What Does the Pandemic Mean for California’s Swing-Seat Special Election?

A face mask covers the mouth of a statue of a horse near the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in Los Angeles County, California.
Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

On Tuesday, California’s 25th District will hold a special election to determine who will replace former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned last year after a relationship with a campaign staffer came to light. The race between California State Assemblywoman Christy Smith and defense contractor Mike Garcia has become a virtual toss-up, with the Republican Garcia holding a slight advantage according to the most recent public poll and voter registration numbers from early returns. Democrats hold a 30,000-registered-voter advantage in the district, which flipped to the Democrats in the 2018 midterm wave after 26 years as a Republican stronghold, but nearly 40 percent of registered Republicans had already turned out in early mail-in voting as of Thursday according to tracking data, compared with only 25 percent of registered Democrats.

While the contest will likely be replayed in November no matter who wins, the victor will have the advantage of incumbency. Smith’s campaign has sought to make the race a referendum on President Donald Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Garcia’s close ties to the president, while Garcia, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and outside groups have spent millions of dollars in attack ads against Smith. In a press release late last month, the NRCC accused Smith of hypocrisy in her support of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who faces an allegation by former Senate staffer Tara Reade of sexual misconduct, when Smith had supported a thorough investigation of Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court.

In an interview with Slate on Thursday, Smith said that she felt Biden had been “forthcoming” in his response to the allegations, laid out her vision for a stronger federal response to COVID-19, described the difficulties of campaigning in a pandemic, and blamed Republicans for trying to “politicize” Reade’s allegations against Biden.

The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jeremy Stahl: What has it been like to run and campaign in the middle of a pandemic, when there’s not much in-person campaigning you can do?

Christy Smith: It’s a challenge in the sense that, as a candidate, you like that contact with voters, and generating of interest in town halls, and especially knocking on people’s doors. At the same time, the silver lining of this is that I have this amazing core of volunteers helping with this campaign effort, who are also raising this as a way when we’re reaching out to voters not only to talk about the campaign but checking in with them and seeing where they’re at and seeing if there’s any help or service that we can connect them with, at this moment with so many people struggling in one way or another.

California is facing a $54 billion budget deficit through next summer, as was reported on Thursday, the biggest in history. What do you think another federal economic rescue package should look like?

We know the first CARES Act that went through included some relief for mid- to larger-size cities, those [with populations] over 500,000, but here in California we’ve got a lot of small cities who are struggling under the weight of this already, due to the loss of local sales tax revenue and the money that they depend on to run city governments. There’s going to be a whole lot more that the federal government is going to have to do in shifting its spending priorities over the next year or more until we’re in full recovery mode, keeping these cities and state governments operating and functioning. … We’re talking about obligations and programs like our schools and law enforcement and things that just can’t fall by the wayside. Here in California, with fire season right around the corner, we cannot afford to not be funding our first responder community either.

Generally, what do you think is necessary from the federal government right now in terms of a coronavirus response?

This White House has proven incapable of providing the kind of material leadership, the type of moral leadership, that’s required in this moment. Materially what we need is a national streamlining of the supply chain to get a national testing program. With the support of the CDC and the National Institutes of Health, we need a testing program that makes sense, a protocol for big counties and communities to know how and when to be testing people in order to reestablish some kind of economic productivity. So that’s one.

Secondarily, we need to keep our public health infrastructure in place and we need to add to it. We need a federal jobs program right now that employs people who can be trained immediately in the public health space to go out into communities and, first of all, help businesses employ appropriate practices to keep communities safe, and secondarily, to be part of that necessary team of really important professionals that can help with contact tracing and helping communities or hot spots to isolate what cases begin to crop up and spread in certain areas. … Additionally, I would say that the government right now needs to deploy a team, a top-notch team of economic specialists and business leaders from across the country to charter what a good recovery model is going to look like. We’ve got in this country the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and others who can be brought to the table to help us navigate this along with our nation’s leading economists. Why that work is not being done is beyond me.

Can you please speak to the potential difficulties for your campaign in this specific type of race where you have many polling locations that are going to be closed on the day of the election itself as well as the general difficulties of special elections for Democratic candidates versus what you might anticipate in a November rematch?

Democratic voters are wonderful in presidential cycles. They are persistent and consistent, and they really turn out, and it’s these in-between cycles that prove more challenging for whatever reason. I would say that in this moment it’s a matter of being cognizant of where some of these voters might be. We’re probably talking about people who are experiencing a loss of income, job loss, perhaps they’ve had a loved one who has become ill. But just about every voter who we’ve spoken to has been impacted in one way or another by this. So what’s front of mind for them is not necessarily I have to make it a priority to vote. Right now it’s I need to figure out how I’m making my next rent payment and how I’m getting food on the table next week. …

To the credit of both Ventura County and Los Angeles County, the vote centers that they have been able to deploy have been very mindful of public health concerns. They have workers who are equipped with protective gear. The Los Angeles County ones are outdoors, so there’s a free flow of air. Things are being cleaned, importantly. There will be social distancing. We’re encouraging people who show up to please wear face coverings. … We’re concerned about our community of Lancaster and the Antelope Valley. The County of Los Angeles neglected to put a vote center in that location and that is a higher minority and lower-income population, many of whom don’t have access to a personal vehicle. And the voting center for them is going to be nine miles away. … There are still a lot of people in this moment—we saw it in Wisconsin—who want to turn up to vote. For some people it is really important to them to show up on Election Day. We’re just glad that opportunity is being provided in a safe manner.

