in California’s elections, progressives try to elbow in

Emanuel Gonzales, a progressive candidate, campaigns in the 32nd Congressional District. (Photo: Gonzales campaign)

On Thanksgiving day of 2017, Audrey Denney and her sister drove past a sign showing that they were approaching Roseville, east of Sacramento.  As they went by, her sister mentioned to her that three women were making runs for Congress. All were young, in their mid-thirties. All were from the Roseville area area. All were running for the first time. “Isn’t that inspiring?” she asked Audrey.

“All the hair stood up on my arm and I felt like somebody punched me in the stomach” Audrey later recounted.

“Why not you?” her sister continued.

“In that moment I knew that it was what I was gonna do next,” Audrey says.

For the rest of their car ride, the sisters went over what it would take for Audrey to run for Congress.

They have varied backgrounds but have one thing in common — their chances of actually winning are very, very small.

They spoke of her background, and her extensive professional experience. Audrey calls herself a “professional problem solver,” an educator who had previously done nonprofit and volunteer work internationally. Together, they looked at the incumbent, trying to find weaknesses. Audrey would be running against Doug LaMalfa, a Republican from the 1st Congressional District who had been in Congress since she was in high school. 

Two months later, in January of 2018, Audrey entered the race. She campaigned for nine months, even when she was diagnosed with a large tumor in her ovary and was forced to go through surgery. Though she was unsuccessful in the general she weakened LaMalfa’s hold on the district, garnering more than $1 million in donations and 131,000 votes.

In the end, she narrowed an early 20% margin of victory for LaMalfa down to 9%. Undaunted, Denney announced her 2020 candidacy soon after.

Audrey’s story is not an isolated one.

There are a growing number of candidates who describe themselves as progressives. They have varied backgrounds but have one thing in common — their chances of actually winning are very, very small. Often they are running against opponents who have been reelected several times before, and have the committed support of local parties and PACs.

“I believe he’s been in office for too long and has gotten complacent” says C.J. Berina of Rep. Brad Sherman, the congressman he is looking to unseat in the 30th District.

Across California, more and more people are opting to run for higher office, seizing onto the theories of change spearheaded by progressives like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

The list of candidates is eclectic; a constitutional lawyer from Pakistan, a single mother and former diplomat, a host of an online news network, a drag queen, plus organizers, activists and individuals from up and down the state. These campaigns feature prominently such popular progressive proposals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, but also rely on a persistent grassroots effort in order to excite voters.

“I think Sacramento is ready for change,” says Ben Emard, candidate for the 6th Congressional District against 15-year incumbent Rep. Doris Matsui. “Over the last forty years Sacramento has not really had a choice when it comes to congressional representation. The incumbents have been a shoo-in every single time, and they’ve got millions of corporate dollars…”

“I believe he’s been in office for too long and has gotten complacent” says C.J. Berina of Rep. Brad Sherman, the congressman he is looking to unseat in the 30th District. “He’s not fighting for us anymore” Berina contends, describing the thousands in donations his opponent has received from defense companies like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

“I think Tony Cardenas has had the opportunity to make lots of good things happen to our community,” says Angelica Duenas, a human resources professional and candidate for the 29th District. “Tony has been our assemblyman, our city councilman, and now our congressman and unfortunately he has not been able to show that his loyalties –his priorities– are the community.”

Arguably the most prominent of these plans is Medicare for All, the plan proposed and popularized by Sen. Bernie Sanders and most recently introduced to the House by Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

Shahid Buttar, a constitutional lawyer in San Francisco looking to beat current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in her home district in San Francisco, goes a step further.

“Incumbent officeholders in California are facing a wave of challengers both because too many incumbents — including Speaker Pelosi — have placed corporate interests before those of their constituents and future generations,” he says. “San Francisco stands well to her left and is ready for a voice in Congress to stand with our city, instead of Washington and Wall Street.”

Another point of uniformity among these progressive candidates is their approach towards policy. While many of the candidates are apt to draft proposals of their own, they stay committed to a few central plans.

Arguably the most prominent of these is Medicare for All, the plan proposed and popularized by Sen. Bernie Sanders and most recently introduced to the House by Rep. Pramila Jayapal. Under the policy, a national health insurance program would be established to provide care to anyone residing in the United States. The program would be comprehensive, providing not only basic medical services, but dental, mental, and vision care, as well as prescription drugs.

“I believe healthcare is the most important subject to create policies around” says Bobby Bliatout, running for congress in the 22nd District. Bobby, the son of Laotian immigrants and a native of the Central Valley, has a personal knowledge of the healthcare industry. He is both the CEO of a Fresno-based nonprofit and the CFO of a set of Sacramento-based clinics, both committed to providing medical care to underserved communities, particularly the southeast asian refugee population that he grew up within.

