Praying for a Blue Wave: Harley Rouda works to flip Orange County
Praying for a Blue Wave: Harley Rouda, Democrat running for California's 48th Congressional district seat in Congress, speaks with supporters during his campaign rally in Laguna Beach, Calif., May 20. | Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif.—Driving south past Long Beach down to Harley Rouda’s campaign office in Huntington Beach for an afternoon of precinct walking, it struck me that I was breaching the “Orange Curtain,” that sharp divide between liberal Los Angeles County and steady as a rock Republican territory in Orange County.

And then it hit me: I actually have not heard that term used for quite a few years now. Big changes have occurred in Orange County: With the settlement there of so many immigrants, mostly from Latin America and Asia, and the retuning of the economy away from agriculture to retail, entertainment, education, and high-tech, the demographics of these Congressional districts have shifted dramatically toward Democrats.

The front-page headline in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 13, which I glanced at before I set out, read “Republican PAC bypasses Rohrabacher and Walters.” Speaker Paul Ryan’s Congressional Leadership Fund has omitted Orange County Republican representatives Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher from its funding list, as it parses out who the potential winners and losers will be this cycle. Walters is falling behind Democrat Katie Porter in the polls, and Putin buddy Rohrabacher may be faltering too after 30 years in Congress, although challenger Harley Rouda and he were still locked in at 45-45 percent in the latest reliable polls.

Advertising in the expensive Southern California media market is among the priciest in the country. At some point, the Republican PAC simply had to decide whether or not to continue spending hefty sums on these troubled campaigns. Other PACs and donors are supporting Rohrabacher, of course, so this news does not at all mean that he will go unfunded running up to Nov. 6.

Protecting Rohrabacher

What’s on everyone’s mind, needless to say, is Trump. The entire 2018 midterm election will be interpreted as a referendum on the president, the one way, in the face of craven Republican partisanship, to place a check on White House. Aside from the 48th Congressional District’s demographic changes, a new fly in the ointment has appeared: The Mueller investigation, which has not yet openly charged Dana Rohrabacher, nor named him or subpoenaed him. But Rohrabacher’s fingerprints are all over the Russia collusion probe.

A recent MSNBC segment exploring how the House Intelligence Committee Republicans undermined the investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia is must viewing. It features an interview with California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, member of that committee whose “sham probe,” in Rouda campaign language, “was never about getting to the bottom of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. It was about protecting Donald Trump. And Dana Rohrabacher.”

Republicans released some transcripts of interviews they conducted during the investigation, but significantly not Rohrabacher’s, supposedly out of professional courtesy to a fellow House member. They tried covering their tracks by saying they were also withholding Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s testimony—so bipartisan of them!—but the Florida Congresswoman has said to go ahead and release it, as there’s nothing in it she would not want public. So it’s obviously something in Rohrabacher’s transcript that the Republicans wish to hide from American voters. Release of that testimony could destroy his campaign, and fear of that release is what likely accounts for Paul Ryan’s decision to hold back on further financial investment in his colleague’s re-election.

Rouda calls his opponent “a man who puts partisanship and loyalty to Trump ahead of law enforcement efforts to get to the bottom of corruption and election tampering.”

The enthusiasm over Rouda’s campaign in the 48th C.D. is a product of both the rage over Trump and the profound sense of embarrassment over the constituents’ highly compromised and ineffective Congressman, who in 30 years has gotten only three bills passed.

One precinct walker I met was Nancy W. from Burbank, a prim woman in her 50s doing this kind of pavement-pounding campaign work for the first time in her life. I asked her why she decided to come all the way down to Orange Country (even farther than I traveled) for Harley Rouda, and she told me this story. It turned out there was some long overdue payback involved.

“When I first came to California I had a job with Allergan, owned by Gavin Herbert, who also owned a lot of other companies in Orange County. When the 1988 elections rolled around, the company supplied every employee with a ‘voter guide’ with their recommendations. It was the first time Dana Rohrabacher ran for Congress. Now if your company tells you how to vote, this is not the kind of thing Democrats do. So I made sure to take that voter guide with me to the polls to be sure I voted for anyone else on the ballot besides the names on it. I remember how powerful those guys who owned all those companies were, so 30 years later I can’t let you use my last name.”

New leadership needed

The 48th C.D. hugs the coastal region of Orange County, including the cities of Aliso Viejo, Corona del Mar, Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, Laguna Niguel, Newport Beach, Seal Beach, Sunset Beach, and Surfside, as well as portions of Garden Grove, Midway City, Santa Ana, and Westminster. The district is home to Crystal Cove State Beach and Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, John Wayne Airport, the Orange County Fairgrounds, two small colleges, and two military facilities. Rouda has a number of campaign offices in several of these communities.

Candidate Harley Rouda believes “we’re at a real watershed moment in our nation’s history. Plagued by partisan bickering, extremism, and a politics first mentality, Washington is in desperate need of real, meaningful, and lasting change. Our country and our people deserve better…. The time has come to embrace common sense for common ground.”

