The kickoff to Campaign 2000?

A California congressional primary could be a referendum on gun control, Latino politics, union power -- or on who knows how to turn out 12,000 votes.

Published September 20, 1999 11:30AM (EDT)

Weathermen here have a euphemism for the usual weather: "mostly sunny." But an omnipresent haze, neither smog nor fog, enshrouds the city and its neighbors -- Rancho Cucamonga, Ontario, Colton and Fontana.

The political outlook is just as hazy. As voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect a successor to the late Rep. George Brown, a liberal Democrat in the heart of conservative San Bernardino County, the 42nd Congressional District has been transformed into a battleground for Washington generals. Republicans have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars this decade trying to wrest this district out of Democratic control. Democrats, meanwhile, have consistently sent in reinforcements to bolster Brown, guiding him through two recent elections in which he won by less than 1,000 votes.

Stuck in a no man's land between Los Angeles and the resorts of Palm Springs, the district is the last bastion of Democratic congressional representation in a region now dominated by Republicans. Republicans David Dreier, Jerry Lewis, Mary Bono and Buck McKeon are just some of the those whose districts border the 42nd. Somehow Brown, who died in July at the age of 79, withstood repeated electoral challenges from Republicans hungry to put this seat in their column.

With Republicans holding a slim, five-seat majority in the House, the stakes have been raised. But thanks to a profound demographic shift in the area, Republicans are taking a second look at the race, unsure whether to get into a million-dollar brawl with the eventual Democratic nominee, or save their resources for other pivotal races next fall. The surge in registered Latino voters has given the Democrats a new lease on life in this conservative region.

The fight for the Democratic nomination has turned into a down-to-the-wire battle between two Latinos: Brown's liberal, activist widow, Marta Macias Brown, and moderate NRA supporter state Sen. Joe Baca. The race is being closely watched, and not just by the Democratic and Republican functionaries looking for the next hot House race.

The race is shaping up as a test of even bigger themes with state and national ramifications: Will gun control emerge as a make-or-break issue for both parties? Can the recent resurgence of organized labor make a difference in a close Democratic primary? And can Republicans make any inroads with California's burgeoning Latino population, which voted Democratic 4-1 last fall? Or have Latinos made California Republicans -- who gave the nation Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan -- the minority party in this state for the foreseeable future?

The 42nd Congressional District seems a little like the land that time forgot. Despite a national economic boom, it is plagued by declining industry and reductions in federal defense spending. Federal defense contracts have long provided jobs for residents of the 42nd, which is anchored by Norton Air Force Base. When Norton closed in 1991, welfare rolls skyrocketed. Today, nearly 30 percent of the district's residents receive welfare benefits. The largest employer in the area remains the county of San Bernardino. While nearby areas like Burbank and the San Fernando Valley have bounced back from defense cutbacks by attracting high-tech and entertainment jobs, much of San Bernardino County remains economically depressed.

The cutbacks and base closure have brought a dramatic demographic shift over the last 10 years. More than ever, the district is a bedroom community whose residents trek into Los Angeles or Orange County for work each day, but can't afford Orange County or Los Angeles real estate. By 8 a.m. every business day, a steady 40-mile stream of traffic crawls from the district's western edge toward Los Angeles.

At the same time, the district's Latino population has gone from 18 percent to 37 percent. And, as is the case elsewhere in California, Latinos are overwhelmingly voting Democratic -- the so-called "187 bounce," a surge to the polls by Latinos since Proposition 187 appeared on the California ballot in 1994. The measure sought to eliminate social benefits for undocumented residents, and remove their children from public schools. Though it passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote, the initiative was a clarion call for non-registered Latino voters to register and vote, and for many immigrants to seek citizenship and register to vote. Overwhelmingly, those new voters have been Democrats.

The effects of the 187 bounce in the 42nd district have been dramatic. In 1992, conservative Bruce Herschenson easily carried the district against Barbara Boxer. In 1998, Boxer beat Republican Matt Fong by nearly 20 points.

Brown and Baca are expected to split the Latino vote. But the other big change in state politics, the reinvigoration of organized labor, could boost Baca. Massive get-out-the-vote efforts coordinated by the AFL-CIO have helped wrest districts in the northern part of Orange County, once a Republican stronghold, into the Democratic column on both the congressional and state legislative level. Organized labor has come out strong for Baca, sending hundreds of precinct walkers and engaging in their "labor-to-neighbor" program to help get out the vote.

