delegates have to take a shot at doing the winnowing for them.

I’m not really known as someone who is easy on candidates or willing to shade my criticism, so I hope that this statement carries appropriate power: I really like all six of the main Democratic contenders, the others being Gil CisnerosSam Jammal, and Mai-Khanh Tran,  I’d like to see several of them run for different seats this year, not only because I think that they’d serve well but because it would give them the experience they’d need to impress voters with their competence.  It’s true that the “experience” of having run for and served in office is no guarantee of competence, and that the lack of such experience is no guarantee of a lack of competence.  But voters think that it is — and while they may overestimate this factor it’s not a ridiculous quality for them to value.

Jay Chen with (mostly) his young campaign volunteers.

Jay Chen (holding U.S. flag) in his 2012 Congressional campaign against Ed Royce, with (mostly) his young campaign volunteers — and a few of us relative elders — in Rowland Heights.  Royce spent so much to defeat Chen then he reneged on commitments to fund other Republicans running that year, winning at least one Congressional and several legislative seats for Democrats.

Before continuing the analysis, here’s the nuts-and-bolts about the “pre-endorsement meetings:

It’s time for Democratic State Central Committee delegates to vote on whom they want to endorse in their various state and federal legislative races — although it’s the Congressional races that have taken up all of the attention.  If you’re one of them, you have three ways to vote:

(1) Mail in your ballot with a postmark of no later than January 25, which it’s too late to do.

(2) Email in your choices by 11:59 pm on January 26 (tonight, as this is published.)

(3) Attend the pre-endorsement meeting on Saturday, January 27 at 10:00 a.m. (doors open at 9:30), which for Region 15 (where the 39th Congressional District endorsement as well as AD-55 and a few others outside of OC will be determined) is at the Ironworkers Local 433 union hall, 17495 Hurley Street East , City of Industry, CA 91744.

Only the first method of voting that reaches the person running the meeting, in this case Olivia Lee, will count.  So if you mailed a ballot yesterday you can still email in a different choice today before the mail arrives.  But if you email a choice today, you can’t change it tomorrow.

Now let’s talk about the candidates in CA-39.

All six leading Democratic candidates have several qualities in common: on the positive side: they’re all smart, they profess good positions, and I would like to see them holding some elected office next year.  On the negative side, none of them — not even Chen, who comes closest — have the formal political resume of even the least experienced Republican front-runner, Young Kim.  So part of the analysis is how well they match up with their prospective prospective rivals, IF we are lucky enough to have an “R vs. D” Top Two runoff in November.

Overview of the Race

Aside from experience and aside from wealth, there’s one demographic factor most likely to determine both who emerges as the top Democratic vote-getter and as who has the best chance to win.  While this is supposedly going to be another “Year of the Woman,” it’s not gender; nor is it race or ethnicity.  It’s geography: where a candidate lives.  Only two of the main candidates — Jay Chen and Bob Huff — live in the voter-dense northern portion of the district.  They don’t have much overlap in their constituencies there — what overlap they do have is due to Huff’s wife being an active member of the Chinese community — so they each are likely to dominate among their party’s members north of the Puente Hills.

Young Kim and Shawn Nelson will fight it out in the AD-65 portion of the district, but even in Orange County Huff will have a strong foothold in La Habra (where he was politically dominant, with his acolyte Tim Shaw, for years) and GOP-vote-rich Yorba Linda.  (Brea will more likely be an extension of Fullerton, where Huff is less strong.)  So we’ll see two prominent OC Republicans and five prominent OC Democrats fighting it out in OC — where Chen will also still because people remember him — which, while it has the most voters in the district, doesn’t have that much of a population advantage.  Yes, Cisneros and Thorburn will be able to blanket the north with mailers and walkers if they choose, but it just does not compare with being someone whose name voters already know and like.  (It also reinforces the narrative on their being carpetbaggers who are trying to buy the office, more on which later.)

