CA-25 Special Election: Who Will Represent This District During The Coronavirus Pandemic And Recovery?

A vote center in Santa Clarita. (Elly Yu/LAist)

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Voters who live in the 25th congressional district, spanning several valleys in north Los Angeles County, have a decision on their hands: Should their House seat remain under Democratic Party control, or would a Republican be a better fit to represent the region?

Ex-Congresswoman Katie Hill's former district includes Simi Valley, Porter Ranch, Santa Clarita, and the Antelope Valley cities of Palmdale and Lancaster — along with a piece of eastern Ventura County.

It's an area that's part suburban and part rural, with many residents spending hours commuting on the 5 into L.A. The district's demographics are shifting younger and more diverse as families move here from the big city, attracted by relative affordability and good schools. That transition helped propel nonprofit executive Hill to victory in 2018, part of the "blue wave" that swept Republicans out of seven historically red California House seats.

WHY A SPECIAL ELECTION?

The news hit like a bombshell: Hill announced in October she would resign after nude photos of her were posted online without her consent and she faced a House Ethics investigation over allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a congressional staffer, which she denied. She has since talked openly about the mental health effects of cyber exploitation.

The vacancy left voters in the district with both a special election to fill the last seven months of Hill's term and a regular primary contest to pick the next representative to take office in January 2021.

The field was crowded with attention-grabbing names — but on March 3, two candidates captured the top spots in both races:

  • Democratic Assemblywoman and former Newhall School District board member Christy Smith (campaign website)
  • Republican businessman and Navy veteran Mike Garcia (campaign website)

Since no one won more than 50% of the vote in the special election, Smith and Garcia will meet in a runoff on May 12 and then again in the Nov. 3 general election.

If the free-for-all primary weren't enough, the race has taken on a new dimension: A global pandemic has shoved a stick in the spokes of the economy. Congress now plays a central role in deciding the amount and direction of coronavirus relief funding that will shape the nation's recovery for years to come.

Nonpartisan analysts at the Cook Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball recently classified the race a toss-up — the latter called it possibly Republicans' "best opportunity to claw back some of their lost California turf."

HOW TO VOTE IN THE MAY 12 ELECTION

Health and safety concerns prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign an executive order requiring counties to send mail-in ballots to every 25th district voter — so even if you aren't signed up as a permanent absentee voter, you should be getting one.

Ballots began hitting mailboxes last week. If you just turned 18 or you're new to the district, you can register to vote here.

You don't have to venture out in a crowd on May 12 to get your voice heard. The L.A. County Registrar is encouraging people to vote from the safety of their homes by mailing back the ballot or dropping it in one of 22 drop boxes (find locations here). Be sure to postmark that signed envelope no later than election day so it will count.

California Assemblywoman Christy Smith, a candidate for the House of Representatives 25th District, speaks to supporters Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Elly Yu/LAist)

If you absolutely must vote in person, nine vote centers will be open starting May 2. They will be staffed by election workers using personal protective equipment, enforcing social distancing and regularly disinfecting ballot marking machines, according to the county.

You can find the locations here. Most are open for 10 days, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and will let you register the same day or vote in person if you lost your mail-in ballot.

Let's get into the issues: Right now, what's top of mind is the candidates' positions on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. (We broke down Smith and Garcia's takes on other issues in a previous story.)

WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN RIGHT NOW TO SAFEGUARD THE HEALTH AND SAFETY OF ALL AMERICANS?

  • MIKE GARCIA: The former fighter pilot turned Raytheon executive said he would prioritize adding funds to the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the $350 billion in relief money set aside for small businesses that was exhausted last week.

    "If we can't get those small businesses whole there's going to be folks losing jobs every day," Garcia said. (The Senate this week passed a $484 billion package including funding for PPP, and the House passed it Thursday.)

    He applauded measures taken by the government to combat coronavirus, like the Trump administration's decision to shut down most travel from China in late January. "That was an aggressive move that was criticized at the time for being xenophobic," he said.
  • CHRISTY SMITH: The Assemblywoman, whose 38th district overlaps the 25th congressional district, said the public should follow health officials' advice. "The most important thing we can do is to remind people to continue to stay safe at home until their respective county or community orders expire," Smith said, adding anyone who must make trips out should wear a face covering in public.

