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Political Analysis: San Diego's Congressional Races

Political Analysis: San Diego's Congressional Races
We continue our election coverage on KPBS with a discussion about San Diego's Congressional races. Incumbents seem to have a big lead in all five local races for Congress. We'll focus on the candidates in San Diego's 50-th and 51-st districts.

We continue our election coverage on KPBS with a discussion about San Diego's Congressional races. Incumbents seem to have a big lead in all five local races for Congress. We'll focus on the candidates in San Diego's 50-th and 51-st districts.

Guest: KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. It is a tradition in American politics that the president's party loses seats in the first midterm election. But the big question this year, will be the GOP win be big enough to take control of Congress? Here, most political watchers do not see us adding to whatever changes here in Washington, San Diego's five congressional seats will be decided on November 2nd, and they are held by strong incumbents. Gloria Penner is here to tell us more.


GLORIA PENNER: Good morning, Maureen. I'm looking forward to this one.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're gonna focus heavily on the races in districts 50 and 51 in this conversation. But it is true isn't it, that incumbents have a strong advantage in all of San Diego's congressional districts?

GLORIA PENNER: Absolutely and we have to thank the way that California's districts have been carved out by the state legislature, both state and congressional districts have been made safe for incumbents and for the parties. And state senators and assembly members will be termed out. They can only serve for a while. But member was Congress can stay in office until they're defeated, resign, retire or die.


GLORIA PENNER: San Diego's five districts fall firmly in the red or blue column.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Tell us briefly who the major candidates are in districts 49, 52, and 53.

GLORIA PENNER: 49, that's San Diego's North County, it's Darryl Issa, he's become a nagging thorn in the side of president Obama. So he's know for that. And that further endears him to his republican district. The democrat is retired information technology manager Howard Katz, and that's the 49th. And then the 52nd, that represents the east county communities inclucing La Mesa, El Cajon, Santee, Alpine valley, and that has Duncan D. Hunter who succeeded his father, Duncan Hunter, who was in office for three decades. It's another Republican stronghold. Ray Lutz is the democrat, he's listed as engineer, entreprenuer, educator, something for everyone except his party affilliation which is democrat. That doesn't swing in that area. The libertarian in that race, Michael Benoit, is rubbing a vigorous email campaign. He may pick up some votes. Then there's a the 53rd, which takes in a good part of the county of San Diego Susan Davis is the ten-year incumbent, she has run all of her reelection bids with more than 62 percent of the vote, in a district that's only about 43 percent Democrat. There's 26 percent declined to state, and 25 percent Republican. Her Republican challenger is teacher military office Michael Peter Crimmins, and those are the three we're not gonna talk about today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But you did a nice job about it anyway. Now, there's a familiar contest for voters in it district 50. Once again, Francine Busby is challenging Brian Bilbray.

GLORIA PENNER: She ran against him twice in 2006. There was the special 2006 election to replace disgraced Republican Congress Randy duke Cunningham. And Bilbray won that race by about 49 percent of the votes. So that November she tried again, she ran against him as a more seasoned candidate. But the spread actually grew to 53 percent to 43 percent. So she sat out the race in 2008. But in 2008, Democrats had a leg up because of president Obama's presidency, wasn't president at that time, and the Democrats actually put a million dollars into that race hoping that the Democrat would win because Republicans did seem vulnerable. At that point, the candidate was not Francine Busby, it was Nick Lepine. But once again, Bilbray one, and again by forty percent of the vote. And four percent of the vote went to the libertarian candidate, Wayne Dunlop.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that district 50. Where is it?

GLORIA PENNER: It's a north coastal area, it includes Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas, Oceanside, Escondido, Inland, Rancho Santa Fe, and carmel valley. Of it's a pretty wealthy area.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what's the break down between Republicans and Democrats?

GLORIA PENNER: 31.4 percent democratic, 40.3 percent Republican, and 28.3 percent decline to state. Now, that's kind of interesting, because declined to state is really the wild card, and although there's a nine percent spread, Republicans getting the favorable numbers as opposed to the Democrat, there is that large declined to state area.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It seems to me, tell me if I'm wrong, that Francine Busby has been running for this seat for quite a long time.