If you wonder how Chino Hills fits in, it’s roughly equal in votes to each of Yorba Linda and Diamond Bar and politically pretty much their average.  Yorba Linda is extremely Republican — in 2012, I won the Senate district where Josh Newman serves if you didn’t count Yorba Linda, which apparently they did count — and Diamond Bar is pretty even: with Republicans doing better, as usual, in lower turnout elections.  Chino Hills is reliably but not massively Republican, and my sense is that it tends to follow the conservative portions of LA County politically more than it does OC.

That out of the way, let’s consider the individual candidates, pretty much in the order of the likelihood I think they’d have to win:

(1) Jay Chen

Chen has been a school board member in Hacienda Heights and then moved on to become a Trustee at Mt. SAC, which is pretty much the Fullerton College of the eastern San Gabriel Valley that composes most of the LA portion of CA-39.  He’s fluent in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese as well as English.  He’s Harvard-educated and a successful businessman.  He’s a Naval officer in a district where Josh Newman showed that voters like the military.  He’s personable, sharp as hell, both funny and quick-witted (somewhat along the lines of Newman), well-disciplined, well-behaved, and married to a great political partner (Karen Chang), with whom he has two young sons.

Chen has raised funds well in his local campaigns, and all the more so in his 2012 race against Royce.  In that race, his wealthier brother also organized a PAC to put a lot of money into electing him.  Chen is not allowed to ask whether his brother plans to do so again, although he doesn’t have to close his ears if his brother announces publicly his plans to do so — but let’s just say that something similar, in a year when Chen seems actually to have a good shot to win, seems foreseeable.

One knock on Jay is that, unlike his fellow Democrats, he didn’t get into this year’s race until Royce got out of it.  I hate that criticism.  I was campaigning next to Jay in 2012, and I know very well how much money and effort he put into that race — at a time when everyone else thought it was pointless.  That took guts.  He also knew that Royce would probably have the seat for as long as he wanted it, given his ability to bring in ginormous amounts of campaign contributions — really, as much as needed to win as then-Chair of the House Financial Services Committee and now as Chair of the Foreign Affairs committee.  Chen had nothing to prove with another token losing effort.  But he also took a look at the rest of the Democratic field and came to the conclusion that none of them were likely to beat whomever the Republicans put up — but that he could.  I agree with that assessment and I’m glad he got into the race.

How does he match up against the Republicans?   Against Huff, best among Democrats.   Against Nelson, well enough.  Against Kim, well enough.

>What should he be running for instead?  Nothing.  He’s where he should be.

(2) Andy Thorburn

Thorburn is one of the two “hundred-millionaires” (or so) in the race.  (Cisneros is the other.)  The good news for Thorburn as a candidate is that he worked for his fortune — as executive of a niche health insurance company selling to Americans (I think mostly educators, but can’t recall) working overseas.

His being in this industry raises the possibility that his company engaged in some of the nasty business practices, such as recission of policies when people needed them, that led to the clamor for Obamacare in the first place.  But (1) I haven’t heard about any such complaints, and I’m surprised that Cisneros at least would not have been able to unearth them, and (2) I tend to doubt it, because as a dominant player in a small niche of people who were well-educated and knew one another, I suspect that sharp business practices might have killed off his business by inviting in larger competitors.  In fact, if he is elected, I envision Thorburn — who as I recall favors a “Medicare for All” program — as well-positioned to become a leading Democratic spokesperson addressing the deficiencies of private health insurance practices.

Thorburn lives (or at least had been living) just outside of the district, in Villa Park, but Villa Park is quite close to Yorba Linda and Thorburn is probably the best position to pick up Democratic votes there.  (Both of them.  I jest!)  He’s not a Sukhee-Kang-style (or a Gil Cisneros -or Mai-Khanh Tran-style) carpetbagger, but he’s still technically subject to that criticism, which might hold sway with the vast number of CA-39 residents who couldn’t find Villa Park on a map.  (If he’s up against Shawn Nelson, expect Bushala-bought “Thorburn Carpetbagger” signs everywhere.  If he’s up against Huff or Kim, don’t.)

