OJB’s 2018 Primary Picks, Pt 6: Deciding on the CA-39 Race




You can read MY stream of consciousness while making a decision too!


In most of these races, the California Democratic Party has already picked, so I can’t do much more than grumble.  While you should have your ballots in hand today, YOU SHOULD NOT BE VOTING YET because you should want to wait for at least one more big poll to come in to help you decide about the Governor’s race and probably U.S. Senate as well.  You can wait to vote until this weekend.  But if you’re an Eager Balloter, we’ll give you the rundown here — with the understanding that some of them may change.

Today is all about the 39th Congressional district race — my own, as it happens to be.  The California Democratic Party (“CDP”) has not endorsed in is race, so I can speak freely.  My endorsement for this race comes last because, frankly, I’ve found it to be the toughest decision — and it deserves its own post.


It’s 7:30 on Thursday morning, some ballots have already likely been received and mailed, and my time to make a decision in this race is up.  As I start to write, I literally don’t know where I am going to come down at the end.  So I’m going to work through it in real time, over the next 90 minutes or so, and hope that my thought process may be of use to you — whether it appeals to you or repels you.  These are the questions and considerations that come to mind

(1) Should Democrats concede the race in June?

I’m going to say “no,” of course, as I expect will most other Dems, but the issue at hand is: if we’re not going to concede the race, then we had better act like it.  This race is interesting in that, like few other races (CA-49 is the only one that comes to mind), one can literally make a compelling case that EITHER party might be shut out of the general election.  The Republicans have three top-rank farm-team candidates in Bob Huff, Young Kim, and Shawn Nelson, plus others such as Steve Vargas and Andrew Sarega who have more formal qualification (meaning mostly having held elected office, not being rich and put on some advisory committee) for Congress.  It’s only the presence of the latter names on the ballot that keeps me from predicting an R-on-R runoff right now.

So, if you’re a Dem or leaning blue, that rules out anyone but the four front-runners: Gil Cisneros, Sam Jammal, Andy Thorburn, and Mai Khanh Tran.  (If Karen Schatzle had made any sort of a mark, one could make a case for considering her — but she hasn’t.  Ironically, I think that she could have won in her home district of CA-45, storming past the deeply divided Democrats there and picking up Democratic support against Mimi Walters in the runoff.)  So all of the other candidates — Leggett and Lee and whomever else — should just drop out before they elect Bob Huff.

Contrary to what some Dems are saying, this is a good group of candidates.  Of the candidates left in four targeted races, only Doug Applegate in CA-49, Omar Siddiqi in CA-48, and Brian Forde and Kia Hamadanchy in CA-45 are comparably appealing (and I don’t think that Kia can win at this point.)  Thorburn is that rare bird — an insurance executive who actually understands, appreciates, and can eloquently critique the problems with our current health insurance system.  Cisneros is not a self-made man financially, but he served honorably and capably as a military officer and has used his fortune from lottery winnings responsibly and well.  Tran may not be able to say much to distinguish her beyond that she’s a woman and a pediatrician, but those are good things in this race and she has admirably served her community.  Jammal can’t compete financially and can’t stop talking like Al Gore in 2000, but he’s a decent and capable guy with great intelligence and good values.  There’s not a one among them worth hating or even disliking.  That’s what makes the decision so tough.

(2) Should Democrats concede the race in November?

This is a harder question — because it’s essentially asking “how much should electability matter?”  My answer here again is “no” — which is why I narrow the field down to two candidates.

A Republican victory would have a 2/3 chance of being horrible and a 1/3 chance of merely being highly unpleasant.  Huff is corrupt — go ahead and sue me, Bob; I did plenty of research on you when I ran against you in 2012 and I’d love to discover what’s in your files about the City of Industry and elsewhere — and an apologist for other Republicans’ corruption.  (Remember when he wouldn’t allow Mimi Walters, who was standing next to him at a press conference, answer a question about her residence when she was running against Steve Young for State Senate from outside of the district?  I do.)  Kim would simply be a rejuvenated female Asian version of Royce — although ditzier.  Nelson would be less of an embarrassment — which is a shame, because if elected I wish that he WOULD be willing to embarrass himself like a Rand Paul, Justin Amash, or other real libertarians, but he doesn’t have it in him.

So, yeah — I want a Democrat who can win in November.

Jammal will not be able to raise the money to win.  (If he could, he’d already be swimming in it.  Sorry, but there are other priorities for the party; they want a self-funder for a good reason.  And unlike a longshot like Phil Janowicz, he doesn’t have a fanatical activist base to make up for it.  I think his victory concedes the seat.  So he’s out.

