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Rep. Ted Lieu speaks to activists working to oust GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher at 'empty chair' town hall

 (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) got a rock star's reception Tuesday night at an Aliso Viejo town hall organized by liberal activists in Orange County who are working to oust Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa). 

Activists invited Rohrabacher to speak but he declined. 

The event instead served as a pep rally for activists and a networking event for the stable of Democratic candidates seeking to challenge Rohrabacher in 2018. 

Rohrabacher's seat has been rated a toss-up by political prognosticators, and some of his challengers have been raising money at a considerable clip despite being new to politics. 

In recent months, Lieu has seen his profile raised among liberals thanks to his brash tweets challenging the Trump administration. 

His appearance Tuesday was largely an opportunity to get local activists motived for the midterm election in 2018, when Democrats have put a special emphasis on capturing a handful of traditionally red seats in Orange County.

"It is your job to make sure people are excited next November as they are right now," Lieu said.

"With your help, what we are going to see when Donald Trump gives his State of the Union address in January of 2019, we are going to see him and behind him we going to see Speaker Nancy Pelosi looking down on him."

Activists from the local Indivisible group have gotten into confrontations with Rohrabacher's district staff and picketed outside his home demanding he host a town hall.

When one member of the group theatrically "served" the congressman with an invitation to Tuesday's town hall, Rohrabacher threw the envelope to the ground.

“Your organization acts like a bunch of fascists,” he said

Kenneth Grubbs, a spokesman for Rohrabacher, said Tuesday the congressman would not attend the town hall.

"He has ample evidence that Indivisible is a partisan group created to disrupt and not serve the public discourse," Grubbs said in an email. "Portrayals of its intentions to the contrary are disingenuous."

Other Indivisible groups, working off a shared playbook, are hosting similar town halls with Democratic members of Congress in areas represented by Republicans who haven't held town halls of their own. 

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Whittier) is scheduled to host a town hall Thursday in Republican Rep. Ed Royce's district at the Fullerton Community Center.

Lieu took questions from audience members about healthcare legislation, allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and tensions with North Korea.

For much of the night candidates looking to replace Rohrabacher roamed the Aliso Niguel High School gym talking to voters. 

Democrats Hans Keirstead, Michael Kotick, Omar Siddiqui and Tony Zarkades were in attendance, as well as Libertarian candidate Brandon Reiser. Democrat Dave Min, who is challenging Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) in a neighboring Orange County district, also showed up.

The number of candidates in Rohrabacher's district both excites and worries Chris Halliwell, a 68-year-old semi-retired business consultant from Huntington Beach.  

She and a group of her friends have started hosting candidates for fireside chats to get to know who is running.

But she said she hopes the many liberal activist groups that have proliferated after the election of Trump do not make endorsements of Democratic candidates before the June primary. 

"I don't want them to go negative on each other. We just need to make sure it is a blue seat," she said. "We cannot splinter; we have to stay united and let the cream rise to the top."

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