On Tuesday, July 12 there will be a special election to fill a vacant seat in the United States House of Representatives for the 36th Congressional District in California. For some reason, the race has drawn much less attention and media coverage than did other recent special elections elsewhere in the country. As a result, most Americans — even some voters in the 36th District itself — don’t know much about the candidates or how the race is unfolding.
This post will fix all that, and explain everything you need to know about the CA-36 July 12 election.
Front-runner Janice Hahn, a Democratic city councilmember in Los Angeles, is facing off against upstart newcomer Craig Huey, a small business owner nominally on the Republican ticket but hewing closely to Tea Party and libertarian platforms.
Hahn and Huey emerged as the two top vote-getters in a hotly contested primary election that featured no fewer than 16 candidates vying for a chance to face off in the general election. Hahn was expected to finish near the top, but she was supposed to be joined by her main rival, fellow Democrat Debra Bowen; instead, a brutal primary campaign damaged Bowen just enough to allow a surprise come-from-behind second-place finish by populist outsider Craig Huey.
As expected, Hahn is now leading Huey in the heavily Democratic district, but by not nearly as much as she should be. Hahn claims a 9-percentage-point lead; Huey claims he’s within striking distance at around 2 or 3 points behind; the only poll released so far had Hahn up by a mere 5 points — just within the margin of error.
The race at this point seems to pivot on Bowen voters, who are a large enough bloc to play a kingmaker role. Under normal circumstances, Bowen voters, almost all of whom are left-leaning liberals, would throw their support behind fellow Democrat Hahn. But Hahn’s vicious negative attacks against Bowen in the primary so infuriated liberals that many seem content to stay home and let Hahn fend for herself. And if Huey wins, all the better; Bowen plans to return for another shot at the seat in 2012, and a conservative like Huey should in theory be easy pickin’s for a takedown in a Presidential election year.
Who’s Who in the CA-36 Special Election
Jane Harman — Long-time 18-year Democratic incumbent congresswoman for CA-36. Handily won every election since the district lines were redrawn in 2002 with no challengers ever coming within 25 points of her. Resigned unexpectedly on February 28 2011, abandoning what was likely a safe lifetime seat in Congress to instead take a job at a think-tank.
Debra Bowen — Presumed heir-apparent to Harman’s congressional seat; had been waiting for years for Harman to retire. The closest match to Harman ideologically amongst the various candidates, she also had high name recognition in the district as she has held various political offices here for two decades. Expected to easily win the primary, she instead was relegated to a humiliating third place after fellow Democrat Janice Hahn ambushed her with vicious campaign tactics. As a result, Bowen lost her place in the run-off election.
Janice Hahn — Well-known Los Angeles Democratic career politician, with extremely high name recognition in the district, having been the area’s City Council representative for many years. Expected to come in second against Debra Bowen in the primary, and then to lose against her in the run-off election, Hahn instead knocked Bowen out of the race with aggressive negative campaigning, opening the door to a little known Tea Party candidate to sneak into second and thus into the general election.
Craig Huey — Shock second-place finisher in the primary election, he even came close to taking first place overall. A political newcomer who was a complete unknown until his surprise out-of-the-blue victory, Huey successfully positioned himself as the Tea Party candidate, calling for smaller government, deficit reduction, lower taxes and budgetary restraint. Running as a Republican against Hahn in a strongly Democratic district, he nonetheless has kept the general election close with a strong grassroots campaign.
1992-2010: CA-36 elects Democrats in nearly every election at every level.
Feb. 28 2011: Incumbent Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman resigns her seat to take a job at a think-tank, setting in motion a special election to fill her newly vacant position.
May 17 2011: Primary election; Janice Hahn and Craig Huey emerge victorious amongst a large and contentious field of candidates.
June, 2011: Outside PAC group unaffiliated with the Huey campaign releases offensive YouTube rap video parody attacking Hahn for her support of a program to give millions of taxpayer dollars to convicted violent gang members as part of purported “gang amelioration” efforts. The ad draws national attention but backfires and causes more damage to Huey’s campaign than it does to Hahn’s.
Early July, 2011: The general campaign begins to turn nasty as Hahn, stunned by poll results that show her lead is razor-thin, releases several underhanded negative attack ads against Huey.
July 12, 2011: General election day.
California’s 36th Congressional District covers some of the choicest real estate in the country, stretching along the coastline of Los Angeles County from Venice in the north to San Pedro in the south, including the beach communities Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Torrance, and adjacent areas of Los Angeles city.