Thorburn was deft (and well-advised) about where to spend his money in the early stages of the campaign, making a big donation to DPOC and holding a well-received reception at the party convention last year in Anaheim.  But everytime I see one of his right-gutter vertical ads on Yahoo Mail — and I see them constantly — I’m reminded that seeming to “buy the election” is a double-edged sword.  Yes, he found me on my home computer — but I can’t say that that helped him much.  (It was not decisive in my choice, though.)  I think that he has better natural political instincts than Cisneros and Tran.

Here’s the hardest and most potentially hurtful thing I have to say: I get feedback from all sorts of people that Thorburn just rubs them the wrong way.  I am emphatically not of that opinion: I love his gruff-but-tender, fast-talking-and-sharp-as-nails demeanor.  But I’m a Jewish guy with several advanced degrees — and (shocker!) most people here far from the coast are not “coastal elite” types.  Thorburn would probably have done quite well in CA-48 (as well as in CA-47, where they already have a fast-talking amiable Jewish guy in Congress), but I don’t have a better explanation for why he seems to rankle people around me.  I would not oppose a candidate for being Jewish any more than I would for their being Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, etc., but this isn’t about religion and ethnicity so much as coming off as “too New York” — which, to less cosmopolitan types, is often code for saying “too Jewish.”   But this is really about “connecting with voters” — and while I hate bringing it up for fear of treading on pandering to prejudice, I have a sense that his (falsely, in my opinion) being taken as abrasive gets in the way of that.  (This is similar to people pointing out that Barack Obama was able to become our first African-American President largely because he went far out of his way to avoid appearing “street” in the 2008 campaign and to avoid ever being seen seeming angry, so as not to invite negative stereotypes of Blacks.)  If I thought that Thorburn was a better candidate than Chen otherwise, I would swallow hard and ignore this; if Thorburn presented as a California rather than a New York Jew it would not even be an issue.  I would be far happier not to raise this point at all, but that would mean ignoring consistent feedback from others.

How does he match up against the Republicans?   Against Huff, not as well as Chen, but probably better than most.   Against Nelson, not so well.  Against Kim, probably not well.

What should he be running for instead?  Honestly, if he got into the U.S. Senate race I would drop everything I could to support him.  I’d love to have him as my Senator; I think he’d really appeal to voters statewide as a straight-talking alternative to both Feinstein and DeLeon.  But that may be unrealistic, so:  this year, possibly Board of Equalization District 3.  (It’s a good springboard for future positions.)  Then, preparing to replace Todd Spitzer as Supervisor by rolling over Kris Murray in a district — whenever it happens — where Democrats will likely have no one nearly as good.  He would cut down Murray’s blather with aplomb.  He just really needs to hold a position — County Clerk? — that gives him an identity other than “wealthy interloper.”  Seriously, Chen or one of the others really can do as good a job as he could in DC.  He needs to prepare himself better.

(3) Phil Janowitz

Janowitz is the activist’s candidate.  He’s been working hard for Josh Newman in the recall, making strong connections with them.  But while this district has some very good quality activists — it does not have a large quantity of them.  Janowitz is betting that they will put him over the top.  I think that that’s a good way to go broke — but I also think that they’d come out pretty much as well for at least Chen or Jammal.  Janowitz has good policy positions — he will not easily be outflanked on the left — and presents them well.  Outside of the activist community though, I don’t think he’s likely to sway people.

How does he match up against the Republicans?   Honestly, I don’t think that he would have much of a chance against any of them.  But if he finishes in the Top Two, I would have to revise that opinion because that accomplishment would have proven me wrong.

