If the GOP can slap a “socialist” label on Democratic opponents – whether or not it’s true – they can propel their weak candidates to victory
An off-cycle special election in Los Angeles’ 12th City Council District wrapped up on August 13 – one necessitated by the departure of Councilmember Mitch Englander, who woke up the morning after a late-December 2018 $800-a-head fundraiser and announced he was leaving City Hall to lobby for a company with business before the city. The outcome of that election offers several important lessons to Democrats seeking to unseat Donald Trump and his key Congressional allies next November.
But those lessons may be difficult for some to accept.
While the special election runoff between UC Berkeley Ph.D. astrophysicist and climate scientist Loraine Lundquist, and long-time City Hall staffer and Englander aide John Lee, was officially non-partisan, the reality was anything but. Attending any of the half-dozen debates between the two – who took the number one and two spots respectively in a 15-candidate primary in June – you heard clear echoes of the 2016 presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
You heard John Lee repeatedly declare himself the “law and order” candidate and call his opponent names designed to strike fear in voters’ hearts. You saw him devotedly chat up one of his most loyal supporters – an older white woman who sported the same Trump T-shirt, cap and buttons at every debate she attended.
And you heard Loraine Lundquist firmly announce her intention to move Los Angeles toward clean energy self-sufficiency, by implementing the local version of the Green New Deal being promoted by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and pushing toward climate scientist Hal Harvey‘s “four zeros” environmental policy: a zero-carbon electrical grid, zero-emission transportation, zero-carbon/zero-net-energy buildings, and zero-waste manufacturing.
And, to the core of my argument today: in both the presidential and L.A. City Council campaigns, you saw a superior woman candidate win the fact and policy battles but lose the electoral war. In political novice Lundquist’s case, she proved far more knowledgeable about public issues, city operations and government funding than her political insider opponent. The consummate scientist, she amassed, analyzed and doggedly cited data and facts to support her position on key issues facing the city and the 12thCouncil District.
Lee struck undecided voters attending the debates as less articulate, less well informed on the roles and responsibilities of city departments and agencies, and surprisingly unaware of recent city decisions on key issues – including regulation of street vendors, reasons for and responses to the city’s growing homeless population, and actions that L.A. government could or could not take to shut down the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility located in CD12 and operated by Southern California Gas Company.
Lee even brought a Trumpian sexual harassment tinge to the race, thanks to a $75,000 settlement paid by city government to a former Englander City Council staffer who had filed suit against then Chief of Staff Lee, alleging sexual harassment and gender-based employment and pay discrimination. To her credit, Lundquist never raised the issue on the campaign trail, although an independent expenditure committee did in one mailer.
It was the Aliso Canyon facility’s 2015 well blow out – which caused the nation’s largest-ever natural gas leak – that had propelled Lundquist, a California State University, Northridge Institute of Sustainability professor, into community advocacy and her first-ever foray into politics. Her campaign was seen as a bellwether for the progressive push for a Green New Deal for America, given Lundquist’s pledge to shut down Aliso and bring green jobs and energy to the city.
But, much like the 2016 contest between a well-informed, highly educated woman and a politically canny man, Lee came out the winner on August 13.
He did so with massive financial support from independent expenditure committees aligned with the fossil fuel, real estate and development industries, and from the union that represents Los Angeles Department of Water and Power employees, which argued that Lundquist’s proposed shift to green energy would kill DWP jobs – ignoring the fact that those workers would all but certainly move into the green-energy jobs that Lundquist’s policies would create.
He also resorted to the GOP’s preferred tool of choice: name-calling and fear mongering.
Flyers from the Lee campaign and independent expenditure committees hit local residents’ mailboxes on a daily basis in July and early August. Those flyers visually shouted NIMBYist and climate-hoax arguments that Lundquist’s proposals would result in all manner of disastrous outcomes:
- “Special city permits allowing homeless to sleep in cars in Valley neighborhoods.”
- “Billions in taxes to pay for homelessness with no real accountability.”
- “Increasing DWP utility bills by $3,571 per ratepayer.”
- “…high density apartment developments in single-family neighborhoods.”
- “Prohibiting gas powered cars and forcing residents to buy electric vehicles.”
And then came the right-wing messaging death blow: Loraine Lundquist was a “socialist” with an “extremist political agenda.” Why the branding? Because the Democratic Socialists of America, L.A., and a host of environmental organizations had endorsed her.
No matter that Lundquist disagreed with DSA and other progressive groups on a number of issues. As the Los Angeles Times reported on August 11, “She said she would have voted with other council members to reinstate a city law limiting where homeless people can sleep in cars – but would have pushed to provide more lots where people can park and sleep. Unlike the DSA-LA, Lundquist also supports having police officers present at cleanups of homeless encampments and supports L.A.’s decision to host the Summer Olympics in 2028.”
The name-calling worked. Despite a superior ground game and a massive volunteer effort, Lundquist lost by 1,171 votes out of 37,000-plus ballots cast – a 51.5-to-48.5 percent outcome decided by just 22 percent of registered voters in CD12.
Post-election conversations suggest that Republican voters were scared out of complacency by those doom-and-gloom messages and by the fact that Democrats now slightly outnumber GOP voters in what is L.A.’s most suburban, most conservative Council district.
Those conversations also indicate that many Democrats in the district followed the usual pattern of sitting out an off-cycle election – ignoring the mantra offered up by activists that, “When Democrats vote, we win.”
So what, you ask, does this L.A. City Council election result tell Democrats about 2020? My conclusion is three-fold:
- Even when women candidates are smarter, better informed and more substantive, they still can lose to ho-hum male opponents.
- Name-calling and fear mongering still work.
- Democrats MUST turn out and vote. Like never before. As if our very existence hinges on the outcome. (Hint: it does.)
At the presidential level, the message is clear: if Donald Trump and the GOP can plausibly brand his Democratic rival a “socialist,” they can win. Our candidate must be ready to respond effectively and repeatedly to that accusation. (And I’m sorry, but this must be said: a presidential candidate who self identifies as a democratic socialist will be the kiss of death for Democrats. We’ve got to acknowledge that reality and choose our nominee accordingly.)
The fact that the GOP has already branded every progressive Democratic proposal as “socialist” tells us they will do it next year. Because they think it will work for them.
L.A.’s CD12 election was, in a way, a litmus test of the political mood in much of America. CD12 is politically purple, not bright blue. It’s middle-to-right-leaning suburbia, not the urban enclaves of the Bronx that sent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress. The people of CD12 – like the people in a huge swath of American cities, towns and rural communities – want change to come, but gradually and cautiously…if they want it at all.
If Democrats start telling ourselves that most American voters are ready for a socialist revolution, and choose our nominee on that basis, we will lose.
And if you think I’m wrong – if you think the socialist branding won’t work against us – think for a while about what Donald Trump said at his August 15 rally in New Hampshire: “A vote for any Democrat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and destruction – the destruction of the American dream.”
That, Democrats, is the lie that we will confront next year.
We’d better be ready. And we’d better have candidates for President and Congress who can powerfully and effectively destroy that lie.
Or the American dream will die. Just not for the reasons that Trump asserts.
Blogger Marcy Miroff Rothenberg writes most often on politics and women’s issues. Her new book – Ms. Nice Guy Lost – Here’s How Women Can Win– offers a comprehensive summary of the attacks waged on American women’s rights and opportunities by Trump and the GOP since 2016 – and a to-do list for fighting back. It’s available from store.bookbaby.com and at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and Goodreads.com.