By Andy Cohen | Congressional Watch
The 2016 presidential election has now come and gone, and while many are still in shock and disbelief about the stunning upset in the main event, the local congressional races brought few surprises.
As expected, San Diego’s representation in Congress will most likely remain unchanged. I say “most likely” because one of the five local races has not yet been settled with absolute certainty.
Let’s start with the races that are settled.
Duncan Hunter (R-50), despite the campaign finance scandals that have plagued him for most of the past year, handily won re-election, defeating Democrat Patrick Malloy 64 percent to 36 percent. No surprise. The 50th District hasn’t been remotely competitive in decades.
In the 51st Congressional District — the battle of the Juans — Juan Vargas (D-51) boat-raced Republican Juan Hidalgo, Jr. 72 percent to 28 percent. Again, no surprise, as the 51st (or at least the equivalent thereof — remember, redistricting occurs every 10 years) has been solidly democratic, dating back at least to Vargas’ predecessor, Bob Filner, and his 20 years in Congress.
The 53rd Congressional District was yet another ho-hum affair, with Susan Davis (D-53) swamping Republican James Veltmeyer, a doctor from La Mesa, 67 percent to 33 percent.
Scott Peters (D-52) was able to breathe relatively easy this time around, particularly in comparison to his two previous congressional races. In 2012, Peters narrowly defeated Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray, a race that took several weeks for a winner to be declared. In 2014, Peters fended off former San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio, who had widespread name recognition and who had in fact taken the district during his 2012 San Diego mayoral race against Bob Filner. The 52nd is considered a swing district, roughly evenly divided between Democratic, Republican, and Independent voters, making the 2014 election another squeaker for Peters.
This time, however, Peters won by comfortable margin, 57 percent to 43 percent, over Republican challenger Denise Gitsham. Normally, Gitsham would have been a formidable opponent in the highly moderate district, but as election cycles come and go, Peters seems to become more and more well liked, and thus more entrenched as a member of Congress. But I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Denise Gitsham.
If the four races above lacked for drama, one race ensured that local political junkies didn’t lack for intrigue.
Whereas the 52nd District is typically one of the tightest races in the country, this time it was Darrell Issa (R-49) who was forced to sweat it out while every last ballot was counted. Two weeks after the election, with just a handful of mail-in and provisional ballots still to be counted, the Associated Press finally called the race in favor of Issa over Democratic challenger and first time candidate, retired Marine Corps Col. Doug Applegate.
Pre-election polls indicated that it would be a tight race and for the first time since being elected to Congress in 2000, Issa’s re-election was in doubt.
As previously chronicled in this space, Issa has never defeated his general election opponents by less than 10 points. Then came the June 2016 primary, where Issa bested Applegate by a much smaller margin, less than six percentage points.
Things only got more tense for Issa in the general election, but he was finally declared the winner with just 50.4 percent of the vote to Applegate’s 49.6 percent.
In one of the more fascinating results of this election cycle, Applegate won the much larger, northern San Diego County portion of the district, 53 percent to 47 percent; however, Issa was rescued by the area of the district that covers a small portion of Orange County, by a 60-40 margin.
The AP declared Issa the winner Nov. 28, with a lead of just over 2,300 votes out of more than 306,000 votes cast.
The question now is how will Issa react to this near-defeat experience? Issa has long been known for his attack-dog mentality and his penchant for levying unsubstantiated accusations of malfeasance at the Obama administration. That reputation could be turning the tide against him within the district. What was once a safe Republican seat might become America’s next great swing district.
In other news … Rep. Peters and Rep. Davis, both members of the House Armed Services Committee, condemned recent efforts by the Department of Defense to reclaim bonuses offered to California National Guard recruits over a decade ago. The bonuses and student loan payments, many tallying $15,000 or more, were offered by recruiters in order to reach recruiting targets and bolster troop levels. However, 9,700 soldiers from California received the incentives and it turns out that a significant number of those bonuses were offered and paid out fraudulently.
“I am deeply concerned and troubled by the clawback of bonuses from our National Guard members,” Davis said in a statement. “As ranking member of the military personnel subcommittee, I will look into all available options to help these service members and their families. They should not have to pay the price for mistakes made by others over a decade ago and we owe it to them to address this.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter subsequently suspended the collection efforts, stating that the Pentagon will create a streamlined process that “ensures the fair and equitable treatment of our service members” and a rapid resolution.
“Ultimately, we will provide for a process that puts as little burden as possible on any soldier who received an improper payment through no fault of his or her own,” Carter said.
“I applaud [the] decision from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to cease the collection of unauthorized bonus payments,” Peters said in his statement. “While a congressional fix may be needed, I urge Secretary Carter to use his existing authorities and resources to repay veterans and their families who have been wronged.”
Rep. Vargas’ bill to evaluate the possibility of adding Chicano Park to the rolls of National Historic Landmarks will likely be considered by Congress in the near future. Chicano Park is located beneath the Coronado Bridge in the Barrio Logan neighborhood of San Diego. Its murals, sculptures and landscaping have already landed it on the list of National Historic Places due to its role in San Diego’s Chicano civil rights movement.
—Andy Cohen is a local freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.