Some have portrayed the race between Brown and Baca as a contest between old and new Democrats. Brown, a former Chicano activist, is a liberal in the mold of her late husband. She has received endorsements from liberal U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, as well as the Sierra Club and EMILY's List. Baca seems a prototypical Reagan Democrat, adopting a pro-union stand while focusing on law-and-order issues.

But on most issues, the candidates are remarkably similar. Both are pro-choice, and both sound consistent Democratic themes on issues like education, social security and tax breaks for industry and the middle class. The big issue that divides them is guns.

Throughout his career, Baca has taken money from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun groups, and voted against recent state proposals to widen the ban on assault weapons and ban cheap handguns. Brown supports stricter gun controls, and has received the endorsement of Handgun Control, Inc. and its chair, Sarah Brady. In the wake of countless random shootings in recent months, political prognosticators are looking to this race as a test of whether the gun issue will have political legs by November 2000.

In many ways, the race is a perfect test case for the gun issue. While Democrats enjoy a 20 percent registration advantage, the district is unquestionably a moderate one. Party labels mean very little here, especially since California's open primary system was adopted in 1996. Brown has used the gun issue to help rally support among Democratic women, who have proven to be more apt to support gun control laws. Baca, meanwhile, has tried to downplay his NRA support, pointing to a pair of recent state measures he supported requiring trigger locks and minimum age requirements for gun ownership.

For Baca and Brown, victory means targeting voters in the blue-collar heart of the district, in the cities along the Interstate 10 corridor. The freeway is the district's major artery, serving as a link between the golf courses of Palm Springs and the heart of downtown Los Angeles. But the 30-mile stretch of I-10 that bisects the district is dotted with working-class cities, where shadows of past industry are visible from the highway.

"Land here is still relatively cheap," Brown said. "Fifty years ago, this was an agricultural district. Now we grow houses." Like Baca, Brown's campaign headquarters are in the city of San Bernardino. As in much of California, strip malls are the dominant feature of the local landscape. The malls are filled with cheap hair salons, discount stores like J.C. Penney, Payless Shoes and Montgomery Wards. In the residential districts, there are bars on the windows of many of dilapidated A-frame houses. This is where the war for the Democratic nomination is being waged.

Brown is running, she says, "to carry out George's legacy" in Congress. If elected, she will be the third congressional widow in the California delegation, following in the footsteps of Mary Bono and Lois Capps. But unlike Capps and Bono, Brown has made her living as a political operative, working as her husband's field representative for 19 years.

During that time, she earned a reputation as the enforcer for her genteel, warm-hearted husband. "If anybody had a problem, they would usually go directly to George rather than go to her," said one former Brown campaign worker. "Marta was more likely to rip your head off." Brown got her political start fighting the war on poverty, and joining forces with the United Farm Workers in the 1960s. She helped spearhead a local band of Latino supporters for Bobby Kennedy called Viva Kennedy in 1968, before getting involved in a local newspaper, El Chicano. It was there that she met Brown, when he came in for an editorial board meeting at the paper. By 1980 she was working for Brown. Nine years later the two were married.

While Baca was ahead in most early polls, Brown has come on strong, buoyed by her impressive fund-raising totals -- which her campaign estimates will top $450,000 -- and an aggressive mail campaign. When asked to contrast herself with her Democratic opponent, Brown says, "Baca is a strong-arming politician who caters to special interests. I'm going to fight to keep our communities safe and re-energize the local economy."

Baca, 52, has earned a reputation as a centrist during his seven years in the California Legislature. He has lived in the area for 48 years, and spent the bulk of his adult life in politics. He served for 14 years as a community college board trustee before being elected to the state Assembly in 1992. Last year, he won a hotly-contested election to a more conservative state Senate district, much of which is within the 42nd Congressional.

"I've continued to work hard for better wages and benefits for working people," Baca said. "I have also been a strong advocate for the death penalty and stricter sentencing laws like three strikes and the new 10-20-life," law which increases penalties for using a gun in a crime.

Like the other candidates in the race, Baca says the district needs someone who will fight for federal dollars. And while he acknowledges his style and political ambition have rubbed some people the wrong way, Baca says voters should judge him on his record. "This race is not about whether you're liked or what kind of style a person has. It's about being an effective advocate for the people of this district. I have been an effective legislator for my district."

Baca is also no stranger to tough campaigns. Last year, his state Senate race was one of the most hotly contested in California. Democrats and Republicans spent close to $4 million; Baca was hit with more than 25 negative pieces of mail by his Republican opponent. "It definitely takes its toll on you," Baca said of the rough-and-tumble of the campaign trail. "But in the final analysis, I'm the candidate with 21 years public service experience."