GLORIA PENNER: Yes, her first try for the 50th was against Randy duke Cunningham in 22004, and she received 34 percent of the vote to Cunningham's 38 percent. And he was a very popular Congress man before he crossed the line and was indicted for bribery and other charges. She ran two successful school combines and became president of the Cardiff board of education in 2000, and she was,a pointed to fill a vacancy on the Cardiff school board, then in 2002, she was elected for a full school board term. So here's a woman that's had some experience in politics, and she's been using that experience. Although she hasn't yet won a congressional race.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what is the common wisdom? Is she a stronger candidate than she was before she first started.

GLORIA PENNER: Absolutely, experience tells, she's shooting on the campaign trail, she has a good campaign organization, they followed up very assiduously, when they knew I was gonna be talking about her this morning and they stayed in touch. But money has not flowed in from the national Democratic Party, and that has more to do with the national perception of how well Democrats are going to do this year. But she she feels that her past races have helped to build relationships with community leaders and constituents, and she says I'm much more confident I'm much more realistic about this combine and she's matured.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about the combine issues in the 50th district. One of them, one of Francine Busby's is immigration. Of.

GLORIA PENNER: It is, there are a few others that I'll briefly mention, there's old issue that Bilbray is a carpet bagger that went from the south bay district to run in the north coastal area when he saw the opportunity once Cunningham was out. There's also the whole spending thing. Busby favors stimulus style spending, wants to create more green industry and infrastructure jobs and Bilbray focuses on cutting taxes and reducing the size of government. And her major these issues, which maybe we'll have time to talk about later, is the congressional cigar association. So I'll hold that off as sort of a -- I'm dangling out a little carrot there. Legalizing illegal immigrants really divides them. And I spoke to Francine Busby about that.

FRANCINE BUSBY(AUDIO FILE): If we had a Visa program where they could legally apply to work here and employers could legally employ them to work here, that would eliminate the illegal part of their immigration. They would be identified, they would be here legally, they would have jobs, they would be free to come and go across the border in a safe and legal way. When you have somebody saying amnesty, amnesty, amnesty, any time you try to address anything, they shut down the conversation. I can see why people are frustrated that the government hasn't done anything, but I think that they have to look at why they haven't done it. And it's because people like Bilbray who's taken the lead on this, who used to be a paid lobbyist, basically an anti-immigrant group, is running the opposition on it, and they don't want to talk about reasonable immigration reform.

GLORIA PENNER: Well, speaking of fairness, I spoke to Brian Bilbray about this, of course, and I would say that being anti-illegal immigration is one of Congress man Bilbray's major issues. And this is -- and he is the head of the immigration reform caucus, so he said he plans to push legislation requiring employers to verify a worker's legally residency status in order to claim tax deductions.

BRIAN BILBRAY(AUDIO FILE): A realistic task is the fact that you draw a very bright line. But if they want to be residents, legal residents and citizens then they have to go back and enter the country legally and process the system legally. I think that you just gotta understand that there is estimated a billion people -- a hundred million to a billion people who would love to be able to come here legally, but you also gotta understand that no matter what we do in the long run, the mere discussion about giving amnesty, creates the environment where people are coming up here dying thinking that we're gonna reward them. And if you announce that amnesty is gonna be the rule, that people illegally in the country will have a special program just for them, you will not be able to build a fence tall enough to keep the nets way.

GLORIA PENNER: There we are. And of course the word amnesty between the two of them is the hot button word.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us major about the cigar association almost scandal I guess you mentioned.

GLORIA PENNER: Her major issue these days is the congressional cigar association which she says represents corporate lobbyists paying for dinners, drinks and lavish parties in exchange for Congress man Bilbray's votes on their projects. So they meet occasionally, they have cigars and other things, and Bilbray denies it all. He basically says, you know, this is just a social group and there are all kinds of people in the group, and it's also a way in which he kind of can take care of his staffers who get to go to this cigar association. So he's not really gonna deal with it. You know, one way to let a tough possible issue go away is just not to deal with it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. Carl is calling us from Clairemont. Good morning Carl. Welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Thanks for having me on.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Please, talk, Carl.

