The storied political career of Joe Baca, which has soared to significant heights and dived to crushing depths, has yet to close out, as he is making another run for Congress.
Similar to a prize fighter who doesn’t get into gear until being punched in the face several times, Baca’s political career did not move forward in earnest until he had been defeated by the same political opponent, Jerry Eaves, on two separate occasions. Indeed, Baca, a Democrat, once seemed boxed in by Eaves, another Democrat who had the solid backing of the Inland Empire’s labor unions, which dominated Democratic politics at that time. But Baca was able to transform his willingness to put up with defeat and then bounce back from it to eventually replace Eaves in the California Assembly and then accede to the U.S. House of Representatives, a political station Eaves was never able to attain. Throughout a thirty-year career, Baca paradoxically epitomized the Democratic Party’s ideals, or at least a number of them, while at the same time seeing his career in Congress upended by a Democrat. Having thus been betrayed by members of his own party, he converted for a short-lived duration into a Republican. Now, he’s back to being a Democrat, nevertheless engaged in a pitched battle to unseat an incumbent Democrat.
Born in Belen, New Mexico in 1947, the youngest of 15 children in a primarily Spanish-speaking household, Baca moved to the San Bernardino County railroad town of Barstow when he was young, as his father was a railroad laborer. Upon graduating from high school, he was following in his father’s footsteps, working at the Barstow Santa Fe Railroad yard. He was drafted into the Army in 1966, and served during the Vietnam War Era, though he was not sent to Southeast Asia. Upon his discharge, he attended Barstow Community College and went on to receive his bachelor’s degree in sociology from California State University, Los Angeles.
While working for General Telephone in 1979, he became the first Latino elected to the board of trustees for the San Bernardino Valley College District.
In the 1988 June Primary, he challenged Eaves, then the incumbent in the 66th Assembly District. Eaves had previously been able to use his heavy involvement in union and Democratic politics as a consequence of his employment at Fontana’s Kaiser Steel Mill to advance himself, and he obtained a berth on the Rialto City Council in 1977, acceded to being Rialto mayor from 1980 to 1984 and had been elected to the California Assembly in 1984. In the 1988 primary race, Baca registered what was for a challenger facing an incumbent legislator a relatively strong showing, though Eaves beat him 56 to 44 percent. Baca again sought to unseat Eaves in the 1990 Democratic Primary, losing that time 57 to 43 percent.
In 1992, following the reapportionment following the 1990 Census, Eaves and Baca were now on course to duke it out for primacy in the 62nd Assembly District. At that point, however, Eaves opted to leave Sacramento to vie for Fifth District San Bernardino County supervisor. He endorsed his protégé, Rialto Mayor John Longville. Baca pressed forward, engaging in a hard-fought battle against Longville, who had the advantage of superior funding his ally, Eaves, was able to vector to him from a host of donors up and down the state, ones Eaves had access to as a consequence of his time in the state legislature. Baca, however, bested Longville and moved into the state’s lower legislative house. Baca remained in the California Assembly for six years and in 1998, just as he exhausted the three terms he was eligible to serve under the state’s term limit law put in place in 1990, was conveniently able to transition and step up into the upper legislative house, succeeding Ruben S. Ayala in the California Senate’s 32nd District.
Just a few months after Baca was elected to the state senate, 42nd District Congressman George Brown, Jr., the venerable 33-year veteran of Congress who had represented portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties from just after his first election in 1962 with a two year hiatus from January 1971 until January 1973 brought on when he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 1970, died. Baca seized the opportunity this provided and finished first in a seven-way primary, but fell short of a majority to capture the post outright. In the runoff, Baca defeated Republican Elia Pirozzi with 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent. He won the seat more convincingly with 59 percent of the vote in 2000. After the 2000 census, Baca was reapportioned into California’s 43rd Congressional District, a majority-Hispanic district. Baca was easily reelected in this redrawn district in 2002, and was handily elected there throughout the remainder of the first decade of the Third Millennium.
Baca obtained berths on the House Financial Services Committee, where he was a member of the Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Insurance, and Government Sponsored Enterprises, and the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit; as well as on the House Agriculture Committee, where he was the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Departmental Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry. As a member of Congress, he championed increasing Hispanic representation on corporate boards and in executive suites, doing so as the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He created and co-chaired the Congressional Sex and Violence in the Media Caucus. He was also an animated member of the Military/Veterans Caucus, and participated in the Congressional Diabetes Caucus, the Native American Caucus and the U.S.-Mexico Caucus.
After the 2010 United States Census, California’s congressional map underwent a significant redrafting, and most of the 43rd District was folded into the 35th District, although Baca’s residence in Rialto was placed into the 31st District. Nevertheless, Baca opted to use that provision of federal law which requires only that a Congress member live within the state of the district he represents so that he could remain as the congressman to the lion’s share of the constituents he had been representing, declaring his candidacy in the 35th District. In the 35th it seemed Baca would be safe, given its heavy Democratic and Latino demographics, his incumbency and his name recognition. It appeared that he stood a strong likelihood of remaining in Congress at least until the next reapportionment in 2022, or perhaps beyond that.
