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In northern LA County, there’s no such thing as a ‘safe’ congressional seat. Enter the 27th District – Daily News


Three hundred and thirty three votes…

Nearly two years after Rep. Mike Garcia’s razor thin but stunning winning margin over Christy Smith for the 25th Congressional seat in northern L.A. County and Ventura County, Garcia finds himself seeking to preserve and expand that margin in a newly redrawn district — District 27. It is not exactly the map he would have preferred.

Translation: He’s said to be among the most vulnerable Republican House members in the country in a seat considered vital to GOP plans to take the majority in Congress.

Welcome to rematch 2022 in L.A. County’s most high-profile purple-ish region, where reelection to Congress these days is no shoo-in.

In the June 7 primary, Garcia is challenged once again by Smith, the former Newhall School District trustee turned assemblywoman for the area, fresh off the lessons of 2020 and hoping that the third time running is a charm.

But Smith, a longtime Democratic presence with deep roots in the area, is not the only one vying for a top-two spot in the November General Election.

Two Democrats, John Quaye Quartey, a local entrepreneur and veteran and Ruth Luevanos, a teacher and a Simi Valley city councilwoman; and two Republicans, David Rudnick, a Lancaster business owner and real estate investor; and Mark Pierce, a federal employee trainer based in Palmdale, have entered the fray. They are challenging Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot and Raytheon executive whose record has spanned much of the pandemic, through Jan. 6, to war in the Ukraine, to inflation, to an epic Supreme Court leak.

Conventional wisdom says it’s a good year for Republicans at the ballot box, with inflation and kitchen-table issues at the core of the public’s concerns. Public confidence in the Biden administration is lagging in a midterm year.

But going into the June 7 primary, this race — along with only eight other Republican-held seats in the country — had been deemed a “tossup,” according to recent assessments, despite the mounds of campaign dollars that have flowed in — Garcia having raised nearly $4 million to Quartey’s and Smith’s roughly $1 million each since last year.

One poll, in April, put Garcia and Smith in the top two positions heading into the primary (California is a top-two primary, meaning all candidates are on the same primary ballot, regardless of party. The top two face off in the November general election). It gave Garcia a slight edge, 47% to 45%, if the race were just between Garcia and Smith. It gave it to Garcia, 47% to 41% over Quartey, if it was just those two.

The 27th, in Context

The purpleness of the new 27th District is not new for the general area. The region — known for its conservative roots and generations of GOP House members — has been trending more Democratic for years, and there are now  52,911 more Democrats than Republicans. But 97,516 voters registered as “no party preference” — independent voters whose numbers belie any claim that either party is a shoo-in.

The district’s mix has made for pickleball-ish back-and-forth over who represents it in Congress — from the grip of Republicans Howard McKeon and Steve Knight, to the 2018 “blue wave” emergence of Democrat Katie Hill, and two years ago back to Republican Garcia, in a win over former Assemblywoman Smith that was as close as they come.

 

What is new is that the 27th Congressional District looks different from two years ago. The state’s citizen’s redistricting commission redrew the district, turning the 25th into the 27th, and taking out a GOP stronghold — Simi Valley — while replacing it with Granada Hills. The district now stretches from Porter Ranch and Granada Hills on its south and north to Lancaster and Palmdale. The redrawn boundaries made the district bluer. Even Garcia acknowledges the realities of being a Republican representing a redrawn district that Biden won in 2020.

But Garcia has defied odds before. Throughout a bitter and divisive battle with Smith in 2020, despite polls showing Smith ahead of him, Garcia won — twice — in the special election to fill Hill’s seat, and again in November running for his current term. His emergence would ultimately be celebrated and endorsed, from California Gov. Pete Wilson to former President Donald Trump.

It was enough to engrain confidence in Garcia, who panned the redistricting commission “for not acting independently” and fueled some tough talk: “I don’t envy anyone looking to run against me and my team,” he said in December, when the new district maps came out.

The confidence remains, as he walks the political tightrope of the 27th.

“This is a district where Biden won by 12%, and it’s not lost on me that I’m technically in the minority as a Republican. But the reason we get elected, and the reason I think I’m staying in this position, is because people realize that, first of all, veterans as well as business leaders and people who have served in this capacity with the interest of serving the country, and not of political parties, is the key right now.”

