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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Taking Back the South Pt. 2 – “Bring Me The Head of David Dreier”

It was supposed to be so easy. Republican David Dreier, the 24-year Los Angeles area Congressman who chairs the powerful House Rules committee, was guaranteed a virtual walk in the park for the 2004 election. He had high visibility, powerful friends in both Governor Schwarzenegger and George Bush, and a congressional district drawn to reassure the election of Republicans.

His Democratic opponent: environmental safety worker, lesbian and political novice Cynthia Matthews. Dreier didn’t even bother to campaign. That is, until he saw the results of an October 6 poll. In a mad last-minute scramble, Dreier had to pull out all the stops – calling on his buddy Arnold and spending a reported one million dollars – to defeat an opponent whose total war chest amounted to $31,000, and who did not even have the backing of the State Democratic Party.

It was the first major shot fired across the Republican bow in the nascent war over immigration policy.

From an anti-Dreier web site:

Just so you know the impact you have had on the lives of people, here is an example: I received an e-mail from a guy who said he was living the "American Dream." He FORMERLY lived in District 26, but lost his home several years ago. When you rammed NAFTA down our throats, the Company for which he worked moved South of the border and opened up shop. They did offer him a job down there, but not at a livable wage. You did his company a favor, but hurt him and his 3 children….Then he took a job with a printer at a reduced salary. While his life style changed, at least he could pay his bills... that is until an illegal alien was trained to do his printing job and he was booted out because the Illegal would work for less money. So... you let his company move out of the country, which cost American jobs, and then you let illegal aliens move in to take the remaining jobs. HOW DO YOU LIVE WITH YOURSELF???

Pretty liberal notions on worker's rights taking root in an otherwise right-wing tomb. It is typical of the rhetoric surrounding the campaign, which received a shot in the arm when two local conservative AM talk radio DJs, John Kobylt and Ken Champiou of KFI Radio's “John and Ken” show decided to take up Matthews' cause. They devoted hours of airtime to venting public rage over Dreier's voting record.

The story gets even funnier when Dreier filed an FCC complaint against John and Ken's employer Clear Channel (yes, Clear Channel…hah!) for engaging in “illegal corporate coordination by promoting Cynthia Matthews' congressional campaign.” The two hosts countered that no Republicans complained when the two spent hours of airtime promoting the recall of Gray Davis (Dreier was co-chairman of Schwarzenegger's campaign.) "It's really massive hypocrisy”, Kobylt said. “Republicans have gotten a good ride with talk radio; then one show goes after one Republican, and suddenly they want to shut us up? "

Despite inexperience, lack of political party backing and woeful under funding, Matthews came away with 43% of the vote to Dreier's 55%, down from the 64% he received in 2002. It is a race noteworthy not only for the sublime irony of two gay candidates running for election in an overwhelmingly Republican district, but also for the price Dreier almost paid for his allegiance to George Bush. California is in the midst of a massive budgetary crisis. Its major cities are struggling to deal with the problems of overpopulation, traffic, school overcrowding, pollution and rising housing costs. A recent study by FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, estimated the annual costs to California taxpayers for undocumented aliens to be $10.1 billion per year, or $1,183 per household headed by a native-born resident. The study goes on to note that “The total costs of illegal immigration to the state's taxpayers would be considerably higher if other cost areas such as special English instruction, school feeding programs, or welfare benefits for American workers displaced by illegal alien workers were added into the equation.”

My point? It's only a matter of time until somebody taps into the latent rage brewing over the situation. Matthews' campaign, though laudable, was small time and run by amateurs, and yet she gave Dreier a run for his money on this one issue alone. It's only a matter of time before somebody with some political savvy and a bankroll comes along and decides to launch a real assault in the California political quagmire. And god help us all if that person is some wingnut. While the scope of this diary is the discussion of the development of a political strategy for retaking the South, it is worth taking a moment to send up a cautionary flare for the state of California that we depend on for its 55 electoral college votes in every Presidential election.

