Democrat challenges Rohrabacher's incumbency

Ron Varasteh will pull an all-nighter to uphold his political beliefs, even with a tent over his head.

The Democratic candidate for the 48th Congressional District, who will face longtime incumbent Dana Rohrabacher in November, has already played a visible role in Orange County politics over the last year. To a passerby, though, it might have been hard to pinpoint his face among the crowd camping out in front of the Irvine Civic Center.

Varasteh, 47, helped organize the Occupy Orange County movement that started in Irvine and then moved on to Fullerton and Huntington Beach. Although the group has retired its tents, Varasteh has made its core belief — that regular citizens get lost in the shuffle when corporations back government — the central theme of his campaign.

To the Irvine resident, that message goes beyond any party affiliation. The official record will show that he is a Democrat and Rohrabacher a Republican, but Varasteh is likely to give a more nuanced answer when labeling himself to voters.

"I'm a moderate independent, and because we live in a duopoly and our elections are rigged for a two-party system, you have to be a Democrat or Republican," he said Monday outside the Mesa Verde Branch Library in Costa Mesa, where he set up a display by the front door and handed literature to visitors.


Up against history

Varasteh's platforms, articulated in a campaign flier with the slogan "Stop our race to the bottom," run the gamut from liberal (bringing the troops home from Afghanistan) to conservative (punishing employers who hire illegal immigrants). He opposes the Patriot Act and doesn't fully support the Obama administration's health-care reform, although, in the latter case, it's because the reform stopped short of providing universal health care.

Will he have what it takes to unseat Rohrabacher, the longtime Huntington Beach conservative who now lives in Costa Mesa?

History indicates it's an uphill battle; the incumbent has served since 1989 and handily beat Democratic challenger Debbie Cook in his last election. Still, the redistricting that California went through last year may have created a different playing field.

Rohrabacher's previous district, the 46th, stretched along the shoreline from Huntington Beach to the Palos Verdes Peninsula and included Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley and other Orange County cities as well as Catalina Island. The new 48th District begins in Seal Beach and extends south along the coast to Laguna Niguel.

The cities added to Rohrabacher's district, including Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, previously belonged to the old 48th District, which voted heavily for Republican John Campbell in 2008. Still, the fact that Rohrabacher is not the incumbent for approximately half the district's geographical area is an encouraging sign to Varasteh.

Often, he said, voters he meets express dissatisfaction with Rohrabacher's policies, even if they identify themselves as registered Republicans. Once, he said, a man even looked at his flier and declared, "If you had run as a Republican, I'd vote for you."

Rohrabacher, for his part, said Tuesday that he wasn't familiar with Varasteh's views but felt confident seeking reelection.

"I think the people in the new part of my district, like the old part of my district that I'm keeping, are very in tune with my basic philosophy," he said. "I think it's more than just party lines.

"I've been somewhat independent on a number of issues, and I think that, overall, my positive conservative philosophy or conservative-libertarian blend of a philosophy suits the people down here along the coast very well."


'Not a firebrand'

However strong his ties to the party, Varasteh has solid Democratic support. For the last two years, he's served as a delegate for the California Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party of Orange County has endorsed him.

With Occupy Orange County, Varasteh took the job of civic liaison, communicating with city officials to ensure peaceful protests. Greg Diamond, who succeeded him in the job and is now running for State Senate in the 29th District, praised Varasteh for his steadiness.

"He is not a firebrand," Diamond said. "He has strong opinions about things and presents them well, but those of us who were in that camp of Occupy were concerned about coming up with a message and a way to represent it that would be congenial to people in Orange County. This is just not a place where you poke people in the eye."

Varasteh said he also worked recently as a council organizer for but abandoned that post before he launched his campaign. Since March, he has assembled a team of more than 300 volunteers, canvassed neighborhoods and held public meet-and-greets. Between campaign stops, he runs an Irvine-based telecommunications company, which he founded 25 years ago.

In terms of fundraising, Varasteh has an official creed: He will take donations from individuals and clubs, but not from corporations or unions. He hopes that grass-roots approach will help endear him to voters.

"When a politician needs money to get elected, he's going to pander to the people who give him the money he needs," Varasteh said.

Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

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