Democrats Lori Saldaña and Scott Peters challenge incumbent Republican Brian Bilbray in San Diego’s newly redrawn 52nd Congressional District. Which Democrat stands the best chance to defeat an incumbent who is widely viewed as vulnerable?
In the 2012 election season, there are two major Democratic challengers to the 52nd District Congressional seat currently held by Brian Bilbray. Bilbray, you may recall, was elected to represent the 50th District in North San Diego County in a special election in 2006 to replace Duke Cunningham, who was on his way to jail on a bribery conviction. He was challenged both times by Francine Busby, the Democratic former School Board member who also challenged Bilbray in 2010 and lost.
But things have changed significantly since that 2010 election. California has a new primary system put in place by the voters. Unlike the previous system, where unless one candidate earned more than 50% of the total vote, the top vote getters from each party would advance to the general election in November. This time around the top two vote getters regardless of party affiliation will advance to the November general; unless of course someone earns more than 50% on June 5th, which is very highly unlikely.
Through the state’s redistricting process, the district itself has changed dramatically. The old 50th District extended from Del Mar through Carlsbad, and inland through Rancho Santa Fe and into parts of Escondido. It was defined by the most wealthy and exclusive locales in San Diego County, and was fairly heavily Republican. The new 52nd District, however, shifts to the south, extending from inland Del Mar down through Coronado, and east into Rancho Peñasquitos and Poway. It is decidedly middle class, and is split fairly evenly between Democrats, Republicans, and “Decline to State.”
If ever there was a time for a Democrat to pick up this seat, 2012 would appear to be it.
Last week I had the opportunity to hear both major Democratic candidates, Lori Saldaña and Scott Peters, speak in person, with some extensive one-on-one Q&A time.
Now, I have to admit that my initial inclination prior to last Wednesday (when Saldaña spoke in front of the Ocean Beach Planning Board) was to support one candidate over the other. Now I’m not so sure. You see, most of what I thought about the two candidates was based primarily upon my first impressions of them both. And the thing about first impressions is that they often don’t give you the full picture and can sometimes be rather misleading.
So over the next couple of days I will take a look at each of the major Democratic candidates in the 52nd Congressional District. I have my biases, but I will do my best to hide them and let you, the reader, make up your own mind.
Lori Saldaña, Progressive Firebrand
Lori Saldaña is viewed as the progressive firebrand in this race. She’s the candidate who, if elected, is most likely to quickly establish her membership in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She is a past chair of the San Diego Sierra Club and was a champion of environmental issues in the State Assembly.
In 1999, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the Border Environment Cooperation Commission’s advisory council to work on clean water projects in 10 US/Mexico border states. She’s been endorsed by the National Organization for Women and Emily’s List. 71% of the more than 20,000 members of MoveOn.org in the 52nd District chose Saldaña as their preferred candidate. “You rarely see that kind of overwhelming support,” said MoveOn spokesman Daniel Mintz.
She is underfunded, but has run an unparalleled grass roots campaign, walking the district herself and meeting as many people as she can. It’s the only way she can compete, she says. Her opponents have much greater resources than she does.
According to the Federal Election Commission, Saldaña has brought in $214,005 to her campaign, and as of the last reporting has $96,362 cash on hand. Compare that to the $459,213 in receipts and $251,029 cash on hand for Scott Peters, and $1,037,831 in receipts and $787,310 on hand for Republican Brian Bilbray.
In the money race, Saldaña is well behind. And yet polling data has Saldaña very competitive. According to a recent poll conducted by the public opinion and research firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maulin, and Metz recently released by the Saldaña campaign, the candidate is leading the field with 38% among Democratic voters, compared to 14% for fellow Democrat Scott Peters. The polling memo also says that Saldaña “moves to within a statistical dead heat with incumbent Brian Bilbray when voters learn more about her.”
The poll shows Bilbray in the lead overall with 32%, Saldaña in second with 18%, and Peters trailing in third with 10% of the vote and 31% undecided. It should also be noted that the survey was based on telephone interviews with 504 voters in the 52nd district, and claims a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5%, a pretty significant swing.
Among her strengths, she says, is that she is more representative of her constituency. She comes from a military family of modest means, and as such has been a leader on veterans’ issues in the Assembly. Upon her graduation from college she spent a year as a union carpenter’s apprentice, helping to build the Pacific Beach Post Office.
Prior to her election to the California State Assembly, she was an information technology instructor and researcher at the community college level and for the University of California. She says she left teaching to run for the Assembly because of funding cuts to the programs she taught, and because funding grants that she had won to build computer labs in poor neighborhoods got redirected to other uses.
She has previously run three political campaigns—all for the State Assembly—and was heavily outspent in each, yet she managed to win all three races, which she says shows her strength as a true grass roots candidate. She says that she has not been heavily courted by lobbyists throughout her career in the Assembly (where she has termed out), and has not been so pursued now as a candidate for Congress.
Saldaña supports the causes and initiatives that are supported by your typical Progressive Democrat. She is an ardent supporter of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and will oppose any effort to cut benefits to any of them. She points to the fact that “unpaid healthcare bills are the number one reason people file for bankruptcy.”
