California labor seeks worker-friendly Congress

As early presidential primary results highlight voters’ demands for change, a drive is taking shape to further weaken Republican power in Congress.

Among leaders of that movement is the AFL-CIO, which plans to put even more resources into Congressional campaigns this year.

“We continue to be strongly committed to the presidential race,” AFL-CIO spokesperson Steve Smith said in a telephone interview. “And we look to a great opportunity to strengthen the composition of the House and Senate, so that if we are able to elect a working family-friendly president, there will be support for that president.”

Then, Smith said, it will be possible to go beyond pressing for incremental shifts and achieve “sweeping changes” to benefit working families.

“We are seeing a ‘perfect storm’ of factors that provide the opportunity to do very well in many states in November,” Smith said.

California, with 53 House seats, has the country’s largest Congressional delegation. Several of its 19 Republicans are emerging as prime targets for defeat in November. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of 40 vulnerable Republican-held seats includes three in California.

Topping everyone’s list is the 4th Congressional District, which stretches from the Central Valley to the Oregon and Nevada borders. Republican Rep. John Doolittle, first elected in 1990, announced Jan. 10 that he will not seek re-election. Several possible contenders are reportedly seeking the Republican nomination.

Doolittle has ties to jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He and his wife, Julie, are the subjects of an ongoing corruption probe, including an FBI raid on their Virginia home last April.

In 2006, Doolittle took only 49 percent of the vote, to 46 percent for Democratic candidate Charlie Brown.

Brown, a retired career Air Force officer who is running again this year, is sharply critical of the Iraq war and calls for redeployment of troops. He says that besides a strong military, U.S. security must also include economic and environmental issues, among them ending dependence on foreign oil. He urges effective care for returning soldiers.

Voter ferment has reached this traditionally Republican area. Spokesperson Todd Stenhouse said Brown’s campaign “is revealing what is right with the 4th CD — the thousands who are joining this movement for responsible, effective government in Washington. He’s saying we won’t take the status quo anymore.”

While nothing is official until after the June 3 primary, Democratic Party spokesperson Bob Mulholland said the 4th CD is an obvious priority.

“Any Republican in California needs to be very worried in the wake of what happened in Iowa last week,” Mulholland said. “There is real disillusionment with President Bush and a powerful impetus for change.”

Doug Thornell of the DCCC said Brown “proved to be a strong candidate in 2006” and “has continued to campaign and build on his momentum.”

Doolittle also faces at least one Republican primary challenger.

Two southern California Republicans are also on the DCCC’s “most vulnerable” list. Rep. Brian Bilbray represents the 50th CD, north of San Diego. First elected in the Republican sweep of 1994, Bilbray was out of Congress from 2001 until a special election in June 2006. His staunch anti-immigrant stance includes chairing the House Immigration Reform Caucus founded by rabidly anti-immigrant Rep. Tom Tancredo (R- Colo.)

Bilbray is a leading sponsor of a bill to require employers to verify all their new workers are documented. The measure would boost the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents, intensify aerial border surveillance, and increase detention facilities.

Rep. David Dreier represents the 26th CD, north and east of Los Angeles. First elected in 1980, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the foreign and domestic policies of Republican then-President Ronald Reagan. He chaired the powerful House Rules Committee from 1999 until the Democratic takeover.

Strong emphasis is also being placed on re-electing Rep. Jerry McNerney, a Democrat who catapulted from being a write-in primary candidate in 2004 to decisively defeating longtime extreme right Republican Richard Pombo in November 2006 in the state’s 11th CD, on the edge of the San Francisco Bay Area.

mbechtel @pww.org