Darrell Issa was Obama’s toughest critic. Here’s why he’s suddenly sounding like a moderate

Darrell Issa was named House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman in 2011. (July 17, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here


The hundreds of protesters who show up weekly to wave signs outside Rep. Darrell Issa’s office in a drab office park in Vista, Calif., have written a song for him to the tune of “Oh! Susanna.”

“Darrell Issa, you’ve got to oversee. You need to check-and-balance [Trump] before it’s World War III,” they sing toward the tinted windows of the building.

As chairman of the committee charged with overseeing the executive branch, Issa was once known as President Obama’s toughest critic. Now the richest man in Congress has found himself with protesters at his door, no committee to lead, and a tough race expected in 2018.


It has forced the nine-term congressman to walk a shaky line, reassuring his conservative base that he’s not moderating his positions while showing the growing number of independents and Democrats in his district that he’s not as partisan as people think.

For months, the 63-year-old Issa has sporadically ventured outside, all smiles, to talk with protesters at his office. He’s been the only vulnerable Southern California Republican to do so since President Trump’s election inspired regular demonstrations at their offices.

Though the crowd of about 300 at an April protest yelled and booed over him at times, Issa answered questions with a steady voice, pushing back when someone accused him of being more conservative than tea party supporters or demanded that he try to impeach the president.

“You can go online and look at conservative groups and what you’ll find is I’m not the most conservative Republican, I’m not the least conservative Republican, but I am a Republican,” he told them.

Prior to his tight 2016 win, Issa had gotten at least 58% of the vote in his eight previous campaigns. He wasn’t expecting the reliably Republican district to react so badly to Trump, or so well to Democrat Doug Applegate, a novice candidate on no one’s radar.

His 0.6% victory margin, and the fact that the district narrowly went for Democrat Hillary Clinton, makes him one of the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress. For 2018, Issa has already raised $1.2 million, and has drawn a rematch from Applegate and challenges from Orange County environmental lawyer Mike Levin and San Diego real estate investor Paul Kerr as well as the attention of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has promised to make the 49th District a battleground again.

“He won by only about 1,600 votes. ... We smell blood,” said protest organizer Ellen Montanari, 63, of Encinitas.

When Issa was first elected in 2000, more than half of registered voters in the district were Republicans, 27.2% were Democrats and 15.4% chose no party preference.

Now Republicans make up just 37.7% of registered voters in Issa’s district, which includes southern Orange County and northern San Diego County suburbs such as Oceanside, Carlsbad and Vista. Meanwhile, the share of voters registering as Democrats, 31%, and no party preference, 26%, has increased.

Though it is mostly white, the district has a growing Latino population. The influence of the military vote from Camp Pendleton still holds a lot of sway, but the area’s tech industry is growing, too.

“The district is changing,” said UC Irvine political scientist Graeme Boushey. “He is really walking on a razor’s edge now, especially given Trump’s unpopularity with voters.”

Those who first showed up at Issa’s office protests were hoping he’d moderate to match the district, Montanari said.

“I wanted to hear him, I wanted to talk to him, I wanted to be able to find out what he’s thinking and what he thought about Trump,” Montanari said. “I’ve never heard him sound more like a moderate than he did [during a telephone town hall]. The day he starts voting like that is the day I will say, ‘Thank you.’”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) speaks to a crowd of protesters outside his district office.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Born in Cleveland as the second of six children in a Lebanese American family, Issa dropped out of high school at 17 to join the Army. While there, he got his GED and went on to earn degrees from Kent State University and Siena Heights College before returning to the Army as an officer.

Issa bought a struggling Cleveland electronics business in 1980 and within a decade transformed it to produce the popular Viper automobile anti-theft device, with Issa’s voice as the warning to would-be thieves to “stand back.” In 1986, he and his wife, Kathy, moved the business to Vista. His net worth was estimated at more than quarter of a billion in 2015, according to personal financial disclosures.

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In 1998, Issa lost in a Republican primary to pick a challenger to California’s Sen. Barbara Boxer in part because of news reports that he and his older brother, William, had been arrested twice in connection with car thefts decades earlier, including the theft of a Maserati from a dealer. Issa was indicted, but the charges were dropped in both cases.

“I was exonerated of all wrongdoing,” Issa told the Los Angeles Times in 1998.

Two years later, he was elected to replace retiring Republican Rep. Ron Packard. Issa gained statewide fame when he bankrolled the successful 2003 effort to recall former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. He says the $1.7 million he spent to gather signatures shows he’s willing to buck his party. The George W. Bush White House opposed it.