Campaign signs for Christy Smith and Mike Garcia dot the landscape in the Santa Clarita area Friday, May 27, 2022. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Post-Trump, but familiar themes

Garcia has staked his campaign message on familiar themes: strong national — and local — security, strong border protection, and low taxes while decrying regulation. He touts endorsements from the L.A. Police Protective League, Sheriff Alex Villanueva and the California Republican Party.

While Trump has endorsed him in the past, and he does not “turn his back on” Trump’s policies, he stressed that he doesn’t need that endorsement.

“It’s not required for me to win here, to keep this seat in this cycle.”

He laments the Biden Administration’s “tax and spend mentality.” “We can’t continue to regulate our way out of problems … It just doesn’t work that way. That’s not how our free market capitalist society functions. It’s not how you incentivize people to work.”

He points to his office’s work to help evacuate more than 115 Americans and Afghan allies during what he called the Afghanistan “debacle,” when the Biden Administration withdrew American forces from that country in 2021. He has also pledged to continue pushing back on “defund the police,” the nationwide movement for law enforcement reform following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a White police officer in 2020. “Defunding the police” was the wrong answer he said, adding that he supports more federal funding for law enforcement.

“I took a bold stand against it, knowing that we were on the right side of history, knowing that 90% of our constituents especially do support law enforcement,” he said of his pushback.

That support at the local level, he said, has manifested itself in alliance with L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in a crackdown on marijuana grows in the Antelope Valley, Acton and Agua Dulce.

“The short answer is, I think, is I deserve to be reelected because I’ve done things in the interests of our nation’s security, in the interest of our Constitution and the interest of our reform, foreign policy and national security, but also for our local communities and the security in our neighborhoods.”

Smith’s loss in 2020 came slowly and in roller-coaster fashion. She’d initially been ahead, and watched as each day her lead dwindled. Twenty-seven days after election day, she would concede.

She said issues magnified by the pandemic are at the core of her renewed campaign for the seat, which she began anew back in March of 2021.

“I think there are a lot of things about the COVID crisis that changed how I look at things from a policy perspective,  where we now know that there are significant fractures in our healthcare system and how the government was able to react to the crisis and help keep people safe,” she said.

Smith said the carnage of COVID-19 and the social and economic inequities it exposed fuels her support for Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, an ambitious policy framework that aims for massive investment in environmental protection, universal and free preschool; buffers provisions of the Affordable Care Act and immigration reform; and bolsters affordable housing and the nation’s public health infrastructure.

“I am looking forward to ongoing pieces of that being passed,” Smith noted, if she wins in November. But “at the end of the day, it’s the nuts and bolts of actual day-to-day governance that keeps communities safe, keeps kids in good schools, and makes sure everyone has access to healthcare.”

There’s a moderate strain that runs through her message — a consistency she says that in the last two years hasn’t changed.

“Am I the same person though? Yes. Absolutely. I mean, I’m still someone who is a strong advocate for pragmatic public policy. Can we afford it? Can we achieve it? Does it do the most amount of good for the greatest number of people with the resources that we have available?”

When she launched her campaign this cycle, she premised her message on healthcare as a “right for all,” and she played up her support for labor while touting a vision of social, environmental and economic justice. Garcia has slammed Smith for marching to “defund the police” and re-imagining law enforcement. Smith said she is not for “defunding the police,” but instead for policies that don’t put the onus on law enforcement to deal with addiction and mental health issues “that take time away from the kind of policing that we all need for our communities to be safe.”

Just three months before her campaign launched, on Jan. 6, a mob — echoing the frequent and unfounded claims of a fraudulent election made by then-President Trump — assaulted the U.S. Capitol, seeking to disrupt the Congressional certification of the general election in which Biden had won the presidency.

Garcia was among Republicans who voted against the certification of electoral votes in Pennsylvania and Arizona, and was among 175 who voted against a Jan. 6 committee to investigate the matter.

For Smith — and the Democratic Party — the echoes of those votes continue to ripple. Back then, it was at the top of her mind as she slammed Garcia for “cozying up to insurrectionists,” who had “aligned himself with domestic terrorists.”

For Smith now, just days before the primary, it’s still very much an issue, Garcia’s votes representing a “radical deviation from where our core values are as an American public.”

Garcia bluntly pushes back on Smith over Jan. 6.