Because of these favorable demographics and his incumbency, Baca felt himself to be at liberty to indulge his foray toward what is conventionally considered to be conservatism on at least some issues, his support of Second Amendment gun rights among them. In this way, Baca proudly celebrated his membership in the so-called Blue Dog Coalition, commonly known as the Blue Dogs or Blue Dog Democrats, a caucus of Democratic Congressman who self-identify as political conservatives.
This put Baca at odds with billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the one-time Republican mayor of New York City whose term in office had been marred by recurrent gun violence, and who had become the leader of a crusade to enact stronger federal gun control laws and regulations. In one respect, this put Bloomberg out of step with his own party, and he had unabashedly appealed to Democrats, whom he saw as his allies with regard to effectuating gun control legislation. In 2012, Baca appeared poised to remain in Congress and to comfortably transition into being the House member in the newly drawn 35th District. In that year’s primary election conducted under California’s all-party primary rules in which the top two finishers regardless of party affiliation qualify for the November general election, Baca captured what appeared to be a commanding victory with 12,619 votes or 47.17 percent, as opposed to the 9,078 votes or 33.93 percent picked up by Gloria Negrete-McLeod, a Democratic California state senator, and Anthony Vieyra, a Green Party candidate, who polled 5,58 votes or 19.9 percent. Having outdistanced McLeod in the primary by well over 13 percentage points and figuring he needing to capture less than one-sixth of the votes that had gone to Vieyra in the June election to be victorious in November, Baca was confident that he would return as a member of the 113th United States Congress, the 2013-2014 meeting term of the legislative branch of the United States federal government, and that his reelection in November 2012 would prove a mere formality.
In late September 2012, however, with little fanfare, Bloomberg had an independent political expenditure committee he endowed and controlled provide Negrete-McLeod with $2 million. Outfitted with that money, the Negrete-McLeod campaign went into high gear, purchasing newspaper ads and sending out mailers touting her and her candidacy, augmented with hit pieces demonizing Baca. It was not until the second week of October that Baca and his political team recognized what was upon them. After being rocked back on its heels, the Baca political campaign began to regroup to respond, whereupon Bloomberg three weeks before the close of the campaign gave Negrete-McLeod another $1.2 million. The Baca campaign was yet seeking to get back on track when a final blitz of negative advertisement targeting Baca hit, this time in the form of radio and television spots that buried the incumbent. When the votes were tallied, Negrete-McLeod had vanquished Baca, 61,129 votes or 54.36 percent to 51,319 or 45.64 percent.
Two years later, Baca attempted to stage a comeback but, having lost the magic of incumbency, he was thwarted in the June 2014 primary when he ran for Congress in the California 31st District, again as a Democrat, placing fifth overall in a seven-candidate race behind two Republicans and two Democrats, including the eventual winner, Democrat Pete Aguilar.
Particularly galling to Baca was that Negrete-McLeod, after a single term in Congress, claiming she was wearying of the transcontinental flights between Washington, D.C. and Southern California every two weeks, opted out of running for reelection to Congress in 2014, instead vying, unsuccessfully, for Fourth District San Bernardino County supervisor, losing to Republican Curt Hagman. Norma Torres, a Democrat and the one-time mayor of Pomona who had gone on to serve in the California Assembly and then acceded into Negrete-McLeod’s state senate position in 2012 when she ran against Baca, filled the void in the 35th Congressional District.
Again knocked from his horse, Baca showed admirable determination in getting right back up, looking to regain office. This time, having relocated his residence to Fontana, Baca was given a political grub stake by wealthy developer Reggie King of Young Homes, who provided Baca with a $20,000 donation to jumpstart his campaign against incumbent Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren in the November 2014 race.
That King was looking to back the displaced congressman in the contest was somewhat remarkable, given King’s penchant for sticking with incumbents in general and his history of backing Warren in particular over the years. Fontana, as much as any city, was of special interest to Young Homes. Having experienced, beginning in the early 1970s, constant if only moderate growth, Fontana in the 1980s captured the imagination of the development community when it approved the 9,100-unit Southridge project. By the 1990s the city was experiencing explosive growth, the eventual upshot of which is that its population has ballooned to 203,000, making it the county’s second largest city population-wise. King and Young Homes had solid reason to stay on the good side of the political leadership in Fontana, including Warren. Yet something had begun to drive a wedge between King and Warren. Perhaps it was because of Fontana officials’ incipient reluctance to accommodate further growth after they had belatedly begun to recognize the growing pains of a municipality that had overleapt its existing infrastructure and which was expanding too much too fast, and they were looking to put the brakes on future development. Or maybe in sizing up the two, King had concluded that Baca, the one-time congressman with national, state and local interests beholden to him for the legislation he carried and the votes he made, was simply a faster and stronger political racehorse than Warren, whose political horizon ended at the Fontana City Limits.