Over the course of his 16-year career in healthcare, these organizations have expanded to serve some 100,000 patients.

Additionally, his personal experiences with healthcare have indirectly propelled him into politics. 

“I’ve been to more than 60 countries — and I had better access to healthcare in Siberia than I did here in the Central Valley.” Kim Williams,

In 2011, Bliatout was diagnosed with cancer, making him intimately aware of the burden a preexisting condition can place on an individual. When the Trump administration was looking to gut the Affordable Care Act, Bliatout said he realized that some 30,000 of the patients at his clinics would be losing their healthcare. While his organization was trying to find a way to ensure that those in their care with preexisting conditions could find insurance, Bliatout himself offered his services to his congressman, Rep. Devin Nunes, to help combat the problem. When Nunes declined, Bliatout felt compelled to run for office.

All of this has made Bliatout the candidate “a big believer in Medicare for All.”

“Medicare for All is financially responsible. It’s the most economically sound plan that’s out there, and it does what’s right” Bliatout says.

“Right now, 43% of Americans have their health insurance either paid for or managed by the federal government.” says Kim Williams, a candidate in the 16th District. “We’re almost halfway there right now.”

 “I’ve been to more than 60 countries — and I had better access to healthcare in Siberia than I did here in the Central Valley,” said Williams, Williams, a former member of the foreign service. “It is a human right. I don’t know how we can argue for anything less than that. I feel like anything short of a universal system, of a single payer system — there’s just too much of an opportunity to leave folks behind, which is what’s been happening.”

“I think corporate PAC money is legalized bribery, [and] it has a negative effect on our politics.” — Adam Scow.

Alongside Medicare for All, the Green New Deal is another of the most well known progressive policies. The plan is a wide-reaching approach to combating climate change originally pushed by the environmental group Sunrise Movement, and introduced to congress by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward Markey. As the New York Times describes, “The Green New Deal calls on the federal government to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create high-paying jobs, ensure that clean air, clean water and healthy food are basic human rights, and end all forms of oppression”.

Adam Scow, an environmental advocate now pursuing the 20th Dstrict congressional seat, says of the necessity of the Green New Deal:  “Having a background in water and energy issues I know…the problems growing in our state…we need to take major action as a nation to lead the world, to go to renewable energy in the next ten years to make as much progress as possible.”

The progressives not only have ambitions of making structural changes in public services, but in political institutions as well. Many cite campaign finance reform as one of their highest, if not their highest priority should they be elected. Though the proposals vary, the end goal of removing the influence of money from politics is the same.

“I think corporate PAC money is legalized bribery, [and] it has a negative effect on our politics” says Scow. “I think we need a constitutional amendment to clarify that corporations are not people, and corporate contributions are not free speech. However, while we get there, the Democratic party should just lead by example and forgo corporate PAC money.”

Questions still remains how the challengers will win over their districts with such ambitious positions.

“I’ve been waiting all this time for anyone in elected office to say the things that are obvious and essential to fixing our democracy,” says Cenk Uygur, candidate for the 25th District  to fill the seat vacated by Katie Hill. Uygur  made a name for himself as the firebrand host of the online news show “The Young Turks”, and as a commentator on MSNBC. He was endorsed by presidential contender Bernie Sanders, but Sanders hastily withdrew his support amid complaints about Uygur’s demeaning comments about women, Muslims and African Americans.

 Uygur, who is running to fill the seat vacated by Katie Hill this past year, has been a proponent of political reform well before his congressional run. Now that he is looking to pursue elected office, that issue again takes center stage.

“I want to force a national conversation on the issue of money in politics” Uygur says, “over 90% of Americans agree with us, including the overwhelming majority of Republican voters. So we’ve just got to have the courage to start that conversation, and yes, that courage involves calling out fellow Democrats.”

Questions still remains how the challengers will win over their districts with such ambitious positions.

In the 42nd District, currently represented by Republican Ken Calvert, challenger Liam O’Mara has been making the case for these policies for months. O’Mara’s approach towards trying to sell the progressive agenda in a district that has voted Republican for almost twenty years is simple:  speak to their interests.

The style of essentially all of these campaigns is one of grassroots organizing, and progressive candidates would be remiss if they didn’t attend as many events in their district as possible.

Rather than using the moral arguments for policy normally imbued by progressives, Liam looks to sway Republican voters by promoting them in economic terms the voters may be more receptive to.

“A lot of my basic elevator speech starts with: ’I’ll make you richer. I’ll actually let you keep more of your own income,’” O’Mara describes.

“I’ve had conversations with conservative independents and Republicans…and they’ll sit down and say ‘How do you pay for a Green New Deal? How do you pay for Medicare for All? This just doesn’t make sense’…. I sit down and lay out ‘this is how we pay for it, the money is already there, and done this way will actually cost us less than we are paying now.’”