    She said she will work in the Assembly to ramp up the state's testing capacity, part of Newsom's 6-point plan to reopen California — including supporting research and securing supplies of nasal swabs and other testing components.

    More on Smith's to-do list: expanding lab capacity and maintaining hospital surge capability in case of a virus rebound.

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT'S PANDEMIC RESPONSE SO FAR?

  • MIKE GARCIA: Garcia disagrees with critics of the Trump administration who have called the feds' rollout of testing too slow and blasted the decentralized, state-by-state procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE).

    He said the federal government has ramped up production of ventilators, and pushed to expedite potential therapies and vaccine trials.

    "We are realizing infection and death rates that are well below what were being modeled in the February and March timeframe," Garcia said. "It's a shame that it's become a political and a very partisan argument."

    "This is an uncharted crisis. This is something our nation hasn't seen before, similar to 9/11," he said. "So it's easy for pundits and politicians to sit on the sidelines and throw spears."
  • CHRISTY SMITH: The Assemblywoman called the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus outbreak "scattershot."

    "By now, I would have hoped to see the deployment of the National Defense Production Act so that we could have streamlined, on a national scale, access to PPE and equipment like ventilators that we already had in supply and get those out more rapidly," Smith said. (President Trump said on Sunday he would invoke the DPA, which dates back to the Korean War era, to produce medical swabs used in testing, weeks after warnings about shortages.)

    She also criticized the President's decision to halt U.S. funding of the World Health Organization.

    Smith added more investment is needed in the CDC and "our research infrastructure that we are going to need to shore up testing, and to have systems in place that allow us to establish whatever the new normal will be."
CA-25 Republican congressional candidate Mike Garcia (left) talks to a voter after a Feb. 8 debate in Simi Valley. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

AS A MEMBER OF CONGRESS, WHAT WOULD YOU WANT INCLUDED IN THE NEXT ROUND OF FEDERAL RELIEF?

  • MIKE GARCIA: The priority should be funding the Paycheck Protection Program, money for the Small Business Administration and economic injury disaster loans and grants, Garcia said. "That's where the jobs are being either lost or maintained."

    "It depends on what the governors do at this point. If we can start turning the lights back on and ramping up, then I do believe it's recoverable," he said.

    "I do see right now a very clear need for more money being put into that small business bucket," Garcia said. "And hopefully ... not adding more pork into the package."
  • CHRISTY SMITH: Smith also highlighted the need to replenish the Paycheck Protection Program.

    "The shop on Main Street needs to be getting those resources right now to keep employees on payroll," Smith said.

    "But Democrats continue to fight to have that be a program that has supervision, monitoring and transparency around it so that we know where those resources have rolled out to," she added.

    The Assemblywoman emphasized her position that the economic recovery after the pandemic should be more broad-based than what happened after the Great Recession.

    "This recovery can't just be about the big guys who are already well capitalized," she said.

HOW DO WE OPEN BACK UP SAFELY WITHOUT A REBOUND OF THE VIRUS?

  • MIKE GARCIA: "This is where the health experts need to be consulted and listened to," Garcia said.

    "If we don't monitor things correctly — don't continue to test and the infection rates start climbing again — we run the risk of going back up another curve," he added.

    Garcia supports the Trump administration's plan to restart the economy, which includes three phases stepping back up to "normalcy" for most Americans. But it moves faster than the CDC recommendation, which includes more specific benchmarks and requirements to see reductions in cases and deaths over a longer period of time.

    Garcia admits the pandemic may force a permanent shift in cultural norms — like hand washing and wearing masks in public when you're sick.

    "These things don't torpedo an economy," he said. "They're adjustments we can make to hopefully mitigate future occurrences."
  • CHRISTY SMITH: For now, Americans' new normal will include physical distancing and wearing a face covering, Smith said.

    "As Americans, we're huggers and we're hand shakers, and that's going to have to continue to change for a while," Smith said.

    She supports giving public health officials the tools to trace and isolate new cases — and says the scientific development of both a vaccine and therapeutic treatments is paramount.

    "We need to be backing that very important research, and making sure that across systems doctors can share that data and information," Smith said. "Because we won't truly get back to normal with this virus until we have access to a vaccine."