Tran has far less money than the other two rich people — but also less capability as a campaigner.  If Kim wins the nomination, she’d be stomped as her comparative advantage is taken away.  She’s done next to nothing to build up her activist base in the district — and not much more to build her non-activist base — and if Huff wins she’d face his strong ties to the Chinese community through his wife and if Nelson wins … well, she might have a chance, but she’d better duck any debates.  There’s an advantage of arrogance in politics, but her arrogantly believing that she’s better enough than the other candidates to take them down in the primary and lead to a Democratic shutout is truly grating.  So she’s out.

The other two can win in a one-on-one against any Republican.  So let’s focus on them.  I’ll note that the RNCC (the Republican committee focusing on the House races) seems FAR more scared of Cisneros right now — but that seems to be because they think that Thorburn has already been destroyed by the report Cisneros put out on him.  So let’s talk about that first.

(3) Does campaign ethics play any role in the decision?

My take on the election was going to be that I wanted to go through a particularly vicious hit piece — a “report” that Cisneros says that he had commissioned about Thorburn — and support Cisneros if it was substantially true and Thorburn if it wasn’t.  I started a piece on it here — but then I got busy with work (taking baby steps back into the business post-stroke) and didn’t get to finish it.  I may still do so, but as the first few claims I encountered seemed to have decent answers, I’m hesitant to promote it.  We’ll see.

Cisneros himself has been the target of an attack by AD-55 candidate Melissa Fazli — but the more I think about it and the more she hasn’t responded to fair questions posed here about it, the more unfair I consider it to be.  If I thought that Thorburn had anything to do with it, this would count against him — but I don’t.

So the “campaign ethics” issue is mostly about the report.  I think I can fairly say that the report has two effects: it enhances Cisneros’s electability compared to Thorburn, but it is also a big ethical problem for Cisneros compared to Thorburn.  And that problem is not simply what you may think — that the attacks are unfair and unseemly.  It’s also that I think that he is probably lying about how it came into being — which is worth its own entry.

(4) Did the DCCC compose the “Cisneros Report” against Thorburn and give it to Cisneros to release because Thorburn is a Berniecrat?

If I didn’t care at all about winning the race, I’d make the answer to this question decisive in my endorsement.  I don’t think that it’s likely that Cisneros had someone compile this report about Thorburn on his own and on his own initiative.   This report — other than literally — has “DCCC” written all over it.

That has two implications: first, it is then part of the astoundingly wrongheaded attempts by the DCCC to fend off Berniecrats whenever and however it can.  The DCCC’s actions are terrible for the party — they ward off activists and people who care about fair processes and having the party be an honest broker, simply to favor candidates who will be responsive to big donors and (even more importantly) to the corrupt party officials who steer the nominations to them on the grounds that “they have more inside knowledge of the candidates” when the truth is that they have more conflicts of interest including a vertiginous lean towards the interests of big donors — and it would be tempting to hold this against Cisneros if I believed that he bought into the DCCC line.

But it’s not clear that Cisneros has done so.  The DCCC is certainly trying to smother  him in its embrace — having recently added him to its “Red to Blue” list — but, again, that has little to do with Cisneros and everything to do with Thorburn being a Berniecrat who is endorsed by Bernie-associated groups.  But, honestly, Cisneros strikes me as a decent guy who is perfectly capable of telling donors to go to hell — his degree of wealth is called “screw you” money for a good reason, if you’ll pardon the euphemism — and he strikes me as morally centered.  I don’t expect that I’d be very disappointed with him in office.

The big problem is the smaller one: unless Cisneros really did commission this report without help from the DCCC, then he is essentially just working as their hatchet man and lying about it.  THAT is where, after long contemplation, I draw the line.  If he really wants to claim that the production of something that looks a lot like the DCCC’s other attacks against Berniecrats across the country is just some sort of coincidence, then he can — but if he’s lying about it, then he’s a scumbag and I will drop almost anything to oppose him.

The struggle to make the DCCC own up to its biases, and then end them, is a critical one for the party — not because it’s anti-Bernie but because it’s anti-Bernie’s policies , many of which I’d like to think that Cisneros (as a fair-minded and decent guy) would conclude are appropriate.  If he favors big donors on the merits, that’s unfortunate, but it happens.  If he’s covering up for their agents who control the party — then he’s not worth supporting, especially in June.

