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Political change roils Inland Empire

California Republicans face tossups in areas of the state that for years were considered strongholds and easy wins for GOP contenders. The reason: demographics.

“What that they say about history, you know, if you don’t remember it you’re doomed to repeat it,” Rod Pacheco, a former Riverside County district attorney and former member of the state Assembly, where he served as as Republican leader. “The Inland Empire is going through a history lesson.”

The demographic changes have been dramatic. Whites, for example, who were 43.5 percent of the electorate in northwestern Riverside in 2000, will be less than 24 percent in two years.

“All these people started coming in, and they liked that small town character so they adopted that culture,” Pacheco said. “They didn’t bring L.A.’s culture to Riverside… they adopted the culture in the area, and that small town culture is a non-partisan culture.”

Voting data expert Paul Mitchell says a recent trend throughout California has been the migration from major cities, like Los Angeles, into places like Riverside-San Bernardino counties.

The nation’s greatest county-to-county population movement in recent years has been from L.A. County to the Inland Empire, the Riverside-San Bernardino areas, according to U.S. Census Bureau data targeting the 2005-2010 American Community Survey.

Nearly 18,000 people migrated from L.A. to Riverside County, and that county saw roughly another 5,000 new residents from San Bernardino. That’s about 23,000 new residents, from just those two counties in five-years. The largest movement of people from one county to another in the entire nation was from L.A. to San Bernardino, an estimated 44,020 people in total.

Many residents, Mitchell said, moved for lifestyle reasons like more affordable housing.

The result: changes in community priorities and electorate preferences for the Inland Empire. But the Riverside area, Pacheco said, has never been committed to voting along party lines.

“All these people started coming in, and they liked that small town character so they adopted that culture,” Pacheco said. “They didn’t bring L.A.’s culture to Riverside… they adopted the culture in the area, and that small town culture is a non-partisan culture.”

Voting trends in Riverside are unique in the state. The area is characteristically non-partisan and Mitchell says it’s also distinct for consecutively electing African Americans — with Cheryl Brown (D-San Bernardino) replacing Assembly member Wilmer Amin Carter in 2012 — despite lacking a significant African American population.

Republican voter registration in Riverside has less of an edge than it once did, dropping about 7 percent from 2000 to 2012, despite the population explosion and a nearly 10 percent gain in registered voters in the county overall (58.88 percent to 68.53 percent).

“It’s the only district in the state that’s repeatedly elected an African American that doesn’t have a known, regular African American population, like the Compton or Oakland areas,” Mitchell said.

Even though most of the rural south in California is considered conservative, shifting populations and a new set of  district lines could be putting the once predictable Inland Empire seats in tossup territory. Both state parties are taking note, as the New Year brings new opportunities to gain legislative seats.

At the same time the population move occurred, there was a shift in voter registration.

Republican voter registration in Riverside has less of an edge than it once did, dropping about 7 percent from 2000 to 2012, despite the population explosion and a nearly 10 percent gain in registered voters in the county overall (58.88 percent to 68.53 percent).

The GOP still stands as the primary voice for the region in the state Assembly, with only two Democrats claiming seats out of the seven districts representing Riverside, according to the county registrar’s office.

State Republican Party Leader Jim Brulte said both parties need to be cognitive of the impact of the changing populace on future elections, in ways they didn’t have to in the past.

“You know, candidates didn’t really have to work hard in those days, other than in the primaries,” Brulte said about his days running for legislative office in the early to late ‘90s. “There are more competitive seats in the Riverside and San Bernardino counties today than there were prior to the last redistricting, and that’s something both sides have to work hard to get votes, not just Republicans.”

Redistricting’s ripple effect
“Both the San Bernardino and Riverside Democratic Parties have been focused on trying to shift citizens of this area [politically] for a long time, and they’ve finally got the raw demographic percentages necessary to pull it off,” said John Longville, a longtime San Bernardino resident and former Democratic Assembly member serving from 1998-2004. “And of course with the new [reapportionment] lines as well — that had an additional effect.”

Responsibility for drawing district lines every 10 years is now in the hands of a voter-approved Citizen’s Commission, born out of a 2008 act removing from Legislature the power of defining the state’s U.S. congressional, State Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization districts.