>What should he be running for instead?  Democrats cannot find anyone to run against accused sexual predator Sen. Tony Mendoza, who is currently suspended, in the 32nd Senate District, which includes central Buena Park.   (He’s the only CA-39 candidate in that district.)  The party would like a woman to run — “Year of the …” and “sexual predator,” of course — and would prefer an LA County resident, but I think that they’d welcome Janowitz and would be happy to cut the increasingly erratic Mendoza loose.  Janowitz should be in touch with party leaders in that district and should wait to file for CA-39 until either they find — or can’t find — an alternative to Mendoza,  If they can’t find one, this is his chance to be a hero to the whole party — Democrats will likely lose the seat, in my opinion, if Mendoza is our candidate — and he’d have a good chance of making it into the State Senate.  I don’t think that Janowitz will be convinced in the short term — but hopefully would consider it before filing.  His chances of winning SD-32 are far superior to his winning CA-39.  Let him know what you think!

(4) Sam Jammal

Jammal has the best one-liner of anyone in the campaign — about his being, given his half-Mexican and half-Arab ancestry, Trump’s biggest nightmare — and a lot of experience as a staffer (including Chief of Staff) in both D.C. and Sacramento.  Those connections give him an early jump in fundraising — but not, I it will not, I expect, be a sustained one.  More than any other candidate, he has to worry about the effect on his political career — as staffer as well as candidate — if his remaining in the race and splitting the vote leads to no Democrat making the runoff.  If the other candidates’ names are mud, they move on in their fields.  If his name becomes mud, it stains him.

Jammal is smart but comes off as scripted in a way that candidates are taught to be by imagine consultants who probably ought to be flogged.  (Think of Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential race.)  He has a resume that is simultaneously impressive and comes off as somewhat dilettantish — “Green energy executive!  Silicon Valley high tech executive!  High-level staffer!  Attorney!”  Sometimes, if you’ve been everything, you invite the inference that you’ve been none of those things very intensively, and may have been marking off check boxes that you can use in a campaign.

How does he match up against the Republicans?   Probably fairly well against Kim, but I think that an experienced debater and representative such as Huff or Nelson would likely make mincemeat out of him.

What should he be running for instead?   Something lower than Congress.  If he lived in Mendoza’s district, I’d strongly recommend his becoming the hero there.  If he lived in AD-55, then I expect that he could get Gregg Fritchle to step aside for him.  (Gregg doesn’t want to see a car crash in CA-39 either.)  Maybe Fullerton City Council; maybe even take some of that money and make a name for himself by going for a county office.  Just please don’t screw up our chance to take Royce’s seat when others have a better shot.

(5) Gil Cisneros

Cisneros is not exactly a dilettante.  He seems bright and reasonably well-informed about politics.  On a personal level, he has a military background (less recent than Chen’s) and support from the (not that politically active in CA-39) Latino community.  He won over $300,000,000 in the lottery a few years ago, and he has used a portion of his winnings responsibly as a philanthropist.  He has a slow, almost soporific, speaking style that is almost the opposite of Thorburn’s.  He’d probably be a perfectly fine back-bencher in Congress.

But he is really, truly, not a natural politician — and the “carpetbagger” sign would be hung around his neck and stapled to his chest.  In the second-most-recent forum, when I asked the candidates what vulnerabilities they saw in Nelson, Huff, and Kim (who had all announced that day), he admitted that he didn’t know who Shawn Nelson was.  That’s forgivable — although it’s a sign that he didn’t know the district well — but politically there are times when one ducks the question (as Thorburn and Tran did) rather than making a damaging admission.  This was one of them.

My big fears about Cisneros’s campaign are (1) that he can only win by using his money to tear down his fellow Dems, making a R-on-R runoff more likely and (2) that he will invite non-unreasonable criticism that the Democrats — atypically for our party — are simply trying to buy the seat.  That, as other Dems are asked to take a stance on whether that’s OK, could do wide and lasting damage to the party.

Then there’s his touting his endorsements from the Congressional Hispanic (or did they finally change it to Latino?) Caucus and various current and former members thereof.  I keep hearing whispers that I should check into his history of donations to these members.  The specter of his buying endorsements with lottery winnings — and I do think that the public will see his fortune as less “earned” than Thorburn’s, even though he seems to have been an admirably responsible philanthropist — would be damaging both to him and his recipients.  (I can just imagine what an adroit politician like Nelson or Huff would do with it.)  By the way, those sorts of endorsements also just don’t mean that much to voters when it’s pretty clear that they’re extended largely on the basis of ethnic solidarity.