Because I don’t know Cisneros to be lying about his having produced the report on his own — and, especially, whether he’ll continue covering up for the DCCC if that’s what he’s been doing — this question does not enter into my decision process right now.  (Of itself, I don’t hold the DCCC’s embrace of him any more than I’d hold John Hinckley’s crush against Jodie Foster.)  But any decision I make for now is provisional, so it could chance.  I’ll continue to investigate.

(5) Other than that, who’s more electable?

I think that Cisneros is a little more electable than Thorburn, for good reasons and bad.  Mostly, I think that Cisneros’s affable, low-key personality — he talks like he’s a comfortable old friend — is really good.  (If Sam Jammal could learn that trick, he’d be much better off — except authenticity shouldn’t be a “trick.”)  Thorburn is pretty good on this front too, but is perceived a more abrasive.  That leads us to the bad reason:  Among Jews, I’m one of the least inclined to hurl accusations of anti-Semitism, but I’m convinced that in this district the strong reactions I hear to him are essentially that he’s too “New York brusque” — which is essentially a way of saying “too Jewish.”  I LIKE Thorburn’s demeanor — even though I’m an LA Jew rather than a NY Jew, despite my decade of living (and not fitting in) there — but I have to recognize that in this Iowa of a district it works against him.  People are being open about race/ethnicity as a problem for Siddiqi in CA-48 — and, sure, it is — so I feel bound to be no less honest about Thorburn here.

Thorburn also desperately needs better photos.  He’s a good-looking guy with a good presence in person.  His photos are awful.  I’ll take some of him myself if I need to.  Cisneros generally presents himself well in photos.  And yes, that matters.

(6) But who would be better in office?

I think that Cisneros would be good in office, a step or two ahead of Correa.  I think that Thorburn would be very good in office, comparable to Lowenthal but without the benefit of years of experience.  Cisneros has the “common man” and “military background” going for him, plus the nice background in pro-Latino philanthropy.  But he doesn’t seem that likely to be a … well, “thorn” — in anyone’s side if elected.  He’d be a decent back-bencher and maybe at some point a decent actor in education.  I don’t think he’d be a firebrand leader in the Hispanic Caucus.

As for Thorburn — well, that possibility is really interesting.

Some objections to the candidates (expressed on these pages by Carole Levers) is that they’re both worthless because they’re billionaires.  With all due respect, I disagree.  The biblical quote that “money is the root of all evil” actually means that the love of money is the root of all evil.  I don’t think that Cisneros can be charged with suffering from the love of money; it landed in his lap, after all.  He has not had to make compromises to earn money since that day.  The question is whether he’s going to be too obsequious towards others who have money.  Hopefully not.

Thorburn, though, has worked for his multi-millions.  And he’s done so in an industry where good business practices have been hard to find.  And he’s had to make compromises — because as the head of a public company one serves one’s stockholders, leading for example, to taking steps to seek out advantageous tax treatment so far as allowed by law — that will strike many as unsavory.

This has formed the crux of many of the daggers cast in the Cisneros Report.  Moved his business to a tax haven (one later declared off-limits.)  Some clients of his insurance company — hardly any, it seems — complained about not getting the coverage they had coming.

If the Cisneros Report is the worst that can be said about Thorburn after so many years of running a niche insurance company (for Americans traveling abroad, one where one’s reputation is probably incredibly important, especially given the risk of being driven out of business by one of the big insurers), my provisions conclusion is that Thorburn is a pretty damned honest businessman — almost extraordinarily so, given his industry.

How does this affect his qualifications for office?  Easy: having been in the insurance business for a long time — and having presented Berniecrat-style criticisms of it during his campaign, to his great credit — he has the standing to become a leading Democratic spokesperson for insurance reform.  Ideally, even, for “Medicare for All.”

He has more standing to speak out as a critic of the insurance industry than all but a few — and few of those with comparable standing would be willing to do it.  I’ll bet that only one such person with the ability to do it is running for Congress this year.  (Or, indeed, has done so all decade.)  IF I’m right about Thorburn, then he’s not going to be a mere back-benches — indeed, he may be a significant person in national politics, on this issue — over the next decade.

(NO WONDER the DCCC hates him!)

I would be quite comfortable with either of them in office.  These are NOT typical hundred-millionaires.  These are decent guys with good hearts.  But it’s this last point — that I think that Thorburn can really contribute to the national debate over one of our most critical issues — that convinces me to choose between them.

My provisional endorsement — which could change! — for those voting now is to support Andy Thorburn for Congress.  And if you vote for Gil Cisneros, your choice is perfectly defensible.

Now play it clean, gents — one of you will be endorsing the other in a month!





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.)