NEW SPEAKER: My question is I just think it's kind of interesting race, because even though you have an incumbent running against a nonincumbent, the nonincumbent seems to pull all the policies from the party in power, for Nancy Pelosi the speaker, where voting against the incumbent is voting for the status quo.

GLORIA PENNER: That is such an important subject, Carl. Because this year, the Democrats are really fighting the issue of whether they have just not taken much of the GOP. And many incumbents are Democrats. And the government has not taken the proper steps to make the economy more vigorous, to save jobs. And this is it. You know, the whole issue here is the Democrats have said, well, you know, we're for the middle class, we're for main street versus wall street, and they tried that, that didn't work too well. Then they pointed at former president bush and said, well, you know, it's his fault, he left us with this mess and nobody really seemed to care much about that. And then they seemed to have to defend Nancy Pelosi, Nancy Pelosi, has become the bugaboo of the Democratic Party. If you lineup with Democrats, it means you're lining up with Nancy Pelosi. And she's no longer a beloved creature.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: To some. And Carl was calling us. And let's move on to the 51st congressional district.

GLORIA PENNER: I would like to mention the other candidates in the race. We have Miriam Clark, she's the peace and freedom candidate, and she's a retired juvenile office. And Lawrence Grusnik, and he's a mortgage finance advisor. I always love it when libertarians are involved in finance in some way. And practically every race has a libertarian in it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm very glad that you did that. And are there any debates planned between Bilbray and Busby?

GLORIA PENNER: I think there is one. And you may have the date for that. I think it's next Monday. Yeah, so I believe it is, and it's going to be a public debate. People can go to that, and I'm sure that if you go to the website for Bilbray and Busby, you're going to find out exactly where it is.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, the no, times website has the California 50th district profile shows Brian Bilbray has a 99 percent likelihood of winning, and that seems like it's amazing until you look at the profile in the 51st district, which the New York Times gives to Bob Filner a 100 percent likelihood of winning over his republican challenger Nick popodich. Tell us about this race in the 51st. First of all, Gloria, how long has bob filler in represented the district.

GLORIA PENNER: Filner has been in the district for 20 years, that's about how long, he's a solid Democrat. So is his district. And before that, he had a long history in local elected politics. And he also was a history teacher at San Diego state university for a long time. He gave that up when he ran for Congress.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And the challenger this year is a newcomer, nick Popodich.

GLORIA PENNER: Popodich was a U.S. marine, he was wounded in action in Fallujah, he medically retired as a gunnery sergeant and holds a silver star and a purple heart. He's written a book, and he gives lectures about this book, he travels around, gives lectures about the book, he gives lectures about leadership, he does motivational type speaking. He has minimal sight now. But he has some sight. There was a point at which he didn't have any. He wears an eye patch, he's quite distinctive looking. He's an advocate for veterans and he served in the marines during operation Desert Shield, Desert Storm, he was discharged then he reenlisted and became a drill sergeant at NCRD, and he's now at San Diego state university learning to become a social studies teacher.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, you spoke with both of these candidates and not surprisingly, both had some pointed things to say about veterans.

GLORIA PENNER: Yes, indeed. Well, you can imagine that Nick Popodich certainly has something to say about veterans.

NEW SPEAKER: He's voting against every funding measure of those individuals in harm's way, he's preventing individuals from training, how to save their lives. If he's doing those things, to me it's like a guy cheating on his wife and then buying her flowers. Don't come to me with something nice afterwards. You need to support those guys and gals we got in harm's way. So that's my biggest opposition to him. And secondly, I would say he's never been in a VA hospital, he's never been a vet ran of he's never served. And I tell you if you approach it from a bureaucrat or a college professor's perspective, you're probably gonna miss the target. If you've never had to file a VA claim and had the welfare of your family, the very welfare of your family hanging in the balance of your VA claim you probably don't really realize some of the subtle nuances of these things so I think it takes a vet ran to chair that committee.

GLORIA PENNER: So as you can see, he's very well spoken and his comments about veterans and the future of the veterans' committee are taken to heart with his own experiences. However, bob Filner is now the chairman of the house veterans' affairs committee. And he's kind of proud of that role, it's a powerful role, and he responded to Popodich's criticism.