To throw more gas on the California flames (oh, while we're on it, let's go for it….) Right now, the City Council and LA County Sheriff Lee Baca are engaged in a pissing contest with the Department of Homeland Security over how they're going to deal with the 170,000 prisoners who pass through the system each year. Baca estimates that roughly 25% (45,000) are illegal aliens (that percentage seems to be echoed nationwide). However, they only have the manpower to interview about 10% of those prisoners to determine their country of origin so they can be subject to deportation. Right now they're being released into the general population when their prison terms end, and many wind up with return visits. The cost to taxpayers is estimated at $31,000 per year per inmate, yet Baca and the city council are getting guff for wanting to hire 6 more employees to carry out interviews. Building and running prisons in America is big business. Somebody's getting rich off this shit. And when someone with a little political acumen decides to make political hay out of the situation, it could be open season in California.

In order to appease their constituents, the Republican Congress has passed various pieces of legislation designed to “get tough on immigration” and “close our boarders.” They are largely symbolic, toothless and under funded, little more than palliatives, and they fool almost nobody. The proof is in their rank ineffectiveness. (To be covered in greater detail in follow-up blog.)

One major Democrat who has some passing familiarity at blowing with the winds of change in public opinion, and who seems to be quietly building momentum on this front, comes from that savvy Clinton family -- first name Hillary. In a February 2003 interview, she told WABC Radio's John Gambling, "I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants. Clearly, we have to make some tough decisions as a country. And one of them ought to be coming up with a much better entry and exit system so that if we're going to let people in for the work that otherwise would not be done, let's have a system that keeps track of them." She has also been highly critical of business owners who employ illegal immigrants as well as Bush's guest-worker program, and in a move that sounds like something out of a South Park movie, blasted Canada for being lax on border issues. (Yes, children, it's Canada's fault.)

Hillary's increasing outspokenness on immigration is interesting for the political flux it creates. Newsmax asks “Could a campaign that calls for a crackdown on illegal aliens be the political magic bullet that catapults the former first lady back into the White House?” It then goes on to quote one diehard Bush supporter, who said he can't stand the Clintons: "If she ran on a platform of promising to do something about illegal immigration, hell, even I'd vote for her." The sentiment is echoed elsewhere. As one of the anti-Dreier blogs notes, “I am going to laugh my ass off if the GOP is stupid enough to continue this open borders nonsense and allow Hillary and the Dems to run wild with the immigration issue and terrorism. That would be poetic.”

Such a platform might be risky on a national front, but on a regional front it makes more sense. Particularly in the border states where the issue naturally looms large, but also in the Southern states, where perception of the problem probably outweighs the actual burden on the resources of the region. Part of the problem with getting Southern voters to take the cotton out of their ears and actually listen to the Democratic message is because the Republicans have done such a damn swell job of identifying their party with the so-called “values” of the region. It's created a close-minded, knee-jerk, autonomic response to any message from the Democrats as being Northern, effete, snobbish, superior and (shudder) “Liberal.”

You can argue with me if you want, but I have grown up with the firm belief that the South is forever re-fighting the civil war. And all the crowing that followed the post-2004 election sounded to my ears like sheer glee over the fact that this time they won. John Kerry looked to them like nothing so much as a postwar Northern carpetbagger, and that perception was not helped by the fact that he did not bother to campaign in the South. (Don't get me wrong, I think Kerry is a very good man and I voted for him, but we're talking about perceptions here.) Before the rigid ideological framework that dominates the Southern construct of “Democrat” can be changed, it's got to be fundamentally challenged in a very emotional and hard-hitting way. Think sledge hammer.

A Democrat running with an immigration reform message breaks down the predictable political equation. It destroys what people think they know about the clearly delineated lines between Democrats and Republicans. My favorite moment of conceptual breakdown in the last election (and I include this mostly for my own amusement):

October 26, 2004: State and national Republican leaders are blaming each other for a flier blasting Democratic Representative Jim Matheson for his support of an undocumented-immigrant Illegal Alien tuition bill. The problem is the legislation was sponsored by Utah Republicans, Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative Chris Cannon. Party leaders sent out the flier even after realizing the problem with its content. Utah Republicans say the fliers were printed and researched by the National Republican Congressional Committee, and arrived at their headquarters several weeks ago. But a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee says they had nothing to do with the ad, and it was crafted by the state party. Matheson is facing Republican John Swallow in his re-election bid...(from

I don’t know about you, but the specter of Republicans cannibalizing each other like this just fills my heart with joy.

Other posts in this series:

Taking Back the South Pt. 1 - Welcome to Flea Country"
Taking Back the South Pt. 3 - What Would a Progressive Immigration Policy Look Like?"
Taking Back the South Pt. 4 - Immigration and "Democratic Values"