As the June 2014 primary approaches, the determination of former Congressman Joe Baca, attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes and San Bernardino school board member Danny Tillman to remain as candidates for Congress in the 31st Congressional District persists, despite the efforts by Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, considered the frontrunner among declared Democrats in the race, and his supporters to dissuade them.
A who’s who of big name Democrats inside and outside California have swung behind the young and energetic Aguilar, largely because they perceive him as possessing the essential attributes to defeat Gary Miller, the incumbent Republican in the 31st.
For that reason, a cross-section of Democrats are pressing Baca, Reyes and Tillman to back out of the race, so that all of the party’s mules can be hooked up to the wagon to pull in the same direction. A surfeit of Democrats in the 2012 race in the 31st contributed in some major measure to a Republican currently representing the district.
Indeed, Democrats consider the 31st District to be one that should naturally have fallen 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, In 2012, however, the Democrats were outmaneuvered by the GOP in the 31st, which like all other Congressional districts in the state had been newly drawn on the basis of the 2010 Census.
Miller defied the odds to gain election in the Democratic-leaning 31st Congressional District last year despite his Republican Party affiliation. Between 2002 and 2012, Miller had represented voters in the 42nd District, encompassing the southwestern corner of San Bernardino County, the northeastern corner of Orange County and the southeastern corner of Los Angeles County, where Republicans held a strong registration advantage. But with the redistricting following the 2010 Census, Miller was left without a district in which to run safely, as Ed Royce, another incumbent Republican, found himself reapportioned into the new 39th District, which commandeered much of Miller’s old 42nd 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. Miller, who resides in Diamond Bar, elected to run in the newly formed 31st District, which encompasses part of Rancho Cucamonga, and stretches eastward across San Bernardino County through a large portion of Fontana, Rialto, Colton, San Bernardino and Redlands. Another Republican, Bob Dutton, joined the fray in the 31st District in the 2012 primary, as did four Democrats – Aguilar, Justin Kim, Rita Ramirez-Dean, and Renea Wickman. 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.
In running in the 31st, the Republican Miller took a calculated risk by vying in a district where Democrats held a slight voter registration advantage over the GOP. But as an incumbent congressman, Miller had a huge fundraising advantage and he was further aided by California’s adoption in 2012 of open primaries, in which the top two-vote getters in the June election, regardless of party affiliation, qualified for the November run-off. In this way, Miller effectively played the Democrats off against one another in the primary, ultimately to the party’s detriment.
In the lull before the 2014 electoral storm, Democrat party leaders appear determined to not allow themselves to be outmaneuvered by the Republicans in the 31st again. They have moved to consolidate their backing behind Aguilar, who outpolled all of the other Democrats vying in the 31st in 2012. By forcefully backing Aguilar early, they were hoping to ward off any Democratic challengers who might divide the Democratic vote next year.
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. In California, Aguilar has pulled in the endorsements of Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
Money is pouring into Aguilar’s political war chest. More attention was drawn to him, ensuring even more contributions, when the Washington-based news organization, Politico, last month named Aguilar one of “50 Politicos to watch in 2013.”
Nevertheless, Baca, a Democrat who was a member of Congress from 1999 until he was ousted by another Democrat, Gloria Negrete-McLeod, last year, and Eloise Gomez Reyes, an attorney and longtime Democratic activist, and Tillman, a school board member and one-time close associate of former California Assemblyman Jerry Eaves, don’t appear to be responding to their party’s signals. All three appear intent on continuing to test whether they have the combination of charisma, existing support, name recognition and overall moxie to get one of the two top spots in the primary and the follow-up to prevail in November 2014. So far they have proven resistant to calls that the party present a united front that is undiluted by competing Democratic candidates, allowing a test of Democratic strategists’ theory that Aguilar can beat Miller in a toe-to-toe slugfest, despite Miller’s incumbency and formidable fundraising capability.
In the cases of Gomez Reyes and Tillman, neither appears to have the fundraising staying power to even begin to hold their own against Miller or Aguilar.
Baca, however, presents a much more difficult challenge. As a former member of Congress, he possesses 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 (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.
At a candidate forum hosted by the Redlands Area Democrat Club at the International Union of Operating Engineers Hall in Redlands on August 24, Baca said he had a proven track record of accomplishment during his seven terms in Congress, including ensuring that the Inland Empire was the beneficiary of $570 million of the spending contained in the federal economic stimulus package approved by Congress during his final term.
He said that if the Democrats are going to coalesce around a single candidate for the purposes of removing Miller from office, “We should send someone who’s effective. We shouldn’t just send anyone back to Washington.” He said he represented knowledge and an understanding of how to get things done in the nation’s capital. The best Aguilar could offer, Baca said, was to offer empty promises “about what he says he will do.”
Aguilar retorted that Baca had already had an opportunity to represent the local area in Congress and had come up short. “Sending the same people back to DC and expecting a different result just won’t work,” Aguilar said.
Gomez Reyes, who has never before sought public office, dismissed both Baca and Aguilar as career politicians who are entrenched in governmental systems that are isolated from the people they serve. “I’m really tired of the politicians,” Gomez Reyes said. “I want servant leaders to be involved in leading us,” she said.