Democrat asks state party to probe Inland Empire campaign

Democrat asks state party to probe Inland Empire campaign
Former Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto) is among the Democrats vying for the chance to unseat Rep. Gary Miller (R-Rancho Cucamonga) next year. (Joe Baca for Congress campaign)

Eloise Gomez Reyes' frustration seemed to leap off the pages of her recent complaint letter to the head of the California Democratic Party.

She described how she had tried repeatedly to address local party clubs about her candidacy for a hotly contested congressional seat in the Inland Empire, only to learn four of those organizations had endorsed a rival, Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar.


The backing, announced by the Aguilar campaign, "suggests that information needed to participate fully in the Democratic Club endorsement process has intentionally been withheld" from other candidates, Reyes, a Colton attorney and first-time candidate, said in her letter. She asked the state party to look into the matter.

Although four Democrats are taking on Rep. Gary Miller (R-Rancho Cucamonga) in next year's June primary, party leaders months ago decided to back Aguilar, funneling endorsements from a bevy of elected officials and campaign contributions his way. That leaves Reyes, former Rep. Joe Baca of Rialto and San Bernardino school board member Danny Tillman with an uphill climb.

Nor can they expect help from the state Democratic Party, which, according to spokesman Tenoch Flores, has no jurisdiction over local clubs and won't make its own endorsements until March. Most observers expect Aguilar to emerge with that backing too.

According to interviews and their campaign websites, the four Democrats differ little on policy matters, and each has strong roots and at least a modest political base in the 31st Congressional District. The biggest issue in this Democratic-tilting, largely working-class district is who has the best chance of beating Miller.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee decided on Aguilar, even though he made an unsuccessful run at the same seat last year. That was a seminal year in California elections, with districts drawn for the first time by an independent commission and a new "top-two" primary system that sent the first- and second-place finishers to the fall ballot, regardless of party.

The four Democrats split the vote, and although Aguilar placed first among his party peers, the two Republicans, Miller and state Sen. Bob Dutton, outpolled him, knocking him out of the race and dashing Democratic expectations for winning the district.

This time, Democrats have made the district a top target in their battle to wrest control of the House from Republicans. So it's not surprising they would choose a preferred candidate quickly, said Shaun Bowler, a UC Riverside political scientist.

"This is what you've got to do — settle on one candidate, [hope to] scare off the others and focus your efforts," Bowler said. "You don't want to have candidates spending a lot of time and money fighting each other.... You don't want to have it competitive within the party."

The risk of such a strategy is giving voters the appearance of backroom dealing and building resentment in the candidates, who resent the party establishment and won't help the primary winner in the fall.

Baca and Reyes insist they can win and said Aguilar already had his chance.

After 12 years in Congress representing much of the area, Baca decided to seek reelection last year in a neighboring district and lost. Now he's offering himself as an experienced lawmaker and known quantity who can beat Miller, whose hard-line record on immigration could make him vulnerable in this heavily Latino district.

Baca said he endorsed Aguilar last time and would have again had he won but now believes "he's not a viable candidate."

He said he's attending events throughout the district and cited his name recognition and accomplishments, including obtaining $575 million in economic stimulus funds for the district.

"Every time there's a crowd of 10 people, I'm there," Baca said.


He said he doesn't "need to raise as much money because I'm known," downplaying the $36,605 cash on hand he reported earlier this year, versus Aguilar's $437,725.

Baca was elected to a community college board four times, then won election to the state Assembly in 1992 and the state Senate in 1998. In Congress, he racked up a more conservative voting record than most California House Democrats, according to Congressional Quarterly's Politics in America.

Reyes is a lifelong district resident, whose first job, at 12, was picking onions with her mother and siblings. She has the backing of Emily's List, a national organization that helps female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. A longtime community volunteer who has worked on other campaigns, Reyes closed her law practice to concentrate on the race and lent her campaign $100,000.

Over lunch recently at the 75-year-old Mitla Café in San Bernardino, Reyes said she would make families her priority and work to bring back jobs to the district, which was especially hard hit by the recession.

"My mom told me I was always fighting for everybody, and that's what I plan to do in Congress," Reyes said.

Aguilar, who has been on the Redlands City Council since 2006, said he can bring " fresh ideas" and a local perspective to Congress. He owns a small communications company and is a fourth-generation resident of the Inland Empire.

Standing near his boyhood home in a modest San Bernardino neighborhood, Aguilar said he has "worked across the aisle" with Republican elected officials "to serve the best interests of middle-class families" and to encourage job growth.

"I don't subscribe to 'you should get one shot and then you should go away,'" he said, rattling off a list of prominent politicians who lost elections before winning big. He calls Miller's election "a fluke."

Tillman did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.