NEW SPEAKER: As the chairman of the veterans' committee, I have taken the lead in supporting the troops when they come home. In fact in my four years as chairman, we have raised the budget for healthcare more than $20 billion, and that's over 60 percent. Unprecedented in the history of the VA, we have put literally tens of billions into mental healthcare, into women's healthcare, into programs for the homeless. And you ask any vet ran around the nation, except apparently Mr. Popodich, and they'll say nobody has done more in the last four years. Now, I don't have to support the war to support our veterans.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That, of course, Bob Filner responding to his challenger Nick Popodich in district 51. In further talking to these two candidates, Gloria, it seems they are actually playing out an argument that is going on between Democrats and Republicans throughout the country. They have two different opinions on the very purpose of government.

GLORIA PENNER: This is true. And as we know that final labor department report before the elections tells us that the economy lost 95000 jobs in September and the national un. Employment rate remains steady at 9.6 percent. So the question that we're all looking at is democratic Congress man, congressional candidates, rather, put it this way, what do you want the party fighting for? The middle class or the party fighting for wall street? And the Republicans say, well, you know, it's just not working and people really seem more eager to cast a vote against government spending than against corporate greed. Nick Popodich picked up on that.

NEW SPEAKER: Limit government, lower taxes, that means revenue in our committee, and that creates jobs. Rather than sending the revenue out of our community, we keep it here in our community, and then it grows jobs. So this bid that they're trying to do, this class warfare, that we're gonna take it from just one class in our community, that's taking it from our community, regardless of who you take it from. And people aren't blind. They know if you raise the tax on the small business owner, you raise the tax on the grocery store, he's just gonna raise the price of milk. The lowest guy is gonna end up paying that tax regardless. The only difference is that that is new revenue that's left our community.

GLORIA PENNER: There's no question that is a message that resonates with voters, and I guess if that district weren't so strongly democratic, Popodich would really be considered a very viable candidate. So I asked the same question of Filner, I said this is what pop ditch had to say. And of course he responded.

NEW SPEAKER: If he's yelling about balancing the budget and increasing the defense department, which is the biggest thing in the budget now and where we could have the most savings if we brought our young men and women home. There is no other option. If you're not going to raise taxes and you're not going to cut the defense bottoming. There is only so many places you can go where there is money. So he has to go after Medicare and Social Security, and environmental protection and housing and all the other people's programs that are in there. That's what the Republicans always go after. So there is no other option if you're going to limit yourself in the way he has.

GLORIA PENNER: So there's a clear choice now for the voters in district 51 which runs along the southern border of San Diego into the imperial valley and picks up El Centro and Brawley. By the way, 60 percent of the residents there are Hispanic, 17 percent white, seven percent black, 12 percent Asian. The median income in the 51st is about $51,000. Which is lower than the national average. Only 17 percent have bachelors' degrees.

CAVANAUGH: And as we said, though, going into it, none of these races is likely to change hands of the incumbents are favored in all five of San Diego's congressional races.

GLORIA PENNER: That's true. But it doesn't mean people shouldn't vote.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh, absolutely. Well, in fact, let's close with some information on important election deadlines.

GLORIA PENNER: If you haven't registered to vote yet, you still have about five days, the deadline is Monday, October 18th and you have to fill out a registration form or if you want to change your party affiliation, that's when you do it or if you've recently moved or changed your name, and there is a website that you can any to and you can fill out the form right on that website, and it's then you sign it, or you can pick up a phone -- a format the registrar of voters' office. Or at the post office.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what is becoming more popular with people is just to mail in their vote. What is the deadline for that.

GLORIA PENNER: The mail in ballot should already be in your home by now. The deadline to apply for one if you haven't gotten it yet, is Tuesday, October 26th. So you need to send that in. You request send that in right up through election day. As long as it gets to the registrar before the poles close on election day. If you haven't gotten it, go to Or you can call 8585655800.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And the 50th district, congressional debate will take place 6:00 PM, Monday, October 18th at Del Norte high school in the North County. Gloria thanks so much.

GLORIA PENNER: You're welcome, and be sure to vote Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Never want to dissuade anyone from doing that. You never know about an upset. Gloria Penner is also host of the editors round table and San Diego week. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes on KPBS.