“They blame all politicians. This is the problem they have. They don’t look at individual accountability. And they try to weaponize days like Jan. 6 against elected officials,” he said. “We’re not going to overturn an election. We’re not going to undo the results,” Garcia said, taking issue with Smith’s critique but alleging that officials in Pennsylvania and Arizona altered the time, place and manner of elections outside the scope of their state legislatures.

He acknowledged that the protest turned into a “heartbreaking,” “violent demonstration” that turned into an invasion. People responsible “need to be held accountable,” he said. But his vote that day, he said, was to “put a bright light on these issues and to convey to the country that it’s not OK to encroach on the Constitution, especially when it comes to an election under the auspices of public safety or COVID.”

Smith, a longtime Democratic player in the region, has garnered support from much of the Democratic establishment, winning endorsements from the Santa Clarita Valley Democrats to the California Labor Federation to a slate of officials including California Attorney General Rob Bonta. That support has translated into more than $825,000 in campaign contributions dating back to last year.

Not the only options

Democrats are also considering other options this cycle.

John Quay Quartey has out-fundraised Smith, with $985,555 in contributions, arguing that Smith, having lost in two cycles to Garcia, “had her chance” to beat Garcia. But underlying that message is the story about himself that he wants to tell — a Navy veteran who served 20 years as an intelligence officer, raised by a mom who grew up in the Jim Crow South and a father who emigrated from Ghana in pursuit of the American dream.

“I am my grandfather’s American dream personified,” said Quartey, a self-described entrepreneur who lives in Santa Clarita with his family.

He weaves that message in with an idea he calls “servant leadership,” seeking to close loopholes in gun safety legislation — a policy push he says is underpinned by the loss of his own brother to gun violence years ago; more access to healthcare; immigration reform; and racial justice — inspired, he said, after watching Jan. 6 unfold. He’s new to running for office — and that’s a good thing, he said.

“I was not blindsided by what happened on Jan. 6 … but when I saw that come to fruition, I knew that now’s the time to jump in, and do something, and have the courage to see this through to run for office and change the narrative in hopes of saving our country.”

He emphasizes job growth in the region, renewable energy, technical education and health care.

Quartey says the fact that he has outraised the rest of the field of Democrats suggests “our message is resonating with people near and far.”

Ultimately, it’s led to what he calls a “rainbow coalition” of support, bolstered by endorsements from Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, and Eric Swalwell, he said.

Ruth Luevanos, also a Democrat, is not an unfamiliar name in the region. As a Simi Valley city council member since 2018, she’s not a stranger to elected office. And as a teacher of more than 20 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District, she has promoted civic education and worked on career development of young people.

Luevano, while lamenting candidates who take “fossil fuel, corporate and law enforcement money” — has positioned herself to the left of Smith, and doubled down on her Latina identity as a connection to areas such as the Antelope Valley, where voters want action on healthcare, environmental justice and immigration reform. Her advocacy of immigrant rights illustrates her progressivism, she said.

“We haven’t seen anyone who has been a champion for those issues,” she said. “I’ve been the one who has been marching for immigrant students … I was the one who did the marches from Camarillo to Oxnard to Lancaster and Palmdale for immigration reform, for a pathway to citizenship.

“People have been waiting 20 or 30 years for immigration reform … We haven’t had it yet … and there are 8 million to 12 million lives that are being impacted and more every single day … We can’t deny the need to address the issue of immigration.”

Luevano acknowledged that she does not live in the newly redrawn district. Under the law, a Congress person does not have to live in the district they are running to represent. But she said is willing to move into the 27th if she wins.

But where Quartey and Luevano want to be an alternative to Smith among liberals, Rudnick — a Lancaster business owner and real estate investor who previously ran in the special election to fill the seat vacated by Hill — wants to be an alternative to Garcia among conservatives. In the special election, he would ultimately endorse Garcia, “because I thought he was someone we could count on.”

But “he turns out to be another SoCal RINO,” said Rudnick, still lamenting a bill introduced by Garcia and Rep. Ted Budd, R-North Carolina, to allow vaccine providers to administer leftover COVID-19 vaccines to individuals eligible to receive the vaccine instead of letting the doses “go to waste.”

Rudnick supported the impeachment of Donald Trump and calls for a cleaner environment, but calls himself a “JFK Republican” — running on his experience as a business owner, eschewing America’s foreign entanglements, and staunchly supporting pro-life policies and the need to decrease the national debt. It’s a mix that he says appeals to independents in the district.

