Politics

Why activists in these California swing districts are feuding with the national Democratic Party

Lou Vince had been meeting with local Democratic Party activists for months, building a campaign to take on Rep. Steve Knight (R-Lancaster) when he got a phone call from Lee Rogers, the Democrat who had run in the swing district twice before.

Rogers was passing along a message from a member of the Democratic Party in Washington and two members of Congress, including Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chair of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation: Would Vince consider dropping out of the race?

Vince, a Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant and Agua Dulce town councilman, had reported raising a lackluster $26,649 over the previous seven months while a new candidate, attorney Bryan Caforio, had just entered the race, boasting a roughly $50,000 haul in his first week alone.  

"They said, 'See if you can talk to him about whether or not he is willing to get out of the race because we want to have a viable candidate in the race,'" Rogers told The Times. 

Vince didn't drop out after that December call. Saturday he won 82% of votes among local party activists at a pre-endorsement conference, making him the strong favorite to get the California Democratic Party's backing at its convention next month. Caforio's campaign will have to file a formal objection if it wants to bring the endorsement to the convention floor. 

It's a minor step in a campaign to win a congressional seat, but can influence the activists whose efforts can win or lose a race.  

Democrats are eager to oust Knight, a freshman who earned negative headlines and represents the 25th Congressional District in north Los Angeles County and Simi Valley. But first the party's establishment will have to make peace with those local party activists who are upset with Caforio's late entry into the race, his lack of roots in the area and the quick support he has received from national Democrats.

The rift in the 25th District and an ongoing dispute between Democratic party leaders and locals in the Central Valley congressional seat offer an inland California flavor to what is a national trend this year: grassroots activists bucking the establishment.

Caforio raised $138,835 before the year ended, less than a month into his candidacy, according to federal campaign finance filings. He already has been endorsed by six members of California's congressional delegation and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Four members of Congress or their leadership PACs have contributed to his campaign. 

But local partisans are upset that Caforio, a trial lawyer who attended UCLA and Yale Law School, and his wife only recently moved into the district from Los Angeles. Caforio was not registered to vote in the district until late November. 

When the Simi Valley Democratic Club made its endorsement in the race two weeks ago, all 15 voting members chose Vince. 

"There was a lot of negativity about the new guy. He is a carpetbagger," said Jodie Cooper, the club's executive vice president. "[Vince] really made a concerted effort to meet with people and then all of a sudden this guy comes in with money?" 

Cooper said Caforio spent much of his time aggressively attacking Knight for his slow response to the Porter Ranch gas leak but didn't mention other local issues like the ongoing cleanup of a rocket testing site at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.   

For the most part, Caforio's campaign has ignored Vince. 

"This is the democratic process working itself out," said Caforio's campaign manager Orrin Evans. "We are solely focused on the extreme views Steve Knight has and how they are affecting constituents in the 25th District."

Vince's supporters say he is a natural fit for the purple district, which stretches from Simi Valley past Santa Clarita and into the Antelope Valley at the edge of the Mojave Desert. The 25th is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, while 20% of voters list no party preference. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the district by two points in 2012.

Vince is a little league coach, a father of four, a Marine Corps veteran and has worked for the Los Angeles Police Department since 1995.

Despite the grassroots support, Vince, who currently serves as a police watch commander, has struggled to raise the money needed to take on an incumbent. His only congressional endorsement has come from Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and that was before Caforio became a candidate. Still, Vince's list of supporters includes local officials and numerous activists.

"When it comes down to it, our volunteers are going to be the ones knocking on their neighbors' doors," said Vince's campaign coordinator John Casselberry Jr.    

Some Vince supporters, like state Democratic Party delegate Patricia Sulpizio, said they could end up voting for Caforio if he makes it through the June 7 primary and Vince doesn't. But they are disappointed that members of Congress and party leaders are coalescing behind a candidate locals don't know or seem to be endorsing in large numbers.

Vince supporters have accused the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee of meddling in the primary race, which officials have denied. 

"You can buy a seat in Congress if you have money or if you have friends and associates with money, and that is really disturbing to me," Sulpizio said. 

Local Democrats in the Central Valley also have been frustrated with the national party in recent years, said Mark Martinez, a politics professor at Cal State Bakersfield. 

Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) has trounced Democrats for two cycles in the 21st Congressional District despite the party's 16 percentage point edge over Republicans among registered voters. Prominent locals told the Fresno Bee in December that part of the blame fell on the DCCC for micromanaging failed 2014 candidate Amanda Renteria's campaign. 

Fowler City Councilman Daniel T. Parra is challenging Valadao in the primary, but he also has not raised much money. Democrat Connie Perez made a big splash when she entered the race but dropped out less than a month later, in part, Martinez said, because of frustrations with the DCCC over campaign staffing.   

"What you have here is people who think they are masters of the universe," he said. "They are good at reading numbers but they aren't good at reading people." 

The DCCC reputation is so bad in the area that Bakersfield lawyer Emilio Huerta, who entered the race in early January, has been telling voters he was not recruited by the group. 

"It's unfortunate that [the] DCCC doesn't have a good track record here in terms of running successful candidates," Huerta said. "They don't take advantage of local clubs or local committees. They bring their playbook to the table and ignore us local folk."

Huerta, the son of labor icon Dolores Huerta, said he is building a grassroots campaign influenced by the work of the United Farm Workers and his family's deep ties in the area. 

But that didn't help him Saturday, when Parra claimed 82% of votes from local delegates. Huerta said his campaign will file an objection with the state party and seek a caucus next month.

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