California’s ‘Blue Wave’ Freshmen Lay Out First-Term Priorities

(CN) – By the end of Election Day, it was clear the much-ballyhooed blue wave had indeed washed control of the House into Democrats’ hands and wiped dozens of Republican incumbents across the country out of office. Unsurprisingly, the president and many pundits tried to downplay the scope of the Democrat tsunami, even with millions of ballots uncounted and handfuls of races still undecided in California.

Yet over the last two weeks the Democratic wave tumbled and ultimately pried almost every GOP seat left in the Golden State, even claiming conservative strongholds in farming districts and Orange County.

President Donald Trump, who asked voters to “pretend” that he was on the ballot, accused the media of overhyping the Democrats’ gains and of ignoring the possibility that the GOP will likely pick up two seats in the U.S. Senate.

But the president’s tweets can’t hide his party’s monumental collapse in the Golden State: for the first time in decades, Democrats will control each of the seven districts in Orange County and 45 of the state’s 53 House seats.

“It moved from a blue wave to a very strong blue wave by the end of the counting process,” said Wesley Hussey, an associate professor of government at California State University, Sacramento. “Every single victory that the Democrats could have wanted in California happened.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat who represents parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and easily won re-election, says the results prove voters want the House to push back on Trump’s “abuses of power.” He believes the California GOP sealed its own fate by voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act; in fact, he says Democrats could pick up two to four more seats in the state in 2020.

“It was a blue wave; it’s the largest pick-up for Democrats since Watergate,” Swalwell said in a phone interview. “I think in California, you saw incumbents who were just completely unwilling to stand up to the president and were willing to go along with the president to take away health care protections.”

California’s new delegation will feature a collection of freshmen Democrats who must try to find common ground with the Republican-controlled Senate in order to produce real change in Congress – particularly since they come from districts that can’t yet be called fully blue, and all will be up for re-election in 2020.

Josh Harder, District 10

Like Swalwell, Congressman-elect Josh Harder is certain Republican incumbents failed by not making health care a central focus of their campaigns.

In District 10, which covers swaths of California’s agriculture-rich Central Valley, nearly 50 percent of residents are on some sort of Medicaid, according to Harder. Wisely, Harder ran on a platform of expanding Medicare with a promise to target monopolies in the pharmaceutical industry.

The 32-year-old Central Valley native and venture capitalist-turned-junior college professor says he was inspired to run by his brother, who was born 10 weeks early and required surgeries for a pre-existing condition.

“Our campaign was all about making sure folks had access to health care,” Harder told Courthouse News three days after the race was called and he’d ousted incumbent Republican Rep. Jeff Denham.

While Denham attempted to paint Harder as a political newcomer and Bay Area liberal, his message didn’t go far enough with Central Valley voters to earn a fifth term.

Fresh off the victory, Harder is now preaching bipartisanship knowing he won’t have the “luxury” of being distracted by the president’s divisive tweets once in Congress. Harder acknowledges he won by a narrow margin in one of California’s most conservative districts and can’t afford to get lost in a “sea of partisan bickering.”

“We control one-half of one branch of government; the Senate, the presidency and the Supreme Court are still in the hands of Republicans, which means that [Democrats] will need to work across the aisle to make progress on some of these key issues,” Harder said.

Harder says it’s likely that the House will first vote on HR1, a bill aimed at limits on gerrymandering and campaign spending as well as providing new protections on voter rights.

“We’ve got to make sure that the very first thing the House votes on is a bill to restore some faith in our Democracy, that I think we really need,” Harder said.

The Stanford and Harvard graduate also wants a bipartisan infrastructure bill, noting there are 57 bridges in his district rated “failing” by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Mike Levin, District 49

In Southern California, environmental attorney Mike Levin joined other Democratic newcomers in shocking the political world with the sweep of Orange County, the longtime conservative fortress that gave us President Richard Nixon and where President Ronald Reagan kicked off his quest for the White House.

Levin, who represents District 49 in south Orange and north-coastal San Diego counties, called his congressional colleagues from Orange County his “friends” in a phone interview.

The congressman-elect said his expertise as an environmental attorney informs his commitment to addressing climate change in Washington.

Levin has been active in the clean energy industry and said he wants the U.S. to “lead again” on global climate change by working on policies that reduce emissions, improve air and water quality and create a more sustainable path on transportation and energy.

“As a freshman you can’t choose your committees, but I’m hoping to bring to bear my experience in those areas,” Levin, who joined other congressional colleagues last week in calling for the formation of a Select Committee on Climate Change, said.

As for the issue of the storage of spent nuclear waste from the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station beneath the beach – a touchstone issue for constituents in District 49 – Levin says he’s on it.

