A Few Election Surprises in the California Desert

Image by Chris Clarke

Conservatives prevailed in most contests, incumbents had a bit of an advantage, and turnout was spotty. With few exceptions, this was a typical off-season election in the California desert. But those few exceptions are pretty interesting, including an unlikely Democratic win in one of the most conservative places in the state.

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As the dust clears in the wake of California's first "top two" primary election, in which the two top vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election regardless of their party affiliation, most desert congressional districts' results don't show much change from the old system, though the vote count does serve as a rough poll of current voter sentiment.

In the 25th Congressional District, covering Santa Clarita and the southern Antelope Valley, GOP incumbent Buck McKeon will be facing Democrat Lee Rogers in November with a 20-point advantage. No surprises there.

Just to the north is District 23, which covers the rest of the Antelope Valley and the Ridgecrest area, as well as the Central Valley environs of Bakersfield and the largely unpopulated southern Sierra Nevada. There, GOP incumbent Kevin McCarthy -- who received 71.8% of the vote -- will face off against the long-shot progressive independent Terry Phillips, a public broadcasting journalist who took 17.5% of the vote.

In District 36, also to no one's surprise, incumbent Mary Bono Mack and Raúl Ruiz will square off in November. The vote margin in yesterday's election was a bit of a surprise, however: Bono Mack's 58.1% was significantly ahead of Ruiz's 41.9%. District 36, which covers the desert portion of Riverside County, has been targeted by national Democratic leadership as vulnerable: though low turnout probably played a role in a strong Republican showing, Ruiz may have more of a fight on his hands come November than his supporters had hoped for.

In the relatively liberal 51st, which covers extreme southern San Diego County and heavily Latino Imperial Country, two challengers will contend in November to fill the seat now occupied by Representative Bob Filner, who's running in San Diego's mayoral election. State Senator Juan Vargas, a Democrat, will face Republican Michael Crimmins. Vargas led Crimmins by 25 percentage points, an advantage certain to grow in November as other Democratic candidates received another 25% of the votes.

The gargantuan California 8th, which stretches from the shores of Lake Havasu to within 35 miles of Lake Tahoe, is where things get interesting. Democratic voters in the district may feel like they don't have much of a choice here in the general election, as the two candidates on that ballot will be Republicans -- and very conservative Republicans at that. The leader by a very slight margin in yesterday's vote was Yucca Valley resident Paul Cook, a Vietnam veteran who campaigned as "Colonel Cook." Cook is an anti-abortion conservative who maintains the Federal government isn't doing enough to secure our southern border. His opponent in November, Gregg Imus, makes him look a little liberal. Imus is a Tea Party candidate and co-founder of the California branch of the xenophobic Minuteman group, who boasts that he has "volunteered 2,500 hours on the Mexican Border." Imus was Chief of Staff for his Minuteman associate California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, who will be facing Democrat John Coffey for re-election in Assembly District 33 (San Bernardino County) with a handy 21-point lead.

The California 8th primary ballot held 13 candidates, 10 of them Republicans, including soon-to-be-former San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt. The swarm of Republicans split the conservative vote to the point where the district's lone progressive candidate, Jackie Conaway, trailed Imus by fewer than 200 votes. Both Cook and Imus hail from the southernmost edge of this huge district, so whoever wins, look for complaints from embittered Mono County residents in 2013-14 about their effete urban Representative.

There wasn't much to note in State Assembly or Senate races in the desert: in most of those contests, each of the two major parties will field a candidate in the general election, same as before the Top Two system. One exception is in Assembly District 5, centered in the Mother Lode area but extending into the Mono-Mammoth wing of the desert, Two Republicans will oppose each other in November. Rico Oller, a former Assemblyman and State Senator and two-time loser in Mother Lode Congressional races, won a handy lead yesterday against his November opponent Madera County Supervisor Frank Bigelow. The race from here through November will likely consist of each candidate moving to the other's right.

The most interesting result in yesterday's vote wasn't in a federal or state contest, but instead in Supervisorial District 3 in San Bernardino County. The county is still feeling the political effects of the 2009 self-destruction of Republican Bill Postmus, a Supervisor and former assessor who managed to get himself arrested on charges of corruption and methamphetamine possession. Postmus had been the most powerful pol in the county, and his fall still reverberates.

Neil Derry, the incumbent supervisor in the county's Third District, has felt some of the tar from the Postmus brush. His former chief of staff James Erwin was charged right alongside Postmus for allegedly accepting bribes to influence a Board of Supervisors' settlement over a dispute with a shopping center developer. A year later, Derry himself was charged with laundering campaign contributions through a PAC controlled by Postmus. As a partial result of those charges Derry was barred from voting on issues involving Federal contracts until this past January.

Derry's main opponent in the race for the District 3, Democrat James Ramos, is a member and former chairman of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Indians. Ramos led the pack handily in yesterday's vote, with a 12-point lead over Derry. The two will face each other in November. Derry turned negative early in the campaign, accusing Ramos of being a source of potential corruption due to his management of the San Manuel Casino. Derry also accused Ramos of conflicting loyalties, arguing that Ramos could not effectively advocate for both the San Manuel Band and San Bernardino County. These tactics seemed to backfire, with opponents making allegations of racist campaigning.

District 3 stretches from Barstow to the Morongo Basin, one of the more conservative populated parts of the desert, and Ramos' taking the lead there is an indication of just how tired voters are of the Postmus era. Should Ramos win in the general election, at least one development issue in his district will bear careful watching. Oregon-based Pattern Energy has proposed to build wind turbines on two mesas above Pioneertown, on land rich in Serrano cultural sites. Meteorological towers are in place on the mesas and local residents have mobilized to oppose the project. [Full disclosure: I've done a small amount of consulting work with one of the groups opposing the project.]

In March, a letter from the San Manuel Band flatly opposed construction of the project, stating that construction would seriously impact cultural resources. That letter was signed by San Manuel's Tribal Chairman James Ramos. If Ramos wins in November, his district would include the site of the Pattern wind project. Adamant opposition from the local County Supervisor on strongly held cultural and religious grounds might well be enough to kill this already shaky project. time will tell.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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