PALM SPRINGS — On his 47th birthday, Steve Pougnet, the Democratic mayor of Palm Springs, stood at the foot of a kidney-shaped pool and addressed the well-wishers gathered around him. In a backyard in a well-to-do neighborhood here, Pougnet pressed the same argument he’s been making for the past year: that he is the party’s best hope at unseating Mary Bono Mack, a Republican who has represented this area in Congress since 1998.
Pougnet, an openly gay man who married his partner in the brief window in 2008 when same-sex marriages were legal in California, insists this race is vastly different from the five challenges Bono Mack has previously survived. For one thing, he has raised serious money and attracted the attention of Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C, even making it onto the party’s Red-to-Blue campaign, which spotlights the 13 most promising congressional candidates across the country.
“There’s never been a candidate who’s spent money against her,” Pougnet said. “You can’t win with $400,000.” By the end of the first quarter of 2010, Pougnet had raised twice that, or $867,615, almost entirely from individuals. The Bay Area’s congressional delegation has rallied around him, too. PACs affiliated with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Mike Honda contributed to his campaign, while Reps. Jackie Speier and George Miller co-hosted a fundraiser for him in San Francisco. Bono Mack raised $1,330,186 through the same period.
Pougnet announced his candidacy in April 2009, while Democrats nationwide were basking in the glow of Barack Obama’s new presidency, then just four months old. The race in California’s 45th congressional district, as a Republican-leaning district won by Obama, may serve as a clear referendum of how independents and swing voters are gauging his administration. Since the inauguration, voter sentiment has shifted with rising frustrations over health care reform, the collapse of the financial industry and the rise of Tea Party activism.
“They targeted every single district where Obama won,” Bob Richmond, the former chair of the Riverside County Republican party, said about Democrats. “So they were therefore very energetic and excited when they made their plans. Now things have changed and he’s been president for one year and the public is not buying what he’s selling. It’s going to be a lot tougher for them to go ahead and win this district.”
Pougnet is hoping to catch Bono Mack, 48, off guard. His campaign staff say she’s in the district less often these days, now that she’s married to Connie Mack IV, a conservative Republican congressman from Fort Myers, Fla. They also accuse her of not working hard enough to secure federal funding for the district.
Bono Mack’s campaign manager, Ryan Mahoney, declined repeated requests for an interview, referring this reporter instead to her website and Facebook fan page.
But supporters here say she’s well-liked and has high name recognition thanks to her 12 years in Congress and prior marriage to Sonny Bono, whose seat she took after his death in a skiing accident.
“She’s battle-tested, and the worst she’s done is 59 percent in the highpoint of a Democratic year,” Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, said, referring to the 2008 election when large numbers of Democrats turned out to vote for Barack Obama. Obama carried this district by 51.5% to John McCain’s 47 percent.
“Her supporters are mad at this government,” said Richard Oliphant, the former mayor of Indian Wells and current chair of the Coachella Valley Lincoln Club, a Republican group. “He has worn out his welcome, and that will be reflected in this election. He is very disliked, and [so are] his policies and the direction he’s taking to make this a socialist country.”
Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats in the desert here, but GOP registration has steadily declined since 2003, when 48 percent of district voters were registered Republicans and 34% were Democrats. Figures released by the Secretary of State’s office this year show Republicans now account for 42 percent of voters, compared with 38 percent for Democrats. A sizeable group, 16 percent declined to state a party.
“2010 is not the year that the Democrats are going to be able to unseat her,” Kevin Spillane, a Republican consultant with the Stone Creek Group in Sacramento, said. “She’s well-positioned for her district. She is popular. And she’s fared much better than other representatives in California districts in the last few cycles.”
Political prognosticators inside the Beltway agree. The Cook Political Report, Congressional Quarterly and Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia put the race in the “Likely Republican” column. Bono Mack’s supporters say she has a wide base of support that includes independents and gay and lesbian voters.
Both candidates have a weakness in common – the western half of the district, which includes the cities of Moreno Valley, Hemet and Temecula. They hold about half of the district’s votes, yet are culturally and physically cut off from the Coachella Valley. Residents there, on the western side of the San Jacinto Mountains, live within commuting distance of jobs in Los Angeles and San Diego, and share less of an affinity with the tony resort towns in the east. Pougnet says he is trying to raise enough money to buy television commercials on cable stations in Los Angeles as a way of reaching these voters. He also says he plans to open satellite campaign offices there.
“That will be a tough nut for him to crack,” Art Copleston, a Pougnet supporter and the chair of the Desert Foundation for Democracy, said. “On the other hand, people in Moreno Valley don’t know who the hell Mary Bono Mack is. She doesn’t work this district. She works the small communities where her money comes from: Indian Wells, La Quinta, Rancho Mirage.”
Republicans and Democrats alike are expecting the race to get dirty. One of Pougnet’s close friends, Scott Hines – also a married gay father and Democratic politician – was elected in April to the Rancho Mirage City Council by a margin of 11 votes. A group connected to the Riverside County Republican Party used robocalls and direct mailers that claimed Hines would “infect” Rancho Mirage city government. They also noted Hines’ close connection to Pougnet.
Many people in Palm Springs considered the ads an anti-gay attack, and Pougnet called them a precursor of what is to come between now and November.
“That was a hit piece done by the Republican party,” Pougnet said. “That piece was against me as much as it was against Scott.”
“I say, ‘Bring it on.’ I will talk about my family and my children to anybody. We will fight for the future of my children and your children,” he told supporters at his birthday party. The crowd applauded as Pougnet’s husband, Christopher Green, stood by the pool, smiling. Their 4-year old twins, Beckham and Julia, dug into a chocolate cake with American flags and icing that read “Happy Birthday Steve – Our Next Congressman.”
Bono Mack’s campaign released an animated web ad on April 1 titled “Tell Mr. Pougnet to Stop Hiding.” It was a demand that Pougnet stake out a position on the Democratic health care reform bill, as well as a thinly veiled message about his sexuality and a way of linking him to President Obama’s most controversial initiative. Pougnet later told a newspaper reporter he was generally supportive of the legislation, and the Bono Mack campaign bragg
ed on its website it had forced Pougnet “out of hiding.”
Bono Mack has enjoyed support from her district’s gay and lesbian community, thanks to votes against constitutional bans on gay marriage, and efforts to fund the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Act. But many note she did not take a position on Proposition 8, which amended California’s constitution to ban gay marriage.
“She has a very strong presence,” said Art Copleston of the Democratic foundation. “She is known by and large throughout the area because she decorates cocktail parties. The gay community in Palm Springs loves to have her show up at events in skintight dresses cut down to her navel. She walks in looking gorgeous and everyone goes gaga,” he said. “That is one of her strengths.”
Jim Stewart, chair of the Lincoln Club in Palm Springs, said Democrats are looking at the district with an eye to redistricting, and how new lines can be drawn in 2010 that will benefit left-leaning candidates.
“Mary Bono Mack is unbeatable,” he said. “They’re thinking about redistricting. Two years from now, Mary’s district is going to look a lot different. [Democrats] are looking at where voters are going to come out and that’s where Steve Pougnet is going to be running in the next two years.”