He’d hoped to replace Davis, but abruptly quit during a tearful news conference when Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the race, saying he was assured a quality candidate was running.

Over the next few years, Issa developed a reputation as a data privacy and personal property rights advocate. He helped overhaul how the government fulfills public information requests, and worked on patent reform with Silicon Valley.

After he was named House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman in 2011, Issa became nationally known for his dogged pursuit of perceived problems in the Obama administration.

He took the administration to task over the Benghazi attack, the Internal Revenue Service’s treatment of conservative groups, and the “Fast and Furious” failed gun sting. He issued more than 100 subpoenas in four years, calling Obama “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.”

His combative, cantankerous hearings were high on theatrics — Issa once had to apologize for turning off his Democratic counterpart’s microphone and storming out of the room. But the hearings rarely showed direct culpability of Obama or his administration.

GOP patience with the televised shouting matches waned, and when Issa reached the limit set by Republican caucus rules on how long he could serve as chairman, House leaders brushed aside Issa’s request to give him another term in 2015.

Issa doesn’t talk much about those years any more.

“You can write something that says I’m a bulldog, but I didn’t come here to be the Oversight chairman,” he said. “I came here to try to leave government a little bit better than I found it.”

Now, he wants to focus on the legislation he has worked on with Democrats to expand government transparency, local issues such as finding a home for nuclear waste stored at Southern California Edison’s San Onofre power plant, or ways he disagrees with Republican leadership. In an interview, he called House Speaker Paul Ryan’s border adjustment tax proposal, which would tax imports and subsidize exports, “plain stupid, wrong, misguided.” The issue divides congressional Republicans.

A senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, Issa is starting to talk about becoming chairman in 2018. He says he would work on the traditionally Democratic issues of prison reform, reducing mandatory minimum sentencing laws and keeping employers from asking potential hires about their criminal backgrounds.

“I’ve always been passionate on things which are sometimes in the left, sometimes in the right, and sometimes one might say in the middle, but none of them are new,” Issa said.

Issa’s communications director has a new mandate to show voters how the congressman’s work benefits constituents. That has meant shiny fliers asking people to fill out surveys on local issues, email newsletters detailing legislation he has filed and telling people “always feel free to send me an email,” and town halls at a time when few of his Southern California counterparts facing tough races are holding them. Revved-up constituents pushed him on the GOP healthcare bill at the most recent meeting.

Former California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring said that just because Issa is explaining his positions now doesn’t mean they have changed.

“If he’s making a concerted effort [to show] he’s a conservative and he’s not in a bad mood about it, that doesn’t mean he’s changed his philosophy,” Nehring said.

Retired UC San Diego political scientist Steven Erie said Issa needs to mend fences in San Diego County, the bulk of his district, where Democrats are still upset about his treatment of Obama.

In the final days of the 2016 election, Issa sent a mailer praising Obama for signing legislation that the congressman supported, a move that the outgoing president called “shameless” and the “definition of chutzpah.”

“He’s a smart guy and certainly in terms of the tone, in terms of the verbiage, the reaching out, he realizes that to survive, he’s got to lower the Democratic opposition, or at least neutralize it,” Erie said.

While Issa endorsed Trump and campaigned with him at a San Diego rally, he has appeared to put some distance between them since the inauguration.

In February, Issa became the first House Republican to call for a special prosecutor to take over the FBI’s investigation into Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

With the president denying climate change is real, and his administration pulling back on climate change research, Issa this year joined the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group in Congress looking to address climate change.

While it gives the impression that Issa is trying to appear more moderate, he has stayed in line with Trump’s policies. Political data analysis site FiveThirtyEight gives Issa a 100% ranking on its tracker of how often members of Congress vote with the president.

Issa was hesitant to vote for the widely unpopular GOP healthcare bill, saying the party could do better. But, in the end, he joined the rest of the Republicans in California’s delegation and backed the bill, saying he was confident the Senate would fix it.

The congressman has consistently scoffed at the idea that he is moderating his opinions or moving toward the middle, and in an interview this month, he mentioned what he had told The Times in April, referring to a barnyard vulgarity to describe the alleged shift.

“It’s still the thing that falls to the ground beneath a male cow. I’m not going to change, I’m not going to change a bit,” he added.

Twitter: @sarahdwire

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Updates on California politics


1:10 p.m.: This article was updated to clarify that other Republicans in the same term-limited circumstance as Issa were not granted exceptions.

11:05 a.m.: This article was updated with more specifics on why Issa did not get an extended term as chairman of the Oversight committee.

This article was originally published July 16 at 12:05 a.m.