CAPITAL AND MAIN SPECIAL REPORT--Darrell Issa, like the voters in his district, was a man under pressure. He put his finger in the air to test the political winds and then realized it was the ground beneath his feet that was moving.
Cole Morgan is a 21-year-old student at Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, California and lives with his parents in nearby San Clemente. He worries about the skyrocketing cost of obtaining a college degree and what he claims is the unwillingness of insurance companies to pay for treatment of a rare form of muscular dystrophy that he suffers from.
Like many people who struggle with serious health issues, his own pain has opened him to the pain of others. Soft-spoken and measured in his assessments, he comes across as a seasoned politician, speaking a language less of “resistance” than of aspiration. When he looks at the world around him, Morgan, a registered Democrat, sees “class stratification,” “casual racism” and a “parallel reality” of pseudo facts that cripple our ability to make coherent political judgments. He’s especially concerned that other young people are not discerning enough about where they obtain information and how they assimilate it.
Darrell Issa is the Republican Congressman representing the 49th Congressional District, which includes Cole Morgan and many other constituents troubled by the California they find themselves living in. Issa recently announced that he would not seek re-election in CD 49, although he’s left open the door to running in a neighboring and more conservative District. The 49th runs from San Juan Capistrano in the north to La Jolla in the south and inland from Oceanside to Vista; it is geographically divided between Northern San Diego County and Southern Orange County by Camp Pendleton and the nearby San Onofre nuclear power plant.
For years U.S. Marines, both active at Camp Pendleton and retired, have anchored the district in patriotic and conservative politics. Teresa Jones, an Oceanside resident and mother of three military sons, believes that periodic wars are inevitable and plans to vote for politicians who can keep our enemies at bay. She is a fan of Donald Trump, emphasizing that she has “a sound mind” and is “not influenced by the media.”
(Meanwhile, the power plant, which began operating in 1967 and shut down in 2013 after a radiation leak, now sits inert. It still, however, holds 3.5 million pounds of spent radioactive waste, a gift that keeps on giving.)
The 49th District is now a turf where changing demographics and Trumpism’s existential jolt have exposed political fissures that have yet to be re-aligned.
According to Jim Hagar, a Vista attorney and registered Republican, the city has grown from a small community heavily populated with retired military personnel when he first moved there 45 years ago, into a suburb of 100,000 sustained by new business parks and the nearby California State University, San Marcos. “Younger folks represent a higher percentage than they [did] when I first moved here,” he said at a local farmer’s market.
Hagar believes President Trump is a “14 year old trapped in a 70-year-old man’s body,” and wants to see a congressman who will not simply follow the line of the national Republican Party. “I want to see one house of Congress independent from the presidency — that will be a factor in my vote,” he said.
Growing Latino Clout
“Now Hiring,” reads a large plastic sign hanging on the outside wall of the Customs and Border Patrol Station on the I-5 just north of Camp Pendleton. The message indicates one of the sources of tension that divide the district. Anti-immigration hard-liners want beefed-up border security and “the wall.” Younger voters, including some moderate Republicans, would prefer that investments be made elsewhere – in education and health care.
Vista, which is home to Issa’s Congressional office, is over 48 percent Latino, the highest percentage of any sizable city in the 49th District, but has only one Latino on its five-member city council.
As a result of voting rights lawsuits threatened by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, Vista, Carlsbad and Oceanside — all of which currently have at-large elections which diminish minority representation — will be conducting districted elections for the first time in 2018. Local activists believe that districted elections will increase turnout this November, impacting the congressional election as previously disenfranchised voters show up to vote.
Demographic Balances in Five Cities
In Barrio Carlsbad, one of Carlsbad’s oldest neighborhoods, Simon Angel sits at a table outside of Lola’s Mexican Market & Deli as the sun fades. Angel regards Issa as a polarizing figure. “I look at his votes over his 16-year career, which shows he just has no empathy or feeling for everyday working men and women,” he says. “Issa says he wants to work with us on DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) but the truth is he has supported President Trump in almost all his policies.”
Next door to Lola’s, Christmas lights still flicker on the porch of Marlen Martinez’s small wood-framed home that she shares with her children and her mother. Martinez, who works as a monitor at the local elementary school, stands next to her son and mother in her yard behind a chain link fence and talks politics, kissing her son’s forehead when the conversation lags. At her school, she has talked to undocumented immigrant parents who worry about deportation and separation from their children. With teachers and other staff having been laid off due to budget cuts, the main wall she is concerned about is the one that inhibits economic advancement.
