(November 21) REDLANDS—For thirteen years, ending a little less than a year ago, Joe Baca was a member of Congress, with stature as one of the senior members of a growing number of Hispanic Democrats in the House of Representatives, exemplifying a key component of the party and its future. This month, in seeming concert, Democratic Party heavyweights, local and national, were endeavoring to disenfranchise him entirely, and neuter him as any sort of political force.
Baca, who since 1999 had represented California in the Washington D.C.’s lower house in the heavily Democratic-leaning 42nd and 43rd Congressional districts with solid Democratic support, in 2012 found himself most logically ushered into the newly drawn 31st Congressional District as a result of the reapportionment following the 2010 Census. The 31st was a Democratic-leaning district as well, but the Democratic-registration advantage there was only seven percent over the Republicans. Incumbent Congressman Gary Miller, whose 42nd district in northeast Orange, southeast Los Angeles and southwest San Bernardino counties had likewise been reapportioned out from underneath him, elected against running against fellow Republican Ed Royce in the newly-draw 39th District and instead declared his intention of wrestling Baca for the voters’ nod in the newly drawn 31st District.
Members of Congress do not need to live within the geographical boundaries of the district they represent, and merely need to live within the state where the district in which they hold office is located.
Baca, perhaps fearing Miller’s prodigious fundraising ability, opted to run in the neighboring 35th Congressional District, which was even more heavily laden with Democrat voters. And, indeed, Baca appeared to be a shoo-in in the 35th, where he cruised to a relatively convincing victory in the June 2012 primary, capturing 12,619 votes or 47.17 percent to 9,078 or 33.93 percent that went to then-state senator Gloria Negrete-McCleod, another Democrat, and 5,058 votes or 18.9 percent, that went to Anthony Vieyra, a Green Party Candidate.
In 2012, California had switched to an open primary system, which ended sequestered party ballots and effectively ended the tradition of guaranteeing that a Democrat would face a Republican in the November general election. Instead, the open primary led to setting up a November race between the two highest vote-getters in June, regardless of party affiliation. Thus, a confident Baca last fall squared off against Negrete-McLeod. On the strength of his primary showing, his incumbency, his perceived fundraising advantage, his superior name recognition, and his unwillingness to engage in a bare-knuckle political slugfest against a woman who was like him Democrat and Hispanic, Baca waged little more than a minimalist campaign, fully anticipating he would easily pick up at least three percent of the vote that had gone to Vieyra in the primary campaign to put him over the top.
In the final weeks before the general election on November 6, however, Negrete-McLeod’s campaign was infused with $3.8 million in donations from a political action committee controlled by Republican New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which paid for a $2.3 million television advertising blitz during the last week of the campaign. Caught flatfooted and unable to respond in kind to both a bevy of negative hit pieces that attacked him on his record and upbeat mailers that lionized Negrete-McLeod for her service in the California legislature, Baca saw the election slip away, with Negrete-McLeod capturing 61,065 votes or 54.35 percent to his 51,281 votes or 45.65 percent.
Meanwhile, over in the 31st District, which encompasses parts of Upland and Rancho Cucamonga, and stretches eastward across San Bernardino County through a large portion of Fontana, Rialto, Colton, San Bernardino and Redlands, four Democrats – Pete Aguilar, Justin Kim, Rita Ramirez-Dean, and Renea Wickman sought election last year, as did Miller. In addition, another Republican, Bob Dutton, joined the fray in the 2012 primary. Despite the seven percent Democratic voter registration advantage in the 31st, simple mathematics hurt the Democrats as their vote was divided four ways, while the Republican vote was split two ways. Dutton and Miller proved to be the two top vote-getters and under California’s open primary arrangement, the November general election came down to a race between Republicans Miller and Dutton. Miller prevailed in that race.
Now 66, Baca is unwilling to hang up his political spikes and has given every indication he intends to make a comeback by challenging Miller next year. Despite the consideration that he shied away from battling it out with Miller last year, his candidacy has some viability.
In addition to the name recognition Baca brings to the political table, he possesses, as a former member of Congress, indirect and residual political clout, together with an insider’s knowledge of issues and alliances, which he is working assiduously to bring to bear. In this way, Baca can count on big money backing from national and even international players. An example of this is his recent move to stand up for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which was originally undertaken by one of Baca’s former political supporters, ConocoPhillips, in conjunction with TransCanada. The first two of the four phases of the pipeline system to transport oil sands bitumen from Canada and Bakken synthetic crude oil and light crude oil produced from the Williston Basin, known as the Bakken region, in Montana and North Dakota primarily to refineries on the Gulf Coast have been completed. ConocoPhillips at this point has sold its interest in the undertaking to TransCanada, which is now investing heavily in the effort to assure the completion of the last two phases of the project, involving the expansion of refining and processing capability on the Gulf Coast and a controversial pipeline to originate at Hardisty in Alberta, Canada and extend 1,179 miles to Steele City, Nebraska.
Environmentalists are opposed to the project. Baca, however, has given TransCanada his assurance he will support the project on the grounds that it represents an advance toward North American energy independence as well as economic rejuvenation. In this way, he has taken a crucial step toward ensuring that he will receive substantial assistance from TransCanada, its investors, lobbyists and the political action committees TransCanada has endowed.