“It’s very important that we balance the federal budget, not on the backs of seniors, not on the backs of working class people, not on the backs of low income people, but we make sure that everyone’s paying their fair share,” she said. “40% of the people in Congress are millionaires,” she told the Planning Board last week, “so it shouldn’t be surprising that we have tax codes that favor millionaires.”
“Our tax laws have tended to have more taxes go to working people, and lower tax rates on people with wealth and investments,” she said, specifically pointing to capital gains taxes.
Her critics—including Scott Peters–lambaste her for her failure to vote in favor of Chelsea’s Law, the law written by Assembly member and current candidate for Mayor of San Diego, Nathan Fletcher. The law was named after Poway teen Chelsea King, who, like Escondido teen Amber Dubois less than a year earlier, was kidnapped, raped, and murdered by registered sex offender John Gardner. Gardner is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole after admitting his guilt in the crimes.
The law sought to do three things: To increase the punishment for sexual offenders; to increase the parole time for violent sex offenders who have been released from prison. But perhaps most importantly it sought to more closely monitor those sex offenders, including reforming the methods of evaluation to identify which offenders are most likely to commit more sexually based crimes upon their release from prison, thereby preventing future crimes from happening. Had John Gardner been more closely monitored and examined upon his initial conviction, the argument goes, he might never have had the opportunity to kill Amber Dubois and Chelsea King.
“I support the direction that the author is taking with this bill,” said Saldaña during debate on AB 1844 (Chelsea’s Law) in the State Assembly, revealing that she had a family member who was a victim of rape. When the bill came to the floor for a final vote, however, she abstained, deciding neither to support nor vote against the bill because she says it failed to provide specific funding for the key provision of the law: The enhanced monitoring of sex offenders.
“I strongly support the bill’s intent. But, in good conscience, I couldn’t vote for the bill because it would have given false hope to the victims of these violent sex offenders,” Saldaña said in a release posted on her campaign’s website.
It appears that she is right, despite her opponents’ criticism and their claims that the law is fully funded. It is not. The UT San Diego recently ran an editorial about the fact that the provision, scheduled to take effect on July 1st of this year, will be postponed for two years because, as the UT points out, there is no funding for it in Governor Jerry Brown’s budget. None. Brent King, Chelsea’s father, recently personally lobbied the Governor’s office and insisted that the funding should come out of California’s general fund, to no avail.
Saldaña did the right thing as a state legislator, and now she’s being criticized for it. But the truth is rarely quite as simple as a convenient sound bite.
Last month I asked Scott Peters about how he intended to work with Republicans in Congress that don’t seem to have any inclination to work with him as a Democrat. He was insistent in his confidence that he would be able to find someone to negotiate with in good faith.
I posed a similar question to Lori Saldaña: A recent column in the Washington Post found that this, the 112th Congress, has been truly a do-nothing Congress due to the Republican “leadership.” I asked her, should the Republicans maintain their majority in the House of Representatives, how she expected to be able to get any meaningful legislation done. “It’s going to be very tough,” she said.
“I don’t want to move into the middle,” she said. “If you start giving away the store to these guys who are way off to the far side you’re not going to hold the line on the kinds of programs that we know low income families need to get out of poverty. We’re not going to hold those programs that educators need to make a difference in our schools. They will take it away. They’ll say ‘private schools and vouchers. Don’t fund public education.’”
“Privatization. That’s their answer.”
She says that unless Democrats can once again take the majority in the House the chamber will continue to be “logjammed by design,” that we’ll see Congress ground to a virtual halt like we do now, and there’s not much Democrats would be able to do about it since Republicans would control the agenda.
That might not be the answer that we want to hear, but it is certainly an honest one that reflects the current reality in Washington. But does that reflect someone who can be a consensus builder, even within her own caucus?
When speaking before the OB Planning Board, she tended to be rather rambling and long winded. When asked questions, she would break off on tangents instead of answering them directly, giving long, winding answers that left her audience confused and frustrated. She had a difficult time delivering a clear, concise message on what she wanted to do as a member of Congress. And she went on to variously and repeatedly snipe at her opponents without being asked about them. A few comparisons are fine in order to provide a gauge for voters to measure by. But she repeatedly and randomly brought Peters and Bilbray into the conversation to unnecessary excess.
By the end of her presentation, those in attendance seemed rather exhausted and unfulfilled by the answers she gave: In casual conversation after the meeting had ended (and long after Saldaña had departed), few could remember the specifics of what she had said. To say it wasn’t a banner performance by the political veteran would be an understatement. And I think it’s safe to say that she didn’t make many friends out of the small audience.
Saldaña certainly has her supporters among the progressive Democratic base. But the question is whether she can win in November. That remains unclear. Polling data seems to suggest she can, but polling data—particularly data from a partisan firm—can be somewhat unreliable. Many people following the race say that the more moderate Democratic candidate, Scott Peters, has a better chance to defeat the Republican incumbent—that he has a much broader appeal in a district that is split roughly evenly between registered Democrats, registered Republicans, and “Decline to State” voters (California speak for “independent”).
There is no clear cut answer to that question. Bilbray will have an enormous money advantage over either challenger. Can Saldaña’s grassroots appeal overcome it? Or is Peters’ moderate appeal and superior fundraising ability the clearer path to victory for Democrats in the 52nd?
More on Scott Peters tomorrow.