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California

With little to lose, Orange County Democrats throw support behind Trump impeachment

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) in Tustin in early August.
Rep. Katie Porter looks over a thank-you card for her support of women on Aug. 24, 2019, in Irvine. Porter is among California Democrats who came out in favor of an impeachment inquiry months ago.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

To understand how rapidly the political calculations over impeachment within the Democratic Party have changed, look to Orange County’s congressional delegation.

For months, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was resistant to launching an impeachment inquiry of President Trump, in part out of concern for dozens of members who flipped conservative-leaning districts last year, including seven in California.

But by the time Pelosi agreed to an inquiry following news of a whistleblower complaint against Trump, California’s vulnerable freshmen had already come out in favor of the action.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s announcement, pundits warned of the potential political fallout Democrats in swing districts could face as they attempt to thread the needle between left-leaning activists in their base and the independents and Republicans they can’t afford to turn off. But in Orange County, long a GOP bastion and the symbolic home to the conservative movement, freshman Democrats who publicly supported an impeachment inquiry say they have faced little in the way of blowback.

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On Monday, Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Fullerton) became the last freshman in Orange County to back an inquiry after his colleagues, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine), Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach) and Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano), announced their support months ago.

In a joint op-ed with six other first-term members of Congress from across the country, Cisneros called for new impeachment hearings and labeled the whistleblower allegations, in which Trump is reportedly accused of trying to pressure the Ukrainian president to help him politically, a national security threat. The op-ed, which set off a deluge of similar calls the next day for movement on the issue, followed months of pressure from Democratic activists in his district.

Cisneros’ office has received hundreds of calls a month on impeachment, the vast majority in support of moving forward with the process. During July office hours at his Fullerton office, one constituent showed up with a list of questions to press Cisneros to back an impeachment inquiry. Another implored him, “Don’t hide behind your desk, Gil, stand up and start yelling.”

At an August town hall, he was confronted by a woman pushing him to publicly support impeachment as others shouted, “Come on, Gil!” and “You can do it!”

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“Impeachment is not enough,” Cisneros said at the time, adding that he supported an ongoing investigation by the House Judiciary Committee. “We have to convince minds in the Senate.”

Cisneros, a Navy veteran whose district includes large Latino and Asian American populations and a one-point Democratic edge in voter registration, had been the most circumspect of the Orange County freshmen on impeachment.

George Sams of Placentia talks with Rep. Gil Cisneros.
Rep. Gil Cisneros, right, talks to George Sams of Placentia in July as Cisneros holds constituent office hours in Fullerton.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

In an interview Tuesday, Cisneros said he hoped voters would recognize that the new allegations against the president were a “different matter” of grave concern to national security.

“I’m not going to not come out for impeachment hearings because I think it’s unpopular in California and in my district,” Cisneros said. “I think we will win in 2020. But if for some reason we don’t, I will feel good knowing that I did the right thing, and I won’t second-guess myself.”

California voters so far have shown little appetite for impeachment. A June 2019 poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that although a majority of Democrats supported opening impeachment proceedings, nearly two-thirds of voters statewide felt Congress should continue investigating Trump or move on from the matter altogether. Support for impeachment was even lower in Orange and San Diego counties, home to four of California’s seven competitive districts.

Internal polling memos released by the National Republican Congressional Committee this summer also showed impeachment was unpopular in Cisneros’ and Porter’s districts, including among majorities of independents and undecided voters.

Chris Pack, an NRCC spokesman, said the freshman Democrats’ stances on impeachment undermined the messages of bipartisanship and focus on local issues that they relied on while campaigning.

“Now that they’re in office, they’re obsessed with impeaching the president,” Pack said. “It’s going to put the nail in the coffin to their political careers, because these voters don’t want these members focused on impeachment.”

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But it’s too early to tell whether voters will be inclined to punish their members of Congress for backing impeachment — or if other news events could affect support for an inquiry.

Members like Rouda, who defeated 15-term GOP incumbent Dana Rohrabacher in California’s most conservative-leaning swing district, say they are focused on clearly explaining their decision to constituents.

At a Huntington Beach rotary club meeting last month, Rouda was asked — as he often is — about impeachment. The room was mostly silent as he explained he had announced his support of a formal inquiry weeks before.