How does he match up against the Republicans?  I think that could hold his own against the relatively lightweight Kim, but I think that the more experienced Huff and Nelson would squash him.  Republicans are not going to give up this seat easily: their candidate will have as much money as they need.  Cisneros has to save some of that fortune for a reelection campaign.  (He’s not going to get outside money for this one, I suspect.)

What should he be running for instead?   As with Thorburn, I’d consider BOE District 4 (which OC shares with San Diego, Riverside, and Imperial Counties, as well as the portions of San Bernardino County least close to OC.)  As with Jammal, maybe county office.  But really, unless the candidates in CA-22 are much better than I think they are, I think that he should consider carpetbagging further up to east Fresno and running against the increasingly vulnerable Devin Nunes, whose helping the spike the Mueller investigation makes him vulnerable to someone who can tell the right story about him.  It’s an area almost tailor-made for Cisneros — with a large and economically depressed Latino community — and it may be a place where he can make a great political contribution where he is most needed — not least by making Nunes think twice about covering up quite so hard for Trump.

(6) Mai-Khan Tran

One would think that a female candidate would do well in this district this year, among five male competitors.  But Dr. Tran isn’t from this district, seems to have little following in this district, keeps on not showing up to events in this district, and is reduced essentially to the qualities of being a woman and a physician.  That’s nice — but it’s not nearly enough to win.  In her sole forum appearance, she was pleasant enough and knew the basics of politics, and held Democratic positions — but that’s about it.  Her main effect on the race has been to make it hard for any other Democratic woman to jump in for fear of splitting the women’s vote.

How does she match up against the Republicans?  For voters other than Democrats and left-wing independents — not a majority of the district — she doesn’t seem to have much comparative advantage over Young Kim.  Kim would probably squash her: the Asian population in CA-39 is overwhelmingly Taiwanese and Korean, not Vietnamese as it is near where she is actually from.  She would have a chance against Huff or Nelson that would depend on their falling prey to some #MeToo sort of attack — and even then she’s really not in much better position to take advantage of it than a squeaky-clean male like Jay Chen.  She seems to think that her only role in a Time of Trump is to go fight him in DC, and I cannot imagine why she thinks that someone like Chen is not at least as well equipped to do so.  It doesn’t have to be her, and this is NOT an entry-level position.

What should she be running for instead? Right near her actual home, more egregious carpetbagger Michelle Steel is running for reelection to her seat on the OC Board of Supervisors.  If she doesn’t think that she can do an enormous amount of good as the only physician on the BOS — where she’d be a MAJOR player in running Cal Optima the right way, as opposed to the Janet Nguyen way — in a county the population of Iowa, then she’s just ignorant and unimaginative.  Board of Supervisors isn’t the best entry-level position either, but I believe that she can pull it off.  And then, before long, she can find a place to run for Congress.

I don’t like calling for the only woman in the race to get out.  On the other hand, I do like calling for the least-equipped and least-integrated-into-the-district candidate to get out — even if, in this case, she happens to be a woman.  She’s in a position to make it much more likely that we have an R-on-R runoff if she stays.  I can’t believe that she’d want than on her conscience.

Three of the above are going to finish no better than fourth among Democrats; two will finish no better than fifth.  As a delegate I see part of my job is making sure that in an evenly split district, there are only as many Democrats running as there are Republicans.  I don’t think that Tran, Jammal, and Cisneros should stay in this race — and the best I can do is to vote for one of the candidates who I think needs to consolidate the vote.  For me, that will be Chen, but I can’t argue with a vote for Thorburn.  As for Janowitz: PLEASE check out SD-32.  Come on, folks — tell him: don’t file until it’s sure than we have a Democratic alternative to Mendoza there!

UPDATE from Vern – It must be Jay Day!

Beloved Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva endorses him.

Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva endorses Jay Chen!

Posted by Jay Chen on Friday, January 26, 2018

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)