The style of essentially all of these campaigns is one of grassroots organizing, and progressive candidates would be remiss if they didn’t attend as many events in their district as possible.

For candidates like Frances Motiwalla of the 34th District, who spent “thousands of hours in front of grocery stores” organizing for her prior career at a nonprofit, it is nothing new.

The campaigning only gets more involved online, where the candidates are expected to maintain a consistent social media presence. Relevance online can be extremely potent, and progressive candidates will often engage with the rest of left-wing Twitter as a way of gaining momentum. As a result, it’s no surprise that followers on social media are considered just as major a metric of a campaign’s traction as the number of doors knocked or calls made.

Oftentimes, candidates from across the state and the country will not only participate in online discourse together, but will give out endorsements and even organize.

The groups known as Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress are known for recruiting progressive candidates with a certain message (Justice Democrats endorsed CA-53 candidate Georgette Gomez and Brand New Congress endorsed Kim Williams earlier this month).

A recent example, however, comes in the form of the Rose Caucus, a group of various democratic-socialist congressional challengers that follow a unified platform. At present, the caucus only includes three California candidates, Jason Kishineff of CA-05, Ben Emard of CA-06, and Jose Caballero of CA-53, but the roster is growing.

But why the shift in the first place? There are a few factors that can explain the sudden influx of progressive candidates.

On the one hand, the progressive style of politics is in some ways easier to jump into. Because it seeks to forgo traditional forms of funding like corporate contributions or PAC money, individuals who run don’t need to have existing ties with political or business institutions. In fact, they don’t need any political experience at all. The success of individuals like those in ‘The Squad’ shows an alternative route to higher office for those who might be politically active, but not able or wanting to abide by traditional political mores.

Additionally, the ‘Jungle Primary’ system in California, which allows for the top two candidates to advance to the general election regardless of party, is another asset for progressives. For many smaller candidates it means only having to be the second most popular in the primary, and then focusing on the bigger prize later on.

The progressive style of politics is perfect for the optimists, those who don’t want to become career politicians but still want to impart change. It is also ideal for candidates who not only want to push for the general platform, but seek to provide new perspectives to the national discourse.

Examples of this can be found up and down the state.

In the 53rd District, Joaquin Vasquez looks to bring to congress his experiences as the son of immigrant parents who grew up experiencing homelessness and deportations within his family. In the 29th District, Angelica Duenas wants to use her experience as a working class mother. In the 34th District, Frances Motiwalla, a self described “queer woman of color willing to speak truth to power”, wants to employ her time as a peace advocate. And in the 28th District, professional drag queen Maebe A. Girl looks to unseat Rep. Adam Schiff, one of the most prominent Democrats in Congress, to become the first transgender member of Congress ever.

There are presently some 46 simultaneous, progressive and progressive-adjacent campaigns in California alone, including three incumbents and countless more across the country. Among them there is an acknowledgement that many, if not most, will ultimately lose.

The opposition is, at times, both remarkably strong and remarkably well-funded. But the point behind the progressive movement coming out en masse in 2020 isn’t necessarily to propel every single person who runs to victory — it is to run enough people in the hopes that some will win, and that they will have a lasting impact.

Emanuel Gonzales has lived in California’s 32nd District, an area that encompasses parts of the San Gabriel Valley between West Covina and El Monte, nearly his entire life.

A dialysis technician by trade, Gonzales spent the better part of the last election cycle leading the campaign for Proposition 8, “The Fair Pricing for Dialysis Act”. Although the ballot measure ended up failing, Gonzales kept organizing within the dialysis industry. He went on to help unionize workers with SEIU-UHW, and travelled across the country and to Europe with a delegation representing healthcare workers, lobbying for greater regulation.

Back in his community, Gonzales is utilizing both his experience as a health professional and an organizer to run a campaign for congress.

“We have a representative who’s been in office since 1998…and it’s concerning because we haven’t seen anything happening in our community, people don’t even know who she is” Gonzales says. In his view, the district would rather have someone in Congress who is recognized as an active part of the community, somebody who has roots there and understands their interests. Consequently, he believes that they want a representative that pushes for policy that better serves them in their everyday lives. “They want better, more robust social programs, not only in California but all across the country. And I think that’s what’s really pushing a more progressive movement,” he says.

Perhaps, the greatest reason for the rise in progressive candidates like Gonzales, both in California and around the country, is as a reaction to what they see as massive structural problems. The consensus from speaking with more than a dozen candidates around the state is that the ‘progressive wave’ is not the result of any one particular issue. It is not just a result of poor or disconnected leadership, not just a result of the Trump administration, not just a result of a lower standard of living or an inability to address issues like healthcare or the environment. 

It is the combination of all of these and the deep dissatisfaction that they provoke on the part of the public.

As Emanuel Gonzales puts it; “I think people are fed up. I know myself, I’m fed up.”

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