TransCanada is just one of the big name, big money players Baca is counting on to boost his electoral effort.
Whatever his overall chances, the heart of the Democratic Party is not behind Baca. Rather, it has locked onto Aguilar, the current mayor in the city of Redlands, as its best hope to reclaim primacy in the 31st Congressional District.
With no little justification, the Democrats consider the 31st District to be one that should naturally fall to them. Of the district’s registered voters, 127,690 or 41 percent, are affiliated with the Democratic Party. Registered Republicans in the district number 104,938, or 33.7 percent. Independent political appraisers see the 31st as a Democratic asset as well.
Even before Miller outpolled Dutton in November 2012, Democratic strategists were conferring about what steps could be taken to ensure that Democratic disarray in 2014 does not perpetuate Miller’s incumbency beyond the current Congress. In short order, a game plan was hatched by which Aguilar, who had polled the most votes among the four Democrats in the 2012 primary, was chosen as the logical party standard bearer. By promoting Aguilar early, engaging in brisk fundraising on his behalf and warding off any other Democrats so a concentrated party electoral effort to advance Aguilar can be mounted, they believe Aguilar can beat Miller in a toe-to-toe slugfest a year from now, despite Miller’s incumbency and formidable fundraising capability.
Relatively early on, well-connected Democratic-functionaries acted to boost Aguilar. In May, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee selected Aguilar as one of five candidates nationwide to be included in its Jumpstart Program, which is intended to assist early-emerging Democrats seeking to unseat incumbent Republicans deemed to be vulnerable.
Party leaders convinced California’s two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, to endorse Aguilar. Party donors, inside and outside California, were encouraged to provide him with campaign cash, and money started pouring into Aguilar’s political war chest. More attention was drawn to him, ensuring even more contributions, when the Washington-based news organization, Politico, in July named Aguilar one of “50 Politicos to watch in 2013.”
Despite all that, Baca remains in place as a candidate. Not only that, two other Democrats have declared their candidacies in the 31st next year and they are further compromising any chance for party unison heading into the June primary. Eloise Gomez Reyes, an attorney and longtime Democratic activist, and Danny Tillman, a school board member from San Bernardino and a one-time close associate of former California Assemblyman Jerry Eaves, don’t appear to be responding to their party’s signals to get out of the race. While neither can boast anything approaching the funding at the beck of Miller, Aguilar or Baca, both seem to genuinely believe they have sufficient charisma, existing support, and name recognition to get one of the two top spots in the primary and then follow-up to prevail in November 2014.
This leaves Aguilar with a double-dilemma: to ensure at least a second-place showing in June, he will need to go on the attack against one or all of his Democratic rivals, a move he would rather not make. Moreover, to engage in such attacks, he will need to squander money he would rather retain for the big fight against Miller in the general election.
Clearly, Aguilar, who has already made a good impression on high ranking members of his party, needs to do something to distinguish himself from the pack of Democratic candidates in the minds of those whose decision will ultimately count next year, i.e., the voters in the 31st District. Despite the money he is raising and despite the endorsements he is accruing, two recent polls show that among the 31st District voters, Miller and Baca have the most name recognition, the highest positive name identification totals and that Miller and Baca are ahead of the other three candidates in the race.
Aguilar has yet to undertake a campaign against Baca in earnest, though such an effort will be very likely if the status quo continues, involving, perhaps, unprecedented early mailers and advertising to get the Aguilar campaign off the dime and into gear. At present, a fierce behind-the-scenes battle to cut Baca off at the pass is being waged. One sign of how cutthroat the completion between Aguilar and Baca is finds demonstration in how local Democratic clubs have been pressured by party higher-ups to suspend party and club rules to make early endorsements of Aguilar.
In September, in a rare if not unprecedented move, the Redlands Area Democratic Club endorsed Aguilar. Normally, party clubs hold off on making endorsements until after, in some cases well after, the filing deadline for a particular office is closed, giving all potential candidates an opportunity to make the case for their candidacy. The Redlands Area Democratic Club’s action defied that tradition. In reaction, the Democratic Central Committee adopted new rules and bylaws that called for Democratic clubs holding off until after the final filing date for office to ensure that no candidates are left out of the endorsement evaluation process.
Yet so intense is the pressure to promote Aguilar and thereby foreclose Baca’s candidacy, four more Democratic clubs – the West End Democratic Club, the East Valley Democratic Club, the Helen L. Doherty Democratic Club, the Stonewall Democratic Club – have announced their support for Aguilar, in defiance of the new rule.
“Our members voted unanimously to endorse Pete Aguilar for Congress because of his proven record of delivering results for the citizens of Redlands and his strong commitment to improving the lives of hard-working families throughout San Bernardino County. Pete’s just the leader we need to make sure that Congress is working for us,” the clubs’ leadership announced in a joint communiqué.
Baca said he was disappointed the four clubs’ leadership and members had broken a party charter rule, but that he was confident that among the district’s Democratic voters at large, he retained a commanding lead over Aguilar.
Steve Chapman, the president of the Redlands Area Democratic Club, said Aguilar’s support by a key constituency within the Democratic Party – public employees – distinguished him from the other candidates in the race. “Aguilar’s leadership through difficult financial times and fair treatment of municipal employees has been very impressive,” Chapman said.