“It’s sad to hear about families being separated, especially when [the] moms and dads [are] being taken away and their kids have to stay here,” she says. She is undecided about the November congressional election but the candidates’ positions on DACA will be significant in determining her vote. “DACA is an opportunity for those students that came here to work, to go to school.”
Angel, who is a retired union representative for the Communications Workers of America, used to see the “Hispanic community” as complacent, too willing to accept the status quo. He sees a different attitude in the younger generation living in enclaves invisible to drivers along the I-5. “In Encinitas they called it the Tortilla Flats, in Solana Beach they called it La Colonia,” he says, naming historic Latino neighborhoods that trace back to the early 1900s, when vast avocado and citrus groves required dependable cheap labor.
“Younger Latinos are more militant. They are more willing to speak out for their individual rights and exercise those rights,” Angel says, adding that the role of “older folks,” should be to lend a hand in their struggles.
Coast of Dreams
California historian Kevin Starr, looking at a broader state history but also at the same beach subculture that Tom Wolfe did in his 1966 essay about Southern California surfers, “The Pump House Gang,” worried that the “mythic brandings” of that world would engender a “psychological passivity,” a life void of serious civic engagement. A commitment to laid back “lifestyle” choices might populate California with millions of Jeff Spicoli clones.
Marty Benson, who lives in Encinitas and surfs at Swami’s State Beach, is a committed political activist. He has a full life, rather than a lifestyle. Before heading out for late afternoon waves, he spoke about the importance of political action and the destructive impact of economic inequality.
“I know the stereotype of surf riders is that we are all hippies,” Benson says before pulling on his wetsuit, “but my issue is equity and I think that the American Dream has sort of been spoiled.” His surfing colleagues, many of them local professionals who have merged a desire for physical well-being with ecological concerns, also plan to vote.
Glancing over his shoulder at the four-foot waves, Benson says recent initiatives coming from Washington are pushing the 49th District in a new direction. He believes the Republican tax bill, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ threats to marijuana users and the push towards increased offshore oil drilling are creating difficulties for whoever the Republican nominee will be.
Some higher-level Republicans agree. Wayne Eggleston, a former mayor of San Clemente, admitted that he had not yet endorsed Issa before he dropped out. Eggleston’s silence came across as a shout. Standing on the sidewalk on Avenida Del Mar in San Clemente, which voted overwhelmingly for Issa two years ago, Eggleston was either unwilling or unable to characterize the current feelings of San Clemente voters towards Issa. He spoke with the hesitancy of someone who knows that the political views of even this wealthy and conservative community are shifting.
Eggleston sees no concrete federal plan to remove the waste from San Onofre, an issue that he believes should be key in the election, and stated adamantly that increased offshore drilling “is just not going to happen.”
Political change is rarely linear, moving without resistance from Progressive Point A to Progressive Point B. Disquieting elements from our past can resurface to haunt us in grotesque political forms. Polls can reveal an unexpected political movement and elections can consolidate an unforeseen trend, capturing part of a new spirit of the time.
On a more fundamental level, political change takes place when the institutions, economics, laws and whatever shared sense of identity we have cannot solve problems that those same institutions have partly created. Pointing to a house on his block that was purchased for $6,000 and is now on the market for $700,000, Simon Angel worries that the long-time families who provide the neighborhood its cultural foundations will be eventually pushed out.
Other 49ers have their own concerns. Eighty-eight-year old Marilyn Nelson from Oceanside wants the Social Security tax applied to higher incomes above its current $128,400 limit to assure its solvency. San Clemente art student Tom Douglass is tired of the avatars of big data prying into his identity. And micro-biologist Stephen Thomas feels that “the parties are the same” because corporate donors dominate the whole terrain of politics.
Darrell Issa, like the voters in his district, was a man under pressure. He put his finger in the air to test the political winds and then realized it was the ground beneath his feet that was moving. As the political paradigm shifts in the 49th district, voters are looking in new places for inspiration, playing with different ideas in an attempt to expand the range of public action. Expectations about what our country is and can be have been violated, but the flickering images of other possibilities are coming into focus.
In the 49th District, a 21-year-old community college student who is struggling with medical challenges articulated the choices. Sitting on a public bench on the main street of San Clemente on a radiant Sunday afternoon, Cole Morgan looked towards the future with a measure of hope. “Young people’s voices must be heard because even if they might not have a desire to participate, their landlord will, their boss will, their insurer will. So if they don’t play the game they will loose the game.” If politics is a game, Morgan knows that it’s a serious one.
(Kelly Candaele has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Nation. He is directing a film on the building of the Wilshire Grand Center in downtown Los Angeles. Posted originally at Capital and Main.)