Voters Set for Turbulent Primary in California’s 25th Congressional District

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (CN) – Standing outside a grocery store, Hal Nissenbaum is exasperated, decrying the state of his city he says has been neglected by corrupt politicians and robbed recently of its brightest political prospect in years.

Nissenbaum says Santa Clarita – part of California’s 25th Congressional District, once a GOP stronghold – is less conservative now but that residents should still be wary of drastic political shifts to the left.

“I’m not much for a Republican-controlled state,” Nissenbaum said in an interview. “But I’m also not a fan of the ultra-liberal trend in state politics.”

Voters in California’s 25th Congressional District will select a candidate to fill a seat left vacant after Rep. Katie Hill resigned amid a federal ethics probe. At a forum in Simi Valley in January, candidates promised to bring jobs to the district and tackle the affordable housing crisis. (Martin Macias Jr. / CNS)

A 23-year resident, Nissenbaum says he will vote in the March 3 primary election to fill the seat left vacant after former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill resigned last year amid an ethics probe over news of her relationship with a campaign aide.

Hill won the hotly contested seat as part of a “blue wave” that handed Democrats control of the House in 2018.

Nissenbaum says the district was robbed of seeing Hill mature into a formidable and truly responsive politician, but voters can still steer the political direction of the district.

They will have that chance in the upcoming primary, selecting both a candidate for the full congressional term as well as a candidate in the special election to fill the empty seat until next January.

Chris Smith, who dropped out of the race this month, says voters are concerned about income inequality, climate change and access to health care. He decided to run after Hill resigned and state Assemblywoman Christy Smith – no relation – was seemingly hand-picked by state Democrats to fill the seat.

“I didn’t see her as a progressive and I felt voters deserved a candidate who would elevate a progressive platform,” Smith said in an interview, adding the assemblywoman has not engaged a broader field of voters, particularly by not participating in debates. “I understand the strategy, but the real losers are the voters. Voters don’t get an accurate representation for who she is.”

Assemblywoman Smith, who flipped her assembly seat from red to blue in 2018, has been endorsed by California Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Los Angeles Times.

“Smith is a centrist, pragmatic Democrat who in just a year in the Legislature has distinguished herself as an elected official more interested in pushing good policy than playing politics, something we’d like to see more often in Congress,” the Times’ Editorial Board said in its Feb. 12 endorsement. “We recommend that voters choose her on March 3, and that they do so twice.”

Other endorsements include the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program, an effort by the party to support candidates in crucial elections.

The lawmaker, whose district encompasses over half the congressional district, said in a statement this week she wants to bridge political divides, not widen them.

“In Congress, I will lead the same way and bridge the gap between both parties to address our most pressing issues, because the residents of the CA-25 and this country deserve results,” Smith said.

A campaign spokesperson said the assemblywoman’s schedule would not allow for an interview.

Over lunch at Crazy Otto’s diner in Palmdale, California, online news host Cenk Uygur — a Democrat vying for the 25th District Congressional seat — said his campaign centers on getting corporate lobbyist contributions out of politics and supporting a Medicare for All plan. (Martin Macias Jr. / CNS)

Cenk Uygur, a Democratic candidate and host for online news company The Young Turks, says the race is still wide open.

Over bites of a sandwich and chili fries at Crazy Otto’s Diner in Palmdale, Uygur said large numbers of Democratic, independent and even Republican voters he’s spoken to support his anti-corruption platform.

“Corporate campaign contributions are bribes, everybody knows they’re bribes,” Uygur said. “I decided to get in so we can fix this system and get our democracy back.”

Uygur supports a Medicare for All plan and won the endorsement of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But the presidential candidate later retracted the endorsement after a backlash from Democrats who said Uygur has made sexist comments in the past.

Uygur said that the attacks are meant to smear him and his record as a progressive, particularly his role in creating the Justice Democrats political action committee. And he scoffed at the LA Times’ endorsement of Assemblywoman Smith.

“The LA Times said that they agree with me, but they prefer civility over actually fighting for change. No one in American history has ever gotten real change by being civil,” Cenk said in a statement. “So the real choice here is between someone who will be politely compliant or someone who will actually fight for the voters for once. And to Christy Smith I ask – what would you actually work with Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump on?”

At a candidate forum last month in Simi Valley, Uygur said he supports tighter gun control laws – an issue highlighted after a deadly shooting last November at nearby Saugus High School – and promised to challenge the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun lobbyists’ efforts to block reform.

Democratic candidate Anibal Valdez-Ortega meanwhile says he backs robust tenant protections and affordable housing construction projects for the district but will also work on issues that GOP voters are concerned about.

“I can reach across the aisle, put party aside and work for people,” Valdez-Ortega said in an interview. “You can’t keep clubbing people over the head and think you’ll get somewhere.”

Immigration attorney and Democratic congressional candidate Anibal Valdez-Ortega says California’s historically conservative 25th District will support a candidate who can put party aside and be responsive to voters. (Martin Macias Jr. / CNS)

An immigration attorney, Valdez-Ortega supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people, decriminalizing immigration and ensuring that people in immigration proceedings are represented by attorneys.

The former tenants’ rights activist said he’d also work to increase political involvement in a district whose talent has been overshadowed by LA industries.

“I want to make sure people understand elections have consequences,” Valdez-Ortega said.

GOP Works To Reclaim the CA25

California Republicans have thrown their financial and on-the-ground support behind Mike Garcia, a former U.S. Navy pilot and businessman with no experience as an elected official.

Garcia says he had a “second calling to serve” after seeing former Rep. Hill champion pro-immigrant policies and proposals that would raise taxes on residents.

“As a patriot, I wasn’t able to sit on the sidelines and just watch the erosion of conservative values,” Garcia said in an interview, adding that his main platform centers on national security, restrictive immigration policies and lowering taxes. “I didn’t want to see what’s happened in California happen to my country.”

Garcia is endorsed by the Ventura County Republican Party, the Los Angeles GOP and former Gov. Pete Wilson.

Former Simi Valley City Councilwoman Barbra Williamson said in an interview outside the recent candidate forum that she backs Garcia in the race because she believes he can be independent.

“He doesn’t bring any baggage from Sacramento and he doesn’t bring any baggage from Washington, D.C.,” Williamson said. “We need fresh blood. We need people who are going to pay attention to people in their district.”

Williamson, who works on Garcia’s campaign, said the Democratic candidates’ support for publicly financed elections resonated with her but that tougher spending restrictions are needed instead.

“I think they ought to put a limit and say, ‘In this race you can only spend $500,000’ and that makes it fair across the board,” Williamson said.

Williamson added that Steve Knight, the former GOP representative for the district, did not do enough for his constituents while in office and was undeserving of Republican support.

Knight, a Los Angeles Police Department and U.S. Army veteran, did not respond to an interview request. In January, he won the endorsement of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield.

Regarding current impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, Williamson said voters from all parties won’t be distracted or dissuaded from voting this cycle.

“I don’t have any doubt that Trump is going to be re-elected by a landslide,” Williamson said. “What’s happening to him with the impeachment, I think it only feathers his nest to get more recognition.”

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