What has your opponent been up to in recent weeks? Has he distanced himself from the president’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

He ran a primary that put him squarely in this president’s back pocket. And they haven’t walked away from that since. And yet what he’s done now in the course of this special election is to do nothing but attack me with erroneous content and hide. So right now, nobody knows where my opponent is. He’s not doing press. He’s not speaking to the public, talking about a proactive agenda. He’s certainly not addressing this crisis, because how do you defend the indefensible with the lack of leadership from this president who he supports so vehemently? So I can’t really speak to the type of campaign that he’s run, other than it’s been textbook Republican slash-and-burn, truth-be-damned campaigning, and it’s unfortunate.

I did have one question about some of the messaging that I’ve seen from your opponent’s camp, specifically from the National Republican Congressional Committee. They put out a press release at the end of last month where they flag a tweet that you wrote in September 2018 that says, “Pause and investigate. It’s fair, and in America we believe in fairness. #InvestigateKavanaugh #BelieveSurvivors,” and then they note your support of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. In your opinion, what specifically is the difference between the allegation that was made by Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh and the one that has been made by Tara Reade against Biden?

In the case of Dr. Ford, we did not see a complete and robust investigation, and in fact there was sort of this cursory glance over that. What I appreciate about Vice President Biden is that he has said, “Open the records.” He is open to an investigation and the New York Times has already done a pretty deep dive there. I know other reporters will continue to look into it so that Ms. Reade does have the opportunity to have the case fully examined and be fully heard. So I see no inconsistencies in my position on that.

But what I find really interesting is that this is where Republicans want to go right now. Right now, we have people starving. I have people in my district who have been waiting for their unemployment benefits for more than 20 days now. I have people in my district who are lining up at food banks once a week because that is their only way to [get] a meal. I have people in my district who don’t know when they’re going to get back to work.

So, while I appreciate the importance still of the Me Too movement, and the fact that we need to grapple with that, Republicans in this moment are demonstrating a complete failure of leadership. … We saw this with Hillary Clinton, we saw this with Barack Obama—when they don’t have a positive agenda to run on, when they don’t have a vision of America that is inclusive of everyone that speaks to American prosperity for everyone, that solves income inequality, that addresses climate change, that gets us on a better trajectory towards a more truly pluralistic society where every American has a chance to flourish, they’re going to continue to be in the gutter.

I think what all of us need to say is: Yes, we rightly and righteously want woman to be heard. We want these investigations to happen, but at the same time we have got to start holding the opposition party responsible for misinformation and disinformation and make sure that they are selling the American public on what their vision is and not these bottom-feeding politics, because it’s got to stop. It’s not serving any American. They’ve done it to every candidate, they’re trying it with me, and it is not enough: Being negative, being mean-spirited, spreading disinformation is simply not enough, and especially not in this moment.

I take your point about the urgency of the moment. I would just ask as a follow-up to you saying that a thorough investigation was not conducted in the case of Justice Kavanaugh: Would you like the vice president to open up his Senate records at the University of Delaware, at least to this specific charge, which is something he has declined to do and which is something that the New York Times editorial board has called for?

I’m going to leave that to those two camps to decide. I think an investigation is warranted given the circumstances. I think that a lot of it has already been done, but I don’t think that is a compelling component in my campaign. I have a whole lot to say on the Me Too movement, especially as a woman of my era and my generation. These are stories that need to be written and need to be told, and we need to come to a new understanding of how this movement can have meaning and serve women without being politicized, but its relevance and bearing in this campaign shouldn’t be overstated.

You said that you have a lot to say about this subject. Is there anything that you want to add about the Me Too movement more generally?

As a woman my age and as someone who started professional life in my 20s in the 1980s, what we expect from behavior towards one another has really evolved and changed over time. And, unfortunately, in all of those intervening decades from the Anita Hill hearings until now, we still have not had the right conversations about interpersonal conduct that are meaningful. We have such discomfort in this country with fairly and adequately discussing human sexuality to begin with and women’s sexuality very specifically, and that kind of precludes us from really being able to move into an era where we can reshape the public discourse and dialogue around this and set new expectations for the new generation.

So, I think what you see is a younger generation having an expectation of purity a few decades back, when the standards for behavior were so decidedly different—and it’s not an excuse. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, to be sure. But it also—for each of these accusations you have to look at that moment in time and what the expectations of behavior were. And the standards now for the millennial generation, for this younger generation, they have very different standards, very different expectations.

But, unfortunately, in all of the eras that have preceded this, there has been a lot of nuance and unfortunately a lot of really inadequate conversations about it, and we need to get there. I think that we will, but it’s going to take I think a much more earnest conversation about women’s roles and priorities in this country as well as what we expect from conduct from one another. It’s a multigenerational approach and unfortunately, because this is human nature, it is an area where there is a lot of gray area. There simply is. But what we don’t need to have happen, particularly on behalf of women, is have it be something that is politicized and destructive.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I do want to be very, very clear on the point that I think that consistency is important. And I would have liked to see a more robust investigation of the Dr. Ford claims, and I find it a positive sign that Vice President Biden has been as forthcoming as he has been with these concerns and that there are people interested in finding the truth in all of this and that’s the important thing.

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