“All this kind of synergy created more Republican dominance. All that started to change in these last elections …  the two-decade run of Republicans through the Inland Empire has ended and we’ve reverted back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, and again we can point to reapportionment and the consonance of changing demographics.”

Pacheco, an Inland Empire resident since 1965 and a player in reapportionment in 2001, said drawing new lines in the past was the reason for shifting party representation.

“In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Democrats kind of ruled the roost, got elected all over the place. Then in the very early ‘90s, the population shift contemporaneously connected with the change in reapportionment,” Pacheco said this caused the population to change party affiliation.

“All this kind of synergy created more Republican dominance. All that started to change in these last elections… the two-decade run of Republicans through the Inland Empire has ended and we’ve reverted back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, and again we can point to reapportionment and the consonance of changing demographics.”

Pacheco said Democratic groups throughout the state tried to influence the new independent commission in shaping districts in 2011, but Republicans did not.

“Maybe it was because they were just used to just… simply drawing them,” he said. “So they drew the seats… and low and behold in 2012, all of a sudden what were once solid Republican seats became challenged Republican seats.”

Not only were lines in the area being redrawn, the Inland Empire itself was changing because of population movements and an economic crisis that lead the public to favor a Democratic solution.

Groups in the state are also seeking to make the State Republican Party more inclusive. GROW Elect, a political action committee designed to put Latino Republican candidates in public office, has already been successful in helping to elect several candidates at the local level, the group’s President and CEO Ruben Barrales said.

“The population had gone from moderate to conservative Republicans, to moderate…to some degree liberal Democrats,” Pacheco said. “So, you saw Democrat office holders all of a sudden springing up all over the place—Raul Ruiz who beat Marry Bono, Jose Medina who is in the State Assembly representing a portion of the seat I used to represent, Richard Roth in the State Senate.”

Party adjustment
“The Republicans in the Legislature are a more diverse group after this last election than they were prior to the elections,” Brulte said. “[That’s] the result of Republicans recognizing they have to do a better job of going out and talking to everybody… recruiting candidates who reflect the neighborhoods in which they’re running.”

New districts are expected to provide some security for some conservative candidates in next year’s state senatorial elections. The California Target Book, an almanac of California politics, claims the 28th seat as safe for Republicans.

GROW Elect  also has its sights set on promoting legislative candidates in 2014, like former Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia’s campaign in the upcoming election for the 28th senatorial district, which currently leads in money raised by nearly $5,000.

New districts are expected to provide some security for some conservative candidates in next year’s state senatorial elections. The California Target Book, an almanac of California politics, claims the 28th seat as safe for Republicans.

But redistricting didn’t prove itself to be beneficial for seventh-term incumbent Mary Bono Mack in her bid for a Riverside congressional district. In last year’s election, Bono Mack lost to Democrat Raul Ruiz by more than 12,000 votes, despite outspending him more than $450,000.

The changing demographics of the region might explain Ruiz’s victory.

According to household information assessed by Political Data Inc., nearly twice as many Riverside County Latinos in the November 2013 election voted Democrat than Republican, or about 120,000 votes.

It’s becoming increasingly rewarding for Inland Empire candidates to appeal to the Hispanic and Latino groups. “Melissa Melendez, who has a Latina surname — she’s actually not Latina herself but she has a Latina surname — she benefited from Latino votes in her district,” Mitchell said of the Republican Assembly member representing parts of Western Riverside. “That included a lot of [Latinos] who had moved there from L.A… who had moved to her district and then impacted that race.”

Around the time these groups were coming to the Inland Empire from L.A. in droves, the so-called Great Recession hit. The new population, Pacheco said, was expected to lean toward Democratic during these time because the party’s message was better in tough economic times.

“Somebody preaching the message of government needs to help those who need help… running against somebody who is saying people need to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. Well, who are those people going to vote for?” he said. “The Democratic message played better in tough economic times than the Republican message did.”

Though the nation’s economy is recovering and California now boasts a $2.4 billion budget surplus, the first in nearly a decade, the electorate hasn’t yet recovered.

“The Inland Empire is still depressed financially… I still live there, it’s still tough times out there,” Pacheco said. “I don’t think 2014 is going to help Republicans in the slightest. I don’t see it as a good year, it’s going to be more of the same.”

 


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