In the minds of many LGBT and HIV/AIDS activists in the 1990s, Riverside County ranked second only to Orange County as a haven for antigay religious activism. Santa Ana-based Traditional Values Coalition head Lou Sheldon lead a crusade against Project 10 founder Virginia Uribe and in 1991, Sheldon worked to repeal a Riverside ordinance that banned discrimination against people who were HIV-positive.
But one need not stretch that far back to understand the importance of Riverside to the Religious Right. In January 2009, the Right won a significant victory when Riverside’s Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled in Doe v. California Lutheran High School Association that the high school and its principle had the right to expel two girls who were perceived to be lesbians under the private religious school’s “Christian Conduct” rule. The California Supreme Court subsequently declined to review the case, which now stands as a confusing exception to the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.
But “Riverside has changed quite a bit,” openly gay Harvard-educated progressive Mark Takano said Monday night, April 9, at a fundraiser held at Courage Campaign founder Rick Jacobs' house for Takano’s race in the 41 Congressional District. Now the area in which Takano teaches seniors at Rialto High School is emerging as heavily Latino, trending middle class “as long as we don’t fail” to educate the youth, he said. Even at the lowest point for Democrats in 2010, the district voted for Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown. And to emphasize the growing acceptance of diversity, on April 21, he is accompanying students from the school’s Gay Straight Alliance to the GLAAD Media Awards in L.A.
Openly gay Colorado Rep. Jared Polis introduced Takano to the mixed gay/straight crowd, many of whom were involved with Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in California. Polis is in the leadership of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and is a program chair for their Red to Blue Program. Polis, who became the first openly gay parent in Congress last December, has a strong passion for education and was effusive in underscoring the importance of electing a skilled, knowledgeable teacher to Congress.
“This is a very winnable race,” Polis said. But given the conditions created by Citizens United, the “shadowy outside groups” that can raise and spend large amounts of money anonymously and the possibility Takano’s campaign opponent could self-finance, Takano needs to raise a lot of money to be prepared for a money-drop by the Koch brothers or Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. Takano, Polis said, “is neither a long shot or a shoe-in but without your help, he can’t get elected.”
Polis said Takano, who is endorsed by the Victory Fund, is considered a top-tier race for the Democrats and a key to winning back the House. (See the Frontiers story on Takano here) The district is now 42 percent Democrat, 35 percent Republican, 20 percent "decline to state" with lots of independents. In a March 16 story on the changing Inland Empire, the LA Times noted:
For the first time in 20 years, a Republican running for Congress in Riverside needs help.
John Tavaglione huddled with supporters in the mirrored back room of a local Coco’s on a recent rainy evening, laying out a ground game for his first crack at federal office. As a Republican and political heir of a powerful Riverside family, the longtime county supervisor would have breezed into Washington, D.C., in past elections……
Riverside County voters have not elected a Democrat to Congress since liberal Rep. George Brown’s district was gerrymandered into San Bernardino County after the 1990 census. Brown had been the only Democratic congressman in either county since 1972 until he died in office in 1999 and Baca won his seat.
Democrat Mark Takano is trying to break that streak. Takano is a teacher and Riverside Community College trustee who narrowly lost to Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) in 1992 and 1994, even though the district they ran in was solidly Republican and included a conservative chunk of Orange County.
Takano says his campaign will be about creating jobs in a county still ailing with 12.5% unemployment. “The No. 1 focus is on unemployment,” he said. “Republicans in the House have not been focused on what’s best for America … including creating jobs.”
Tavaglione, his Republican opponent, finds himself in the unfamiliar realm of a partisan dog fight. He’s been elected to the county Board of Supervisors five times, all in nonpartisan elections.
Tavaglione’s campaign advisor, Jim Nygren, said the supervisor has represented portions of the congressional district in some capacity for the last 17 years and is more focused on getting things done than engaging in petty politics — exactly the type of representative voters say they want.
Not so easy, Takano pointed out at the fundraiser, since Congressional Republicans are required to toe the conservative party line dictated by Speaker John Boehner. A more diverse delegation on the House floor will be needed to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, Takano said.
Takano, whose role model is the late liberal George Brown, said that “thanks to the teachers union, I have the right and the honor to return back to the work I love” and is therefore free to “do what I think is right. I won’t play it safe.”
The progressive audience was very pleased to hear that, perhaps even more so than the historical fact that Takano would be the first openly gay person of color elected to Congress. They grilled him—and Polis—on education, with one woman declaring that she saw no difference between President Bush’s No Child Left Behind and President Obama’s Race to the Top. The long exchange essentially boiled down to points that Bush’s law is punitive while Obama’s funding effort lead to a core of common standards.
But Takano drilled deeper, explaining that as a teacher on the frontline of education for 23 years, “I understand the public hunger for accountability.” He thinks of the “bigger picture,” saying he teaches Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice to his 90 percent Latino students at their own pace, making it “rich and worth it,” so students—especially the girls—learn the range of choices they have and how to think on their own.
The biggest issue in his district, however, is the 13 percent unemployment rate, Takano said. And if elected, proposing a job-creation package would be his first priority. Asked about his position on the environment, Takano needed to only mention air quality in the Inland Empire to elicit nods of recognition. “This seat must be full throated voice on air quality and climate change,” he said.
Takano said that working on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign was a real turning point for him. His race, he believes, will “break the stranglehold of the Republicans.”
Indeed, Takano believes that, unlike the visible suffering during Great Depression, today there is tremendous suffering “masked by the safety net.” America, Takano said, is “in peril if we don’t make the right decision. This is a huge fight over the course of our nation.”