“We’ve not ever seen an administration that has such a disregard for the other branches of government,” Rouda said. “I didn’t go to Congress to impeach Trump, but I hold near and dear the oath I took to the Constitution. It’s a sobering moment in your life when you do that, and to discount it, I don’t think it’s fair to you or anybody else in our country.”

Al Clark, an 88-year-old retiree who asked Rouda about impeachment that day, said he was pleased with the congressman’s comments and with the recent news that Democrats were moving forward with an inquiry.

“Our president has committed offenses that are probably impeachable,” said Clark, a longtime independent voter from Huntington Beach who said he supported Rouda because he wanted to put a check on President Trump.

He noted that he and his fellow rotary club members abided by a couple of basic tenets: service above self and truth.

“What I see in the administration today seems to reflect just the opposite,” he said.

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Rouda told The Times last month that he believed many constituents he had talked to seemed to respect his position.

“I don’t think it’s a black and white issue for some people,” Rouda said as he drove from the rotary club meeting to another event. “I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘I don’t agree with where you are on it but I understand how you got there.’”

Rouda’s staff said impeachment was one of the top issues for constituents in the district — the congressman’s office has received more than 1,400 calls, emails and other voter contacts about the topic since May, with nearly all in support of Rouda’s position.

Porter, who was the first of California’s House freshmen to support an impeachment inquiry, reported similar numbers, with more than 1,300 messages received since the beginning of her term and more than 90% of those in favor of impeachment.

Last month, she received loud applause when she told the audience at a town hall held at an Irvine mosque that she had come out in favor of impeaching Trump.

“People said, ‘Well, you know, this might be risky. You might not get reelected,’” Porter said. “I said, ‘I am here to do what’s right.’”

But Porter was frank, telling the crowd she didn’t think the Senate would convict Trump and remove him from office if he were impeached.

“That doesn’t mean we get to be silent,” she continued. “I think it’s important to stand up and speak out if what you’re seeing is people who are disobeying the rule of law. ...To be honest, if the only times I got out of bed were days that I thought something I was gonna vote on was going to pass the Senate, I would have bed sores.”

Porter has raised her profile with her stance on impeachment, a position that could be fruitful for her campaign’s fundraising efforts.

In the quarter ending June 30, Porter reported raising more than $1 million, the most of any House freshman in a competitive district. More than half of that money came from individual donors, including a quarter from those giving less than $200.

Veteran Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says that although general election voters are wary of impeachment, the issue is highly motivating for the Democratic base. She added that candidates hoping to ramp up support among Democratic base voters and volunteers are more likely to back impeachment.

“It’s a very intense issue for activists, younger activists, small-dollar contributors,” Lake said.

Newly elected congressional Democrats in other parts of the state have also been feeling the heat.

Leanna Brand, a professional singer from Simi Valley and a leader of the local chapter of the activist group Indivisible, said she spent nearly every weekend last summer and fall canvassing for now-Rep. Katie Hill (D-Agua Dulce). She made phone calls on Hill’s behalf and sent thousands of postcards to independent voters in the 25th Congressional District, which includes the Santa Clarita Valley.

“We worked our butts off,” she said, making her all the more disappointed when Hill trailed her colleagues in backing an impeachment inquiry.

Before Hill announced her support on Tuesday, Brand said she and others regularly called the congresswoman’s office to urge her to come out for impeachment and requested multiple meetings to discuss it. When she didn’t hear back, Brand drove more than an hour to Hill’s town hall in Lancaster to ask her about her stance.

Unsatisfied with Hill’s answer, Brand said she and other activists were beginning to feel frustrated as they contemplated ratcheting up phone-banking and door-knocking to elect her once again.

When she became aware of the flood of Democrats announcing support for impeachment proceedings, Brand said, she immediately checked for Hill’s response. She was relieved to hear her congresswoman had finally supported an inquiry, going so far as to say that if the whistleblower allegations were true, she would vote to impeach Trump.

“I’m glad that it happened. But I mean, I’m disappointed overall with the fact that everybody seems to be interested in watching their own back,” Brand said. “If there’s backpedaling that happens again, we’ll hit it hard.”


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