Provisional ballots were still being counted as of press time in the race for the 44th Congressional District—a hammer-shaped area containing Rubidoux in the north, San Clemente in the south and Corona, Norco and Riverside in between. But barring some 100-year statistical miracle, the counting will end with incumbent Republican Ken “The Jolly Fox” Calvert officially declared winner and Democratic challenger Bill Hedrick the loser.
So it goes. Few in either party’s leadership circle expected Hedrick, a newcomer to state politics, to beat Calvert, who first ran for Congress a quarter-century ago and has been running the 44th into the ground since 1992. State Democrats long considered Calvert unbeatable, so unbeatable that they ran the same sacrificial lamb—Louis Vandenberg—against him in three consecutive elections. Vandenberg was so demoralized by the third race that he didn’t even bother to set up a working headquarters.
But it’s this very history of resignation and complacency that makes Hedrick’s showing so remarkable. Pitted against an entrenched incumbent and his own party’s incredulity and running in a notoriously hostile district, Hedrick ran a brilliant grassroots campaign that brought him within a hair of victory. In doing so, he gave one of the most corrupt politicians in Washington the political scare of his life, left Republican operatives in a state of red-faced finger-pointing, and awakened the Democratic Party to the truth that the Inland Empire is no longer the GOP’s for the asking.
“Calvert outspent us 5-1, and will have beaten me by a percentage point or two when the provisional votes are counted,” says Hedrick, a Corona-Norco School Board member and president of the Rialto Unified School District’s teachers union. “He certainly paid substantially more for each vote received than we did, and I’m sure he was certain he would win. All I can say is we worked hard, and if the Republicans didn’t recognize that, that was to their own peril.”
In fact, Calvert spent more than $7 for every one of Hedrick’s bucks, providing the eight-term congressman good cause for confidence. By Nov. 4, Election Day, his campaign had squeezed more than $850,000 out of donors and spent more than $800,000 fending off Hedrick, who had raised less than $120,000 and spent just over $85,000.
But three facts appear to have escaped Calvert in the run-up to the election, the first being that Hedrick was not Vandenberg, who raised all of $3,000 in his 2006 run and whose campaign rhetoric (“Because of my deep love and concern for my country, I have run for office”) somehow failed to inspire.
A second fact was the mood of the electorate, around the country but especially in the IE, where for the past year every seven voters registered broke down to three Democrats, three Independents and only one Republican. Every poll and survey put the economy front and center on voters’ minds, and few regions of the country have been harder hit by the recession-in-all-but-name than the Inland Empire.
But more than anything else, what Calvert failed to grasp was how motivated Hedrick was at taking him down. The two men have the usual philosophical differences about such issues as education and healthcare. Calvert supports “No Child Left Behind,” while Hedrick, an educator, opposes it. Calvert voted against the expansion of state healthcare benefits to children, a move Hedrick found reprehensible.
But on the question of the Iraq War, the difference wasn’t just political—it was personal. Congressman Calvert has voted his party’s war line every step of the way, supporting the occupation as wholeheartedly as he opposed Democrats’ every effort to set timetables for troop withdrawal. That, more than anything else, says Hedrick, is why he decided to enter the race.
“The issue that was most important for me was the occupation,” he says. “I have two sons and a daughter-in-law in the military. At one time, two of them were deployed in Iraq, and they’ve had multiple deployments. I absolutely believed it was time to bring the occupation to an end, and to bring our troops and our resources back home.”
Out-financed, Hedrick and his campaign manager, Ryan Sandoval, knew they couldn’t beat Calvert at his own game: the all-out negative ad blitz. Instead, they assembled an army of 900 volunteers and went about the task of unseating the Jolly Fox the old-fashioned way: hitting the streets and changing voter’s minds—block by block, house by house, voter by voter.
Hedrick and his supporters held more than 110 “meet-and-greets,” coffee-klatches and house parties throughout Riverside and southern Orange County. The first of these gatherings were sparsely attended, but swelled as the campaign’s message connected. The relatively low-cost events allowed Hedrick unlimited time to talk about his views and his opponent’s record, and to introduce himself to voters in Orange County, where he wasn’t well known.
They also allowed his campaign to fly fairly under Calvert’s radar, lulling the congressman’s own campaign into a state of inertia. When Hedrick sent a letter to Calvert challenging him to a debate, Calvert contemptuously sat on the letter for weeks before declining. Calvert limited his re-election efforts largely to fund-raising, robo-calls and hit mailers—one of which suggested he wasn’t entirely clear on who he was running against.
“Why do Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Joe Baca, Charlie Rangel and Loretta Sanchez want to install a Rialto Union Boss as your next Congressman . . . ” the mailer blared, forgetting to end the query with a question mark. “Because he Would be a Rubber Stamp Vote for their Liberal Agenda!”
Whether such an ad would have produced better results even in an election without Barack Obama and an ongoing economic crisis is debatable: It certainly didn’t resonate days after Calvert voted in favor of the $700 million Wall Street bailout—a perfectly awful political move that Hedrick wasted no time in broadcasting at his meet-and-greets. Nor did it overcome a certain nagging reality that Calvert is finding increasingly hard to ignore: the business of all those scandals connected to his name.
In his 16 years in office, Calvert has accumulated a demon’s résumé of questionable dealings, including, but not limited to, his travel activities with now-imprisoned congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham and un-indicted co-conspirator Thomas Kontogiannis; his $91 million in federal earmarks on behalf of disgraced lobbying firm Copeland Lowery; his purchasing of IE land near areas he later targeted for yet more earmark money; his sweetheart purchase of Riverside County public land that he wants to use for a mini-storage business and that park officials want to use as a public park; and, of course, his 1993 arrest in Corona for allegedly getting a blowjob from a heroin-addicted prostitute.
All of which to explain his inclusion, for three years running, on the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics’ “20 Most Corrupt Members of Congress” list.
Nevertheless, Calvert was confident his 2008 re-election bid would be a walk—perhaps right up to Election Night, when he suddenly found himself in an election that was too close to call, more probably by Nov. 5, when he realized he was losing Riverside County by 5,900 votes, and certainly by Nov. 7, when it was clear it would all come down to absentee and provisional ballots. Calvert, while declaring victory even as the ballots were being analyzed, admitted to reporters that perhaps he should have