Wildfires, COVID and AB5: The Issues Lighting Up the 25th District Congressional Race

Christy Smith talks to a voter in Palmdale during a drive-thru meet and greet organized by her campaign. Oct. 3, 2020. (Libby Denkmann for LAist)

It's been a turbulent couple of years for the 25th Congressional District in north L.A. and eastern Ventura Counties. Back in 2018, liberal activists threw themselves into Katie Hill's campaign, helping the Democrat flip this longtime GOP seat.

But then, Hill resigned in the wake of allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships with staffers and nude photos published online without her consent. Republican Navy veteran Mike Garcia won a special election in May to fill the last seven months of her term.

Now, the Nov. 3 general election race is between Garcia and his repeat challenger, Democratic Assembly member Christy Smith.

DRIVE-THRU CAMPAIGN EVENTS

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Palmdale, sprinklers quenched the lawns in a suburban slice of the Antelope Valley. Smith campaign volunteers passed out ice cream bars, yard signs and stickers to neighbors pulling up to the curb. The Assembly member, masked up, leaned toward an SUV and chatted with the driver about how to connect with her campaign on social media.

"These drive-thru meet and greets have been our way to be COVID compliant," Smith explained. "We want to keep the community safe, but also give voters an opportunity to come by and say hello."

It's the closest Smith gets to the pre-pandemic in-person rallies and door-knocking marathons that helped the Democrat rise to the top of a wide-open March primary. The pandemic has made it a challenge to campaign in this huge district that spans Simi Valley, Santa Clarita and Lancaster.

On this day, Smith's campaign was also collecting donations — such as bottled water — for wildfire evacuees. This district has faced wave after wave of increasingly devastating fires, most recently, the Bobcat fire in the Angeles National Forest.

When she talks about the threat, Smith goes big picture: she says it's an example of the urgent need to address climate change.

"In this district, by-and-large, climate is a bipartisan issue," she said. "The fact that fires rage out of control in very short order, and the conditions on the ground that are just right for these massive kinds of fires — that is absolutely about climate."

DIVIDED ON WILDFIRES AND CLIMATE

It's one of the many points of contrast with her opponent. Garcia highlighted the difference at a recent debate sponsored by the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce.

"Christy is burying her head in the sand, attributing it to climate change," he said.

The congressman said he does believe the planet's temperatures have risen over the past 50 years.

"I'm not going to argue — the planet is warming," Garcia said. "But that doesn't change the physics of the fire triangle."

Garcia echoed Republicans, including President Trump, who blame the growing intensity of California wildfires on forest management failures.

"What we're experiencing here is the end result of Sacramento and, frankly, the federal government, not getting rid of the dead brush and the leaves that have been accumulating over the last 40 years," said Garcia, adding he's focused on bringing more fire fighting assets to California, including C-130 aircraft specially equipped to drop Phos-Check fire retardant.

It's the kind of needle-threading that a Republican incumbent must pull off to stay in office in a district with nearly an eight-point Democratic voter registration advantage.

Congressman Mike Garcia hosted a fire management round table with state and federal officials. September 2020. (Libby Denkmann for LAist)

For her part, Smith says it's not an either-or when it comes to forest management vs. addressing climate change. And she has called for greater federal investment in preventing and fighting fires. During the debate, she criticized Garcia for dismissing the impact of climate change.

"What we are experiencing here in California, everything from sea level rise to the significant wildfires ... has a real economic impact," she said. "And we are at a huge loss if we don't begin to address the root causes."

HEALTHCARE AND COVID-19 RESPONSE

Garcia, a former Raytheon executive, says he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act — once Republicans have a plan to replace it.

He also argues for more local control in COVID-19 response.

"We've got frustrations in Santa Clarita, Simi Valley, Antelope Valley where we know we should be able to reopen, we know how to mitigate the risk," he said. "We have the PPE and we want to get our kids back in school."

Smith vows to protect Obamacare and supports establishing a public option for health insurance. On the coronavirus, she's calling for a coherent national testing and contact tracing strategy.

"We have to acknowledge that scientifically-based responses to public health crises, by their nature, should not be politicized," Smith said. "Yet this has been politicized from the outset by an Administration that did not want to acknowledge that this crisis existed because they wanted to be re-elected to office."

Garcia was quick to respond: President Trump isn't her opponent.

"The irony of saying she doesn't want to politicize it, yet she's bringing up someone who she's not running against and isn't in this race," Garcia said.

TURNOUT AND MOMENTUM

Smith and her supporters are hoping her roughly 10-point loss was only a bump in the road — driven by Republicans' propensity to turn out the vote more successfully than Democrats during special elections.

"We had a longer runway of time at this point to be really on the ground in a meaningful way," said Smith, "to not only rally the vote, but to let people get to know who I am and how I'm going to serve this community. It really has changed the momentum."

But Phil Gussin, a political science professor at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, says the biggest shift in momentum should be due to Democratic turnout.

"[Smith's] not driving this election," Gussin said. "I think this election is going to be a referendum almost entirely on Donald Trump."

Many of Gussin's students volunteered for Katie Hill's 2018 campaign.

"So often, young people feel like they can't have any impact," he said. "In this case, there were a bunch of students who got active for the first time in their lives, and it flipped a district, and they felt so empowered,"

When Hill left office, Gussin saw the fire go out for many young activists.

"They just felt dispirited," he said. Gussin believes the disappointment spilled over to lackluster turnout for Smith during the special election.

Gussin, however, predicts another blue surge motivated by a chance to vote President Trump out of office.

But Garcia campaign spokesman Lance Trover disagrees. He points out the district has an independent streak — and a history of split-ticket voting. For example, Hillary Clinton won here in 2016, the same year voters sent Republican Steve Knight to Congress.

"You're also looking at a candidate like Mike who has a lot of crossover appeal," Trover said. "Clearly independents and Democrats are voting for him."

CALIFORNIA'S AB5 CONTROVERSY

In the final weeks of the campaign, Garcia and his supporters are bringing up one local issue again and again: Smith's Assembly vote to pass AB5, a bill that reclassified many independent contractors in California as employees, extending them benefits such as sick days and health insurance.

The legislature has since created exemptions for many job categories, including musicians and translators. Large tech companies such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash are funding Prop 22 — a massive ballot measure campaign to exempt app-based drivers.

"AB5 has been a complete and total disaster for California," Trover said, "and Mike wants to make sure we don't take that to the national level."

Smith defends the legislation as necessary after a ruling by the state's highest court known as the Dynamex decision. "We really needed to take what came from that Supreme Court decision and codify it across a number of key industry sectors," Smith said.

She added that, as a member of Congress, she would push to expand workers rights.

"Everything from having a much higher, much more competitive national minimum wage, to making sure that these workplace protections are in place for a lot of people," she said.

Garcia says his first five months in Congress have been a sprint to set up district offices and catch up on a backlog of constituent casework. Voters are deciding right now whether to give him a full two-year term to get comfortable in the job.