The area is strongly Democratic, and in past years has elected Democratic candidates at every level of government, from local to federal, in almost every election. In the time since the current district lines were drawn after the 2000 census, the only Republican who has won a plurality in CA-36 is (of course) Arnold Schwarzenegger, a liberal Republican governor whose mega-celebrity status enabled him to win even in traditional Democratic strongholds up and down the state. But aside from that one exception, CA-36 has been Democratic all the way. Here are some typical results from past elections since 2004 (other races show a similar Democratic tilt):
United States President
2004 Kerry 59.0% vs. Bush 39.6%
2008 Obama 64.4% vs. McCain 33.5%
United States House of Representatives
2004 Jane Harman (D) 62.0% vs. Paul Whitehead (R) 33.5%
2006 Jane Harman (D) 63.4% vs. Brian Gibson (R) 32.0%
2008 Jane Harman (D) 68.64% vs. Brian Gibson (R) 31.36%
2010 Jane Harman (D) 59.62% vs. Mattie Fein (R) 34.74%
Note how even in the “wave year” of 2010 when Republicans won races in Democratic districts all across the country, CA-36 still handed the congressional election to the Democratic candidate by a crushing 25-point margin.
Those who aren’t familiar with the area may not know much about these particular parts of Los Angeles, so I’ll present here a primer on the reputations of selected cities in the district. (These are of course generalizations based on “conventional wisdom,” and are not scientific; take with a grain of salt.)
Venice: A laid-back beach town full of artists, surfers, slackers and hipsters. Very left-leaning.
El Segundo: Home of California’s aerospace industry, with many connections to the Defense Department. The residential areas are modest and working class. Also a former oil boomtown. Somewhat more conservative than other parts of the district.
Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach: Attractive, slightly upscale beach towns. Destination of choice for those who can’t afford a house in Malibu but who are turned off by the conservative politics of similar beach towns in nearby Orange County. Tend to be moderate and mostly apolitical.
Torrance: A very mixed (and surprisingly large) incorporated city within the Los Angeles urban area, ranging from a picturesque coastline to a slummy industrial zone. House prices are cheaper here, and so the area tends toward the lower end of middle class. Politically mixed.
San Pedro: Old-fashioned port town, and a major shipping terminal for the West Coast. Strong longshoremen and union influence, but also unapologetically patriotic, as it was once a Navy town. Solidly working class. An even split politically.
Insta-descriptions of other fringe areas partly in the district:
Wilmington: Mosty Hispanic.
Palos Verdes Peninsula (portions): Wealthy, upper-class.
West Carson: Higher proportion of African-Americans than other parts of the district.
Overall, a hodgepodge coalition of wealthy liberals, young hipsters, union voters, low-wage workers and Hispanics combine to make CA-36 a Democratic district, even though the Democratic vote is fractured among various social sub-groups.
Craig Huey’s message has been economy, economy, economy. He champions the deficit-reduction/low-tax/budget-cutting plans of the Tea Party. He barely even mentions any other issues. Hahn’s response to Huey’s tight and effective campaign has been to bash him repeatedly on a subject which up until that time had not even been on his radar: Abortion. Hahn’s allies on the left have now enjoined a coordinated and relentless campaign to change the subject away from the economy, which is Huey’s strong suit, to social issues, and abortion in particular. Why? Because the district is (like most of L.A.) solidly pro-choice, whereas Huey has in the past expressed a pro-life opinion. The Democrats are hoping this will be enough of a wedge issue to scare voters away from Huey and his tantalizing promise of an economic recovery.
I attended one of Craig Huey’s town hall meetings, and during the question-and-answer session afterwards, one of the audience members (possibly a Hahn agent) directly asked him about his position on abortion. Here was Huey’s reply, which drew an ovation from the crowd:
Craig Huey: “One of the things that has been a part of all this screaming has been the issue of abortion. The first thing is, I believe that the Supreme Court Decision of Roe v. Wade is an incorrect decision as bad as the Drew Scott decision by the Supreme Court years ago about slavery — Dred Scott [correcting himself], thank you.
But the fact is, it’s the law of the land. This is not an issue in this district, it’s not an issue of Congress, it’s not an issue that I have.
What’s my stand on abortion? Well, let me tell you what my stand is. I believe that life does begin at conception. And this is a very personal thing for me. Because, you see, I’d been adopted. And I thank God for the two parents that I had. [Audience applause.] I thank God that I have life. And so what I believe is you promote a culture of adoption, as an alternative.
And so, bringing up the abortion issue is part of the scare tactics. It’s just disgusting to me. I’ve been focused on the economy, because that’s what people are concerned about. They realize that we have no bigger crisis than the economy.”