Whatever the reason, King was in contact with Baca and pushed him into running for Fontana mayor.
Baca, an old political hand, calculated that he would need to hustle, raise money to equal or match Warren’s and limit, to the extent he could, her political reach by beating her to the punch in capturing campaign donations from the same set of potential donors who can be counted upon to bankroll local political races. King’s overture matched up with Baca’s calculation in every particular. Confident in King’s backing and that of others King could with a flick of his wrist line up for him, Baca jumped in and used the money King had provided to set up the framework of a campaign that would soon be, he believed, flush with money.
While Warren held the advantage of incumbency, her advantage was not an insurmountable one, Baca believed. She had nowhere near the political track record Baca could claim, and she had been able to climb no further up the chain than local municipal office, having lost in a previous stab at being elected to the California Assembly. And though she had fundraising capability, one of her major donors over the years had been King, and he now seemed, by virtue of his willingness to advance Baca $20,000, signaling that she might not be as well funded in 2014 as she had been previously. Moreover, King was capable of putting the arm on other donors to get them to back Baca and forsake Warren.
Baca went all in, but as August became September, and September turned into October, further backing from King or the other major players in the development community failed to materialize. Rather, a rapprochement of some sort took place between King and Warren to the extent that King came through with $50,000 for the incumbent mayor. Warren collected, prior to the election, $173,622 in donations for her reelection bid that year, and another $20,000 after the election. In addition to the $50,000 from King, Warren was provided with $10,000 from Hae Park, the owner of the Bel Air Swap Meet, $10,000 from YKA Development Group President Yoon Kim, $2,500 from Lewis Investment Company of Upland, $5,000 from Frontier Finance Company of Rancho Cucamonga, $3,000 from Burrtec Waste Systems, $5,000 from the San Bernardino Professional Firefighters Association, $1,500 from F.F. Gomez, Inc. of Whittier, $10,000 from Richland Management of Irvine, $10,000 from David Wiener, and $2,500 from Kirk Jensen of Upland. Baca was never able to get his mayoral election effort off the ground, and after the polls had closed on November 4, 2014, Warren had gathered 10,773 votes or 60.57 percent. Baca finished second, with 3,364 votes or 18.91 percent. Three others, Jason O’Brien, Daniel Quiroga and Luis Vaquera, garnered, respectively 13.66 percent, 4.05 percent and 2.81 percent.
Baca determinedly vied for Congress again in 2016, running in the June primary against Aguilar, hoping to be able to make his way into the November general election against the younger man and perhaps appeal to voters in a toe-to-toe slugfest in which he might make a case that his considerably greater experience and longer list of contacts in the nation’s capital would be more advantageous to the district than Aguilar’s. Well before he declared his candidacy, Baca changed parties, saying he had come to identify with the GOP in that it reflected his “core Christian” values. But though Baca made a stronger showing in 2016 than he had in 2014, Republican Paul Chabot was able to capture second place, shutting Baca, who finished third among five candidates, out of the general election.
In August 2016, Baca changed his voter registration from Republican to no party preference. Two months ago, he re-registered as a Democrat. He has now filed papers to run for Congress once more. This time, he will not run in the 31st District, as he did in 2014 and 2016, but will seek the post he lost to Negrete-McLeod, the 35th Congressional District seat now held by Norma Torres.
The 35th at this point is even more heavily weighted in favor of Democrats than when Baca last ran there in 2012. Straddling San Bernardino County and Los Angeles County, the 35th District has 102,258 registered Democrats within it inside San Bernardino County, or 48.5 percent of the district’s voters there. On the San Bernardino side of the 35th District divide, 44,983 or 21.4 percent of the voters are registered Republicans. In that portion of the 35th District in Los Angeles County, the Democrats’ registration advantage over the Republicans is even more lopsided than in San Bernardino County.
Torres, 52, was born in Guatemala. She has the strength of incumbency, the same advantage that Baca, now 71, wielded so effectively once he had it over the course of his career until he encountered Negrete-McLeod and Bloomberg. Despite his temporary defection from the Democratic Party and his status as a Blue Dog, he possesses solid Democratic bona fides in one respect, having voted in opposition to the war in Iraq in 2002, the only Inland Congressman to do so. He has a middle school named for him in Bloomington.
Baca did not provide the Registrar of Voters Office in San Bernardino a phone number at which members of the press are authorized to contact him.
The storied political career of Joe Baca, which has soared to significant heights and dived to crushing depths, has yet to close out, as he is making another run for Congress.