13 candidates turn up the heat in inland congressional race

LAKE ARROWHEAD — A hiss rose from the front row as the Republican-turned-independent took a swing at his grand old party.

Voters in Southern California’s vast frontier of mountains and desert can break from the GOP’s “tyranny of the minority” in the June 5 primary, congressional candidate Anthony Adams told the crowd. A hundred or so people, ranging from “tea party” adherents to gay-marriage defenders, had come to hear him and other hopefuls at a forum inside the Lake Arrowhead Resort.

The sneers came from supporters of candidate Gregg Imus, a local home builder, tea partier and founding member of the anti-illegal-immigrant border-patrol group known as the Minutemen. Imus calls government regulations “parasites” and ends his campaign emails with “Victory or Death.”

Scorching rhetoric has been the norm in the free-for-all race for California’s 8th Congressional District. Thirteen candidates — the largest gaggle of any congressional race in the state — are scratching for votes in a solidly Republican area that stretches from Yucaipa and Needles northward past Death Valley and Mammoth Lakes.

Ten of the contenders are Republicans, and at least three of them claim to be the tea party candidate. Two are Democrats. The sole independent is Adams, a former state Assemblyman from Hesperia who survived a recall effort after he voted with Democrats in the Legislature to raise taxes and break a budget stalemate in 2009. With that kind of mix, even leaders in the California Republican Party could not reach a consensus on whom to endorse, so they didn’t endorse anyone.

“You know that cartoon where there is the big dust cloud, and all you see is arms and feet? It’s like that,” said UC Riverside political scientist Shaun Bowler.

The field includes political veterans: Republican San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt and Assemblyman Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley). And newcomers: Democrat John Pinkerton, a high school counselor who built a “green” desert hideaway using recycled tires, and Republican Phil Liberatore, an anti-IRS crusader who plopped $400,000 of his own money into the race. It also includes Republican Joe Napolitano, a 64-year-old handyman who lives east of Barstow.

The new 20,000-square-mile district was created after the 2010 Census, cobbled together from chunks of California represented by Republican Reps. Jerry Lewis of Redlands and Howard “Buck” McKeon of Santa Clarita. Candidates started lining up as soon as Lewis announced in January that he was retiring after more than three decades in office. McKeon is running in a newly crafted district.

Republicans account for 42% of registered voters in the district, compared with Democrats at 33% and 19% registered without a party preference. Republicans in the race are campaigning heavily against what they characterize as out-of-control spending and excessive regulation in Washington and in favor of gun rights.

“We’ve got to fight the environmental extremists,” Imus said. “Right now, environmentalists are strangling business. They’re shutting down trucking, they are shutting down mining, they are shutting down businesses throughout this land.”

Pinkerton said that although folks living in the mountains and high desert tend to be hardscrabble and shun government edicts, they also realize that Washington protects the air they breathe and the water they drink and provides thousands of jobs at the area’s military bases and national parks.

“We’ve got ideas that are a little different than the rest of California, maybe even the country,” said Pinkerton, who lives among the Joshua trees and yucca plants in Pinon Hills, east of Victorville. “Out here, everyone has a gun, a dog and a pickup. Even the Democrats.”

Pinkerton, a counselor at Silverado High School in Victorville, is one of the two Democrats in the race. The other is Jackie Conaway of Barstow, who ran unsuccessfully against McKeon in the past two elections, nabbing 38% of the vote in 2010.

Pinkerton brushes aside speculation that no Democrat has a shot in the June contest. With 10 Republicans vying for votes from the same party faithful, the GOP electorate could splinter and create openings for him, Conaway and Adams. Under California’s new primary system, the two candidates who receive the most votes advance to the November election — regardless of any party affiliation.

“That would be Republicans’ worst nightmare,” said GOP consultant and former state Sen. Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga. “The top two candidates could be Democrats.”

And “money is a real problem,” said Cook, a retired Marine colonel who was mayor of Yucca Valley before being elected to the Assembly in 2006. All the Republicans in the race are reaching out to the same pool of donors.

Cook raised $141,000 in campaign contributions as of March 31, just a few thousand more than Mitzelfelt, campaign reports show. Republican Ryan McEachron, the mayor of Victorville, collected $147,000 — $100,000 of it from his own pocket.

The biggest wild card in the race is Liberatore, with his big war chest. The accountant, who owns IRS Problem Solvers, which helps taxpayers in trouble with the IRS, lost a hard-fought campaign against fellow Republican Rep. Gary Miller of Diamond Bar in 2010.

“I am pro-life, pro-gun and pro-business,” Liberatore said.

Liberatore is airing cable ads on Fox News and is covering the district with campaign mailers. He lives outside the district, in Whittier, but says he rents a house in Lake Arrowhead and has more than 200 clients from the district.

“It’s incredible what he’s spending. A lot of us take issue with the fact that he’s trying to buy the seat,” Mitzelfelt said.

As a county supervisor, Mitzelfelt already represents about half of the territory in the congressional district, and he hopes that familiarity will give him the edge come June.

Mike Spence, one of the state Republican Party’s leading conservative activists, said that with so many candidates, the races is too unpredictable to call.

“You don’t need a lot of votes to win,” Spence said.