Midterms missionaries: Voices inside one of California’s hottest Congressional battlegrounds
At first glance, Fullerton, California doesn’t look like the kind of place that will determine the future of the Republic. Here you’ll find a prototypically California mix of old oil derricks and hipster coffee shops, strip mall taquerias and Korean barbeque chains, backpack-toting college kids and wealthy retirees on their way to the golf links.
This is not how elections usually go in California’s 39th Congressional district. For years, this stretch of tri-county suburbia has been dependable GOP turf. Richard Nixon grew up here, after all. But with a historically unpopular president and changing demographics—the district is now roughly one-third Asian-American, one-third Latino and one-third white—2018 looks different.
On one side of the race is the former Republican Assemblywoman Young Kim, who is hoping to become the first Korean American woman elected to Congress by bidding to replace her old boss, Republican Rep. Ed Royce. She’s a respected retail politician, never one to miss a ribbon-cutting or block party, and she’s spent the last 10 months saying as little as possible about President Trump.
On the other side is Gil Cisneros, a Latino formal naval officer and Mega Millions lottery winner with little name recognition, but tons of money. That plus a “D” next to your name on the ballot, could be enough this year.
And so two small armies of campaign consultants, pollsters, fund-raisers, organizers, party members and volunteer door-knockers have descended upon this unlikely battleground district. In a collaboration with The California Sunday Magazine, we spoke to some of the boots on the ground about why they care.
Patrick Mocete—campaign manager for Kim campaign
“In this job, you might be working on campaign ads in one moment and then cleaning the office bathroom the next. There are long hours. Dedication is a big part of the job. I think it makes for a better working environment when everyone is willing to do the things that aren’t as glamorous or aren’t as high profile. At the end of the day, someone has to take out trash and make sure the bills get paid.”
Dustin Chiang—college student and deputy political director for Cisneros campaign
“When I was in the fifth grade, I knew very little about politics, but I knew that there was a man named Barack Obama who was running for president and every time I heard him speak he was incredibly inspiring.
I got really interested in polling. Who was up? Who was down? Who was still in the race? I didn’t know the opinions of my classmates, so I devised my own little poll, walked around the playground with a clipboard and asked people who they wanted to be the next president. The results were neck and neck between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The East Bay is a Democratic stronghold, as I learned back then.
I love studying government and public service and being active, so I’m just trying to make a difference any way that I can. As I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do this summer, I knew I had to help Democrats take back Congress.”
Sam Han—pastor at Grace Ministries International church and Kim campaign supporter
“My dad moved here from Korea forty years ago and he still can’t speak English fluently. That’s how insulated a lot of these immigrant communities are in the district. But just because they’re insulated and not in public view does not mean that they don’t wield influence. Some of these guys are incredibly powerful movers and shakers behind the scenes. They are influential people. Most reporters and politicians overlook them because they don’t know that world. And unless you came from that world, you wouldn’t understand. You’d just think: he’s just the pastor of a hundred people, why is he so important? They don’t know that there are five people in his church who work directly under the CEO of Samsung. So Young Kim is uniquely positioned. Because of her Korean heritage and because she just loves talking to people.”
Janice Corrales—human rights attorney and volunteer for Cisneros campaign
“I speak Spanish, so I like to knock on the Spanish-speaking doors. Gil tends to be really popular with those households. But places like Yorba Linda? I refuse to go to Yorba Linda. They never answer their doors. It’s really boring! At first, I thought it was because I’m Latina and I was like “send someone blonde!” But then they got the same response, so I don’t know. I think they’re just not used to canvassers.
But in all honesty, the response I’ve gotten has been really positive. People are really receptive. But it’s tiring! I broke two pairs of shoes during the primary.
The party says you have to focus on the issues, but I’m a single issue voter. I just want to stop Trump.”
Trisha Bowler—founding member of the Diamond Bar Republican Women Federated and Kim campaign supporter
“Oh good heavens, the city has changed so much over the years. We used to have horses riding alongside the streets. There were no major boulevards. It’s still beautiful, but we’ve grown so quickly. We used to be a solidly Republican city too, but we have gotten so many people here from other countries. The demographics have changed so much. I think the new residents need to become educated—if they’re citizens at all. I think they really don’t know the issues, they don’t know what’s best for them. If they really understood they would know that the Republican platform is best for everybody.
But we do have quite a few Asians in positions of power now, people like Young Kim. Hopefully the Asians who think the Democrats are great will listen to what the Republican Asians have to say.”
Jim Gallagher—retiree from Chino Hills and volunteer for the Cisneros campaign
“I campaigned for John F. Kennedy when I was eight years old. I organized the kids on the street. We were all gungho for Kennedy. I grew up in New York and it was a very diverse town just north of the city. Just about everyone was for Kennedy there. I said to the kids one day, “why don’t we knock on doors and tell people to go vote for Kennedy?” We took some of the stickers my dad had of Kennedy’s face, pasted them on a few signs, and went marching up and down the street.
Then one of the kids said, “what about the other guy? That Nixon guy?” I said, “yeah, let’s vote for him for dishwasher.” So we made up a flag that said “Nixon for Dishwasher.”
When we got to my friend Charlie’s house, his mom answers the door and we say, “We’re voting for Kennedy for president. Are you going to vote for Kennedy?”
“No, kids,” she said. “I’m for the dishwasher.” Charlie got in trouble for that.
These days when I’m canvassing I try to ask: what information is the person at the door giving me right now? It’s like a psychic’s magic act—“I’m sensing you recently lost someone.” If someone raises their hand, then you feed on that. What else is this person telling me that might be of interest? Honestly, I’m just fascinated with people anyway.”