“In the 2019 special election, there were only two candidates that were warning about debt spending, and its consequences of inflation, which destroys our middle- and working-class families. And that was me and Mike Garcia,” he said. “But again, he gets elected and within months he’s voting for all these bailouts, which are unprecedented in American history, since they disrupted the free market cycle.”

Mark Pierce, also a Republican, is running to bring attention to three issues. He wants to make grocery taxes deductible, to fight “skyrocketing” inflation, and to stop insider trading. He points to Congress, which he said exempts itself from insider trader laws. He wants to ban Congress from investing in the stock market while in office — calling out Garcia for not supporting such a ban; and he wants to end lawmaker “earmarks,” a practice he says is on the rise again after Congress recently reinstated earmarks. They are a waste of taxpayer funds, and encourage personal agendas and corruption, he said.

Pierce, a resident of Palmdale, says his campaign message is gleaned from years of working on developing training materials for personnel who award and administer federal government contracts.

“I wanted the issues to be discussed,” Pierce said, adding that he’s asking for no campaign donations and has no illusions that he might be in the top two. But “it bothers me that federal employees have very strict ethical requirements and politicians happily exempt themselves.”

He worries that lawmakers on both sides are making decisions on earmarks “behind closed doors.”

The takeaway

In a year of epic events in the nation and across the world, much is still at play in the 27th.

“This is a race with a lot of cross-currents,” said Lawrence Becker, a professor of politics at Cal State Northridge.

There’s the shifting political demographics of the district, redistricting — and it is a bad year for Democrats, he noted.

“In a race this close, every little bit matters,” Becker said.

Much will depend on the direction of inflation and the economy, housing and food affordability, “dinner table” issues — which is where voters’ minds are right now, he said.

But there are also those big, national issues that hit home that have the power to alter races across the country.

Smith, for instance, spoke of the personal and political positive impact to her campaign after Politico published a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the protection of abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade. Smith said it galvanized support for her campaign.

“Absolutely, I mean this woke up some sleeping voters overnight,” she said, noting that in a past Assembly race reproductive choice was a defining issue that distinguished her from her opponent.

It wasn’t long after the Supreme Court leak was published that groups such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee were putting heat on Garcia for signing onto an amicus brief supporting the petitioner in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case, which gave rise to the draft opinion. It asked the Court to reconsider Roe and its follow-up case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in 1992.

Garcia has stood firm on his pro-life position, agreeing with the court’s apparent majority (based on the draft option) that reproductive rights should return to pre-Roe — up to the states, not protected under the federal Constitution.

“Which is something I’ve said all along … that this is a state’s rights issue,’ Garcia said. “So if Christy Smith wants to make this the primary issue, she needs to run for state Assembly again.”

Such national social issues may not beat out the “dinner table” issues at a time when Americans are worried about the economy and their place in it. But the candidates’ emphasis on such issues could reinforce the candidates’ stands for voters going into the primary and general election, and remind voters of their own partisan leanings, Becker noted.

Bottom line: “I think it’s going to be a close race, again,” Becker said.

The race at a glance:

  • The 27th Congressional District (currently the 25th): Last year’s redistricting took Simi Valley out of the district, and brought in Granada Hills. The new district includes Santa Clarita, Saugus, Palmdale, Lancaster, Acton, Lake Hughes, Granada Hills, Porter Ranch, Stevenson Ranch, Castaic Lake, Agua Dulce, Littlerock, Redman. According to voter registration numbers, the district is 41.39% Democrat and 29.56% Republican. 21.81% of voters — nearly 100,000 — are No Party Preference, according to California Secretary of State data from April. Latino voters make up 33.3% of the citizen voting age population (CVAP); Whites (44.9%); Blacks (10.6%; and Asians (9.5%).
  • The Candidates: Republicans – Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita; David Rudnick, a Lancaster business owner and real estate investor; and Mark Pierce, a federal employee trainer based in Palmdale. Democrats – Christy Smith, former Assemblywoman; John Quaye Quartey, a local entrepreneur and veteran; Ruth Luevanos, a teacher and a Simi Valley City Councilwoman.
  • The Issues: “Dinner table” issues predominate, from inflation and affording housing to jobs. But big-ticket social items loom as well, from reproductive rights to gun control, and Jan. 6, 2020 remains a flashpoint.
  • Something to know about the race: Election observers say it’s a “toss-up,” despite what is expected to be a good  midterm year for Republicans.



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