Ultimately, as is the case with all special elections, this race will be decided by turnout. The Baca campaign has targeted a cluster of 16,000 voters with Latino surnames who have registered to vote since 1994 and have consistently gone to the polls in subsequent elections. Those voters were singled out as likely Democratic voters who could tip the balance of this election. But the Brown campaign has mounted a formidable direct-mail drive, and the primary is considered too close to call.

Although the fact that the Republican primary is uncontested may slant turnout toward Democrats, Republicans are watching to see how their candidate, businessman Elia Pirozzi, fares in Tuesday's race. The party did not run its strongest candidate, state Sen. Jim Brulte. Despite lobbying efforts from the National Republican Congressional Committee, Brulte opted out of the race, focusing instead on serving as the California co-chair of George W. Bush's presidential campaign.

That left Pirozzi, who is trying to convince Washington that the 42nd District could at last turn Republican. He carried the Republican banner against Brown in 1998, losing by 18 points in an overwhelming Democratic year in California. Now, Tuesday's election is crucial. A second-place finish would send a signal to Washington that he is within striking distance. But if Pirozzi lags in third place, Washington Republicans may save their money for more winnable races.

In spite of the daunting registration numbers, Pirozzi thinks the low turnout will benefit his campaign, and a little help from congressional leadership could ultimately propel him to victory. Pirozzi's base of support, anchored in the western cities of Rancho Cucamonga and Ontario and areas like Grand Terrace in the southeastern part of the district, might as well be in another world from Baca and Brown territory.

Near Pirozzi headquarters are cul de sacs with names like Manzanita and Burgundy. Omnipresent tractors promise more development. As housing vacancies drive down real estate prices in the more blue-collar parts of the district, development in Rancho Cucamonga is booming. Heading north toward the mountains, upscale developments of two-story pre-fab houses are sprouting, all of which seem to be built from the same five or six different models. There are BMWs and basketball hoops in the driveways. Many front yards have American flags hanging from the rafters and some have Pirozzi for Congress signs staked into their neatly manicured green lawns.

Inside Pirozzi headquarters, in a nearby strip mall next to Cucamonga Chiropractic, a small fleet of seven senior citizens are diligently stuffing envelopes. The conventional wisdom says that Brown would be an easier target for Pirozzi, and there are persistent rumors that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would rather see the more moderate Baca get their party's nod, though it is formally staying neutral in the primary.

As a centrist Republican, Pirozzi takes many policy positions that overlap with Baca's. He even received high marks at a recent labor event for criticizing the North American Free Trade Agreement. Unlike many Republicans, Pirozzi says the federal government can "play an important role" in the district's economy.

"We've had absentee leadership in this district for a long time. I think that working together with other Republican leaders like David Dreier and Jerry Lewis, I can make sure this district gets its fair share of federal dollars." Pirozzi also sounds moderate tones on Social Security and education.

Pirozzi has called for a "middle-class tax cut to ease the burden of the mom and pop shops which have felt the crunch of our big industries leaving." But at the same time, he wants to "make sure Social Security remains solvent and pay down the national debt."

While undecided on the issue of vouchers, Pirozzi said, "I think we should investigate and experiment with it." But he recently criticized GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush's plan to take away federal dollars for low-performing public schools, and allow that money to be used for vouchers. "To withhold federal dollars from low-income schools could have a decimating effect on the schools," he said.

In addition to turnout, Pirozzi is also hoping to capitalize on a bloody Democratic primary to help weaken his runoff opponent's standing. Whoever emerges from the Democratic side, Pirozzi seems ready to unleash the "L" word against the nominee. "Marta is very liberal in her views, and I think I can easily show a difference between her and myself. Joe is a ladder-climbing politician, and I don't believe Joe Baca is a moderate."

Political consultants and pundits alike often look to off-year elections for clues to how the upcoming general election may play out. When Democrat Lois Capps defeated Republican Tom Bordonaro in a 1998 special election in the perennial congressional battleground of Santa Barbara, prognosticators said it was an early indication of Democratic strength in California. Similarly, major news outlets from the New York Times to CNN have all descended upon the 42nd in search of clues for next November's election narrative. With its gun-control standoff, the race has been billed as the kickoff to Campaign 2000.

But in the end, the 42nd may not be the best place to read tea leaves, due to the unpredictable dynamics of a special election. Voter turnout is expected to be a paltry 20 percent, and Baca campaign manager Andrew Acosta estimates it will take only 12,000 votes to win the Democratic nomination.

"The person who turns out their base will win this election," said Brown campaign manager Bobi Johnson. "That's always the case, but it's even more important in a special."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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