A former Republican with a business background—he claims to have turned a small family business “into the fourth largest real estate company in America”—Rouda sometimes comes across as something of a technocrat: “We need new leadership that prioritizes forward-thinking, innovative, well-paying jobs like our growing clean tech industry…. We need new leadership that trusts science, acts on climate change, demands that polluters clean up their mess, and advocates for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) education and a clean energy economy for our future.

“We need new leadership that supports public education for K through 12, and affordable access to higher education. And we need new leadership that is committed to bringing back our federal tax dollars and making our District the economic hallmark of our great country.”

At the same time, he is woke to the social issues that many Americans are concerned about. His policy positions include stopping the “national epidemic” of gun violence; paying a living wage to working people; Medicare for All; protection of the environment “by prioritizing clean and renewable energy like wind and solar, while stopping offshore oil drilling”; “diplomacy first” in foreign policy; support for the Equality Act “calling for non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans”; comprehensive immigration reform providing “a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals” as a “moral imperative” that “is also about family values”; and an end to Citizens United. He has “pledged to not take money from Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, or the Gun Lobby.”

On women’s issues, he is particularly clear: “It’s obvious; women should be treated equally and should have the right to make all decisions about their body and their health. Women also make up nearly half of the labor force, and when women lose income, economic security is diminished for them and their families. We must make sure women are treated equally under the law. As your Congressman, I will fight for equal access, reproductive health freedom, and equal pay.”

In short, Rouda says, it’s “time for career politicians like Rohrabacher to get a real job.”

Rouda’s growing list of endorsements includes organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, League of Conservation Voters, National Association of Home Builders, the Sierra Club, Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, Giffords, End Citizens United, Equality California (EQCA), the Humane Society Legislative Fund, Progressive Democrats of America, and Indivisible—both national and Orange County.

He is also endorsed by the California Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as well as figures such as Barack Obama, Howard Dean, and the two sitting U.S. Senators from California, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.

His labor support is headed by the California Labor Federation and (to date) a dozen or more unions, including Professional Firefighters Associations of Orange County, Costa Mesa, and Huntington Beach, SEIU, Nurses, Steelworkers, Electrical Workers, Painters, Plumbers and Fitters, Laborers, Longshore, and Roofers. All his campaign literature carries the union bug.

An economy that works for all

“As Washington touts economic growth,” Rouda says, “too many Americans are being left in the dust. Republican-led efforts, such as tax-cuts for the super-rich, have prioritized the whims of special interests at the expense of the American people…. To rebuild the middle class, the first step is closing antiquated tax loopholes that benefit outdated industries and the wealthy.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher chats with a supporter at his headquarters in California’s 48th congressional district in Costa Mesa, Calif., June 5. | Jeff Gritchen / The Orange County Register via AP

“I believe our nation’s health care system reflects how we treat each other in times of need. We need to join the rest of the advanced world and finally ensure that health care coverage is a right for every American. To achieve this goal, we must pursue Medicare for All as a long-term solution; we must attend to the nation’s most pressing public health crises, such as the opioid crisis, by prioritizing treatment and prevention efforts and ending the overprescription of painkillers; and we need to empower and expand organizations like Planned Parenthood, who help fill the void of our fragmented health care system.”

Creating “the best prepared workforce in the world” requires investing in education from preschool through college and trade skill apprenticeships. “Increasing access and affordability of a great education is the best way to reverse growing income inequality,” rebuilding a society “where parents can expect their kids to do better and live better than they did…. We need to find solutions that help the 4 out of 10 Americans under 30 struggling to pay off excessive student loans, such as encouraging businesses that help employees pay off their student loans by offering payroll tax deductions.”

Walking the Huntington Beach precinct where Saturday’s team was directed to go, we were provided with the names, addresses, and voter information at homes where we were to try to meet voters. In past campaigns I have volunteered for, those homes were all registered Democrats, and our task was to get out the vote, while in this campaign the names supplied also included Republican voters. I soon found out why.

I climbed up to Apartment E on the second-floor of a complex that looked distressingly like every other one on its block. The front door was open and I could see the blonde woman through the screen. I asked if she was the (Republican) voter I was looking for. “Yes,” she said, “but I’m very busy now, I have a young kid and I’m studying for my master’s.”

“In what field?” I asked, hoping to engage her. “Education,” she answered.

“Oh, terrific,” I said. “So do you know where your Congressman Dana Rohrabacher stands on education? He’s all in with Trump and Betsy DeVos. Votes with them straight down the line. He’s done nothing for education in this district for 30 years. But I think you’d be impressed by what Harley Rouda is saying.”

“Is he for charter schools?” she asked. I couldn’t tell from her tone what response she wanted from me.

“Oh, no, that’s the DeVos crowd,” I ventured. “They want to get rid of public education entirely.”

“OK,” she said, “that’s all I needed to know. Thanks for coming by.”

The Harley Rouda website offers numerous videos, position statements, updated endorsements, links to articles and photos.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.