When our founding fathers wrote Article 1, Section 2, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution, they had no idea that a state as geographically expansive as California might one day exist. If they had, they’d likely have added a requirement that House candidates not just live in the state they hope to serve but also in the district within that state that they seek to represent.
But Clause 2 reads simply, “No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.”
Leaving aside a discussion of the word “he” in that clause, the inclusion of a district residency requirement for representatives would eliminate a whole lot of political grief for 21st-century residents of California’s 25th District. It might even help Democrats — who now outnumber Republicans by a steadily increasing margin — flip the district blue for good.
For more than 20 years, local Democratic activists have expanded party registration and built support for our candidates. Our efforts were rewarded with Katie Hill’s election to Congress in 2018 as the first Democrat ever to represent this purple, suburban-to-rural House district straddling the border between Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
So why do Democrats still have a hard time winning in CA-25?
Carpetbaggers*. That’s why.
An Opportunist’s Paradise
Outsiders run in CA-25 because it’s a competitive district and they see it as a venue for building their political profile. And when they lose, they leave … not caring that they’ve left a weakened Democratic candidate in their wake.
In every recent campaign cycle, CA-25 Democrats have endured a veritable parade of interloping political opportunists. In 2016, Bryan Caforio, who at least had the courtesy to move to Santa Clarita from L.A.’s Westside before declaring, won the primary but lost to Republican first-termer Steve Knight in the general election. Two years later, Caforio competed in the primary with Democratic locals Hill and Jess Phoenix. Hill won the primary and then rode the 2018 women’s wave to a November victory over Knight.
After Hill stepped down just nine months into her tenure, Democrat Christy Smith, then serving in California’s 38th Assembly District (which overlaps with about 60% of CA-25), won a plurality in the special election primary but lost the low-turnout special election in May to Republican aerospace executive and former fighter pilot Mike Garcia. She and Garcia also placed one-two respectively in California’s jungle primary contest for the new 2021–22 congressional term.
Smith fended off several Democratic carpetbaggers in that primary, including progressive online provocateur Cenk Uygur and northeast L.A. resident Christopher Smith, who stayed in the race until it was too late to pull his likely-to-confuse-voters name from the ballot. Uygur sold his home in Orange County and moved to the South Bay in Los Angeles County that year while still asserting he was the best choice to represent the people of CA-25. Smith prevailed, but the primary battle left sore feelings among some Democrats, who then sat out the special election.
Ignoring COVID guidelines, setting up illegal ballot collection boxes, and lying about Smith’s legislative history and her position on multiple issues paid off for Garcia — but just barely. He won the November general election by a mere 333 votes in a district that gave Joe Biden a 10.2% margin of victory.
All Politics Is Not Local
As CA-25 Democrats prepare to challenge Garcia in 2022, the Democratic bench has five contenders. Three live in the district. In addition to Smith, there is Ruth Luevanos, a career educator and long-time advocate on public issues, who is the first and only Democrat to win a seat on the Simi Valley City Council. Dara Stransky is a three-year Lancaster resident with no history of political involvement or public service and an online campaign announcement asking people to follow her “for more ways to be awesome and make random political moves!”
There are also two carpetbaggers: Rhoda Nazanin, a San Fernando Valley resident who lives outside the district and who told a local Democratic activist that she has no intention of moving into CA-25 if elected; and La Jolla Navy intelligence veteran and former diplomat John Quaye Quartey, who local activists see as this election cycle’s drop-in-and-damage-the-Democratic candidate. Quartey made no effort to meet with CA-25 Democratic leaders or groups or other public issue organizations before announcing his run, and his online presence is filled with supportive messages from people across the country but virtually none from locals.
Political experts consider Smith and Luevanos the most likely contenders to face Garcia in November 2022.
Quartey also told The Santa Clarita Valley Proclaimer that, while he commends his Democratic opponents for their public service, he thinks they “don’t have the depth” he does.
That not-so-subtle dismissal of an all-woman roster of competitors won’t go over well in a district where women volunteers turned out the vote in Hill’s successful 2018 campaign and where Smith and Luevanos seem to be the ones to beat. Michael Kulka, a local Democrat who is also active in the county and state party, cited Smith’s background in policy analysis at the U.S. Department of Education, work with the Clinton administration, and service as a school board member and California Assemblymember when he observed that Smith was the leading candidate. “She serves the district — not just her party,” he said. Kulka further pointed out that “‘depth’ isn’t just about being in the military. … Voters want to know what our representative can do to help us deal with the problems we face in our everyday lives.”
Jodie Cooper, a Simi Valley resident and the executive vice president of the Simi Valley Democratic Club, also spoke of the need for candidates to reach out to the grassroots community. When she recently contacted Quartey by phone, she learned he had had not reached out to any local Democratic groups. “Do you think we’ll support you when you don’t know us?” she asked, bringing up a 2016 article in the Los Angeles Times where she mentioned “carpetbaggers coming into 25.”
No matter the foolhardiness, no matter the futility — carpetbaggers are poised once again to chip away at the likely Democratic candidate’s margin of victory in CA-25. Once again, political opportunists seem unconcerned about damaging her reputation. And once again, local Democratic activists predict the same outcome.
*I use “carpetbagger” in its contemporary context: “a political candidate who seeks election in an area where they have no local connections.”
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