He said he’s talked with Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office about coming up with stricter safety laws regarding nuclear energy and waste storage and that he will be meeting with Sen. Kamala Harris as well.

“San Onofre is extremely important – it’s critical to ensure a long-term solution to move waste off the coast. But we need to address short-term issues related to canister safety,” Levin said.

Levin said he plans to host his first town hall meeting in January and will hold the meetings monthly.

Katie Hill, District 25

On election night in the 25th District, off in the far northeast corner of Los Angeles County, Katie Hill jumped on the wave and upset another incumbent Republican in Steve Knight. The Democrat’s hard-fought victory, which came as a surprise to outsiders, captured the last GOP-held congressional seat in LA County and set the tone for other Democratic victories in neighboring Orange County.

During her campaign, Hill – a former director of a homelessness services nonprofit in LA – slammed Knight for backing Trump’s tax cut and for voting to repeal “Obamacare.”

But Hill’s main strategy wasn’t just to go on the attack against Trump or the California GOP.

She campaigned on backing clean energy investments, protecting the health care law from repeal, getting corporate money out of politics and backing a revamp of mass transit infrastructure in a district with some of the longest commute times in the nation.

“This is not just about putting a check on Trump but getting things done,” Hill said in an interview. “[District 39] residents are frustrated that Congress has failed to move things forward. They see a lack of bipartisanship and there’s a new mandate for us to get things done now.”

While the Democrats’ legislative agenda has not been set, Hill agrees with Harder that the House should focus on reducing prescription drug costs and passing HR1.

“How will we move forward with health care reform if insurance and pharmaceutical companies are driving the conversation,” Hill said, adding Democrats should focus on “incremental gains” that can affect residents’ daily lives rather than going for massive overhaul bills Trump won’t sign.

The Pelosi Factor

Another initial item for the California newcomers is uniting behind a new House speaker.

After Election Day it appeared that Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the current minority leader from California, was a shoo-in for her second stint as speaker. Pelosi, 78, has said repeatedly she will comb enough Democratic votes by the time Congress convenes and votes for a new speaker in January.

But it appears Pelosi, who served as the only female House speaker from 2007-2011, will have to put her notorious vote-counting skills to work in order to defeat a growing challenge within her own party. Earlier this week, 16 Democrats released a letter saying they won’t vote for Pelosi.

Hussey, the Sacramento State professor, says there is a real chance that Pelosi won’t survive the inner-party challenge.

“If you just look at the pure numbers, I’d say she’s in danger,” Hussey said. “There are a lot of newly elected Democrats who went out of their way in the campaign to say under no circumstance will we vote for [Pelosi.]”

In interviews with Courthouse News, Swalwell, Levin and Hill committed to voting for Pelosi come January.

“I think this election was very much about health care and she was the architect of the [Affordable Care Act],” Swalwell said. “Candidates got elected to Congress because they promised to protect what’s been gutted by the president and Republicans, and the best thing we can do is to keep our best player in the game.”

Levin said, “It’s a very turbulent time for our country and we need stability and leader Pelosi would provide that stability.”

Harder wouldn’t commit to voting for Pelosi, saying he’s “keeping an open mind” and looking for someone who will “actually get things done.”

Democrat Domination

Whether Pelosi becomes speaker or not, California is certain to have Democratic representatives in key committee slots among the 45 total members.

With the flip of Congress, Rep. Adam Schiff from LA County is expected to become chair of the House Intelligence Committee and Swalwell is the top Democrat on the Subcommittee on the CIA.

Swalwell, who also sits on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees and is mulling a potential presidential bid in 2020, says the committees will look to “fill in the gaps” in the Russia investigation and to defend the Mueller probe.

“On the Judiciary Committee, first and foremost, we’re going to protect the Mueller investigation and make sure he’s not fired to just make the president’s case go away,” Swalwell said.

With the ability to subpoena records the Republicans have been shielding over the last two years, Hussey says Democrats will try and “embarrass the president.” But he warned it will be difficult for the House to get major deals signed and that gunning for Trump’s impeachment would be a critical mistake for the Democrats who were elected by narrow margins.

“Impeachment proceedings would be dangerous; impeachment proceedings could re-spin the story and actually help Trump win re-election,” Hussey predicted.

Even with Trump warning on several occasions since the midterms that he will retaliate if Democrats try to investigate the White House, Swalwell says the House will resume its role as check on the executive branch.

“Trump got a free pass every time he trampled all over the Constitution,” Swalwell said of the last two years. “He’s unlike any executive we’ve ever seen.”

Courthouse News could not arrange interviews by press time with the other Orange County winners Harley Rouda and Katie Porter or with Gil Cisneros, who won the 39th District encompassing parts of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.  

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