The remorseless Santa Anas that whistle across the Antelope Valley teach residents of Palmdale, Riverside, Victorville, and surrounding communities all there is to know about high desert winds.
But this November, those same folks might get to know a different kind of wind—one that could blow a Democrat into statewide office to represent their district for the first time in more than three decades.
“This could be a history-making election, that’s for sure,” says Linda K. Jones, the first-time Democratic candidate for the open seat in the 36th Assembly District. “We haven’t had a Democrat to represent this district since 1974 when Larry Chimbole, the first mayor of Palmdale, served in the Assembly.”
Jones, a special education teacher in Palmdale and Westside School District trustee, faces Republican Steve Knight, a Palmdale City Councilmember, for the seat vacated because incumbent Assemblymember Sharon Runner (R-Lancaster) terms out this year.
The region’s changing demographics, the nation’s economic woes and underlying mortgage crisis that are hitting this district especially hard, and the Obama-Biden wave that seems to gather momentum with every stroke of my keyboard all give Jones an even-money chance of pulling off an upset.
For the past several decades, new families have flooded into the Antelope Valley, drawn by the lower housing costs—by California standards—and fleeing inner-city crime rates and failing schools down below in Los Angeles. Drive through the region and you’ll see where whole housing developments have sprung up almost overnight, it seems—changing the region’s character.
“Also, more and more people of color are moving out here—more African Americans and Latinos,” Jones says. “That will help Democrats get elected.”
Indeed, after putting up token opposition in recent races and losing by landslide margins, Democrats have finally leveled the playing field, narrowing the difference between Republican and Democratic registration to just 1.6%, according to the Jones campaign. Earlier this year, the Antelope Valley Press reported that 74% of new voters were registering as Democrats, compared to just 4% as Republicans, with the remaining registering as “decline to states.”
The region’s dramatic growth has not come without costs.
“Jobs here are either in aerospace or retail, so often people have to go into Los Angeles for work,” Jones says. “A third of the people are commuting downtown—that’s hard on people, their families, their marriages, their pocketbooks, their health.”
In Sacramento, Jones would work for a “Green Jobs” initiative, diversifying the Antelope Valley workforce, for example, by fostering much-needed solar and wind power industries that would create good-paying local jobs so fewer people would have to undertake the brutal commute downtown.
The mortgage crisis has hit the region hard as well. On a recent drive through a Victorville development to celebrate my wife’s grandmother’s 99th birthday, it seemed that every fourth or fifth house had the brown, overgrown lawn and shuttered windows of a foreclosure.
Taking the McCain-Palin line on the mortgage crisis, Jones’ opponent Steve Knight blames foreclosed homeowners for their plight. “I don’t support bailing out people who made a bad decision,” he has said, arguing that such a course would punish homeowners who are able to make their payments.
“To say everyone bought a house that’s too much for them, that’s irresponsible,” she told the Antelope Valley Press. “Job cuts, health care costs, family changes—other factors have to be considered. Not everyone who defaulted on their mortgages made bad decisions.”
The region’s long dominance by the Grand Old Party and by just two Republican families—Steve Knight wants to replace Sharon Runner who replaced her husband, State Senator George Runner, who replaced Knight’s late father, Pete Knight—has disaffected many voters as well, giving Jones an additional leg up in this year of change.
“The Antelope Valley traditionally has very low turnout—22% in the last election. We’ve had hereditary leadership here with the Knights and Runners. Many voters just aren’t interested in them, so they stay home,” says Denise Latanzi, a long-time Democratic activist who serves as Linda’s campaign chair. “The Obama surge will help. If we can get to 40 to 50% turnout, we’ll be in good shape.”
As a 17-year member of the Los Angeles Police Department, Knight brings a typical conservative’s dossier to the race, emphasizing more prisons to address crime and more alternatives, especially vouchers, to public schools to address education needs. Knight and his wife Lily are raising two young sons.
Jones counters with traditional Democratic credentials, offering 15 years service as a nurse before her decade as a public school teacher, two years working as an aide to Assemblymember Richard Katz, and union organizing for her teacher’s union.
“The Republicans under the Runners and Knights have been dominant and pretty oppressive,” Jones says. “My campaign has caught them by surprise. Who I am, the record I have—that’s given us a real opportunity.”
Before moving to Palmdale, Linda and her husband Bobby, also a teacher, worked with my wife Sharon as founding members of the Black American Political Association of California (BAPAC) of the San Fernando Valley.
“BAPAC was a nonpartisan organization designed to educate black voters about legislation in City Hall, Sacramento, and Washington affecting them,” Sharon says. Speaking of her experience with Jones as they worked together with BAPAC in the late 80's, Sharon said, “Linda was a ball of fire, even back then. She'd grab hold of an issue and would tell anyone willing to listen why they, too, should take action. She is a natural leader."
Jones has used that experience and energy to create a youth movement.
“Young people have gotten involved in my campaign because I’m a teacher and I know them from their school days,” says Jones, who has raised four daughters with her husband Bobby; together they have three grandchildren. “The question Democrats will have to answer is, what are we going to do with all this young energy created by the Obama campaign?”
Better Schools, Better Opportunities
In addition to a “Green Jobs” initiative, Jones also wants to work on a Youth Bill in Sacramento, one that would address the training needs of youthful offenders who are underemployed or unemployed coming out of prison.
“If people get in trouble because they don’t have jobs and don’t have opportunities to get good jobs, the answer isn’t more prisons and longer sentences,” Jones says. “We need to offer training and counseling so they can break that vicious cycle.”
“The Republicans here have a single tunnel vision focusing on incarceration, not rehabilitation, and they’re against public education,” she continues.
Perhaps because of her district’s even split between Republicans and Democrats, Jones says she most identifies with Assemblyman Joe Coto (D-San Jose). “He operates on a balanced approach, representing business interests but also understanding infrastructure and the need to support our public schools and workforce development.”
Jones enjoys a broad range of support from fellow Democrats, including Assemblymembers Anthony Portantino, Kevin de Leon, and Ted Lieu, and State Senator Gil Cedillo here in Northeast Los Angeles.
Eric Bauman, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, has also targeted Linda’s seat as part of the state party's Red-to-Blue Campaign, designed to wrest control in vulnerable Republican seats. Along with Jones, other Democrats included are Ferial Masry (AD 37), Carole Lutness (AD 38), Don Willamson (AD 59), Diane Singer (AD 60), Bruce McFarland (SD 17), Hannah-Beth Jackson (SD 19), and Joe Lyons (SD 29).
The Obama Factor
The wild card in play for all these races is the growing Obama surge. Friday, several of the nation’s leading papers—The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post—came out unabashedly for the Barack Obama, Joe Biden ticket. Leading Republican strategists are throwing in the towel and the Republican National Committee reportedly is looking to shift its efforts behind key Congressional races to prevent a filibuster-proof Democratic Congress.
“I’d be beyond shocked if Obama doesn’t sweep and if he does sweep, we’ll sweep here in the 36th District, too,” says Denise Latanzi. “We’re polling within 1 to 3% of the opposition, and new voters weren’t included in those polls.”
“John Kerry won the City of Palmdale last time,” Denise adds. “He almost won Riverside and Victorville, too.”
Jones agrees. “I’ve got my bogeyboard ready for the Obama-Biden wave.”
How You Can Help
Contact Linda’s campaign if you’d like to help with donations, phone banking, or precinct walking. If Democrats can take the 36th Assembly District and a few more like it, California won’t suffer a repeat of the recent debilitating budget crisis.
Dick is Editor of the LA Progressive.
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