Craig Huey speaking at a recent townhall meeting
Taxpayer dollars for gang members, and the Turn Right PAC “Give Me Your Cash, Bitch” parody video
Craig Huey was cruising ahead strongly in his campaign and staying effectively on-message when he was blindsided by a bizarre and repulsive YouTube video — made by someone claiming to be his supporter! That someone was named Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., a filmmaker who founded the ill-named “Turn Right PAC” to make a parody video attacking Janice Hahn and her advocacy of a disastrous gang-prevention program that entailed lavishly funding (with taxpayer dollars) violent “ex”-gang members who promised to use the money to discourage kids from joining gangs. Predictably, the program not only failed to produce any measurable effect, but some of the lucky recipients of millions of dollars from the public treasury simply absconded with the cash and went right back to the gang lifestyle.
Craig Huey had not been mentioning any of this in his campaign, preferring instead to focus on his own solutions rather than attacking his opponent, and this strategy was apparently frustrating to Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., who took it upon himself to make his own attack ad highlighting Hahn’s gang payout scandal.
Unfortunately, he thought it would be humorous to hire a pair of Florida rappers to make a satirical song, “Give Me Your Cash, Bitch,” with the “bitch” in question as Janice Hahn in the role of a pole-dancing stripper.
The new video seemed to those who viewed it to be a mean-spirited and bizarre attack out of left field, trading in on unflattering stereotypes of thug life.
The media and left-leaning blogs immediately jumped all over the video, dubbing it “the most racist political ad of all time” among other things.
Craig Huey, who had absolutely nothing to do with the ad, and probably had never even heard of Ladd Ehlinger, Jr. or his plans, learned of the fiasco the hard way when reporters started pestering him about it. Huey himself quickly issued a vigorous condemnation of the ad as “racist, sexist, bigoted,” a repudiation that was even stronger than Hahn’s. Which is not surprising, because Hahn’s team immediately recognized the dunderheaded video as a godsend, something that played into their hands.
From that day onward, Hahn and her surrogates have been mentioning the ad incessantly, trying to tar Huey as a racist by association — even though it was Huey himself who called the ad “racist.”
To this day, the “Give Me Your Cash, Bitch” ad remains the only aspect of this race which has drawn national attention, much to Huey’s dismay.
One last detail, though: Despite backfiring disastrously, the ad (as noted at Slate) did succeed in bringing the money-for-gangs story back to light, and ever since that time, a growing pall of scandal has been cast over Hahn’s reputation as well, as various other media outlets and blogs have followed up on the ugly story which seems to exemplify Hahn’s “no accountability” reputation.
Tongue-in-cheek bumper sticker on car outside Huey townhall
I don’t live in CA-36, but by chance I was passing through Los Angeles recently and decided to check out the race in detail, even (as seen above) attending a Craig Huey townhall meeting. (I would have gone to a Janice Hahn one too, for balance, but as far as I could tell, she wasn’t holding any, or least wasn’t advertising them well enough for me to discover them.)
From what I’ve learned while here, Janice Hahn is the exact kind of party-machine power-hungry politician we need less of these days. It’s not so much her political orientation that bothers me — she’s comparatively “moderate” on the liberal/progressive scale — but rather that she’s unapologetically corrupt. She takes money from both sides of the aisle — developers/corporations on one hand, and unions on the other — then doles out “pay-for-play” favors to her donors once she’s in office:
A substantial portion of Hahn’s contributions come from developers, lobbyists and others with business at City Hall. But she also has had help raising money from prominent Democratic leaders, including former President Bill Clinton; Emily’s List, which supports pro-choice female Democratic candidates; and others. Organized labor also is providing help with precinct walks, telephone banks and efforts to get people to vote.
This commonplace legalized bribery is exactly the kind of smiley-face corruption that has undermined our economy, as politicians from coast to coast fight for porkbarrel earmarks to pay back their local supporters. Since everybody’s doing it, the budget balloons with no one even trying to stop it, and before long we’re over our heads in debt.
Janice Hahn will only add to that problem. I can’t imagine anyone in good conscience voting for her — except for those palm-greasers who are part of the game.
One of the slides in Craig Huey’s PowerPoint presentation.
Craig Huey is mostly a blank slate, but I see that as a good thing. He’s saying all the right things on the economy, which is the only topic that matters these days. His conservative social positions are of little concern to me, because (as he pointed out at the town hall) they’re not anywhere close to being part of the Congressional agenda, except in minor ways which hardly merit my notice.
And most of all, a vote for Huey is a vote against the Obama agenda, and that’s good enough for me.
Also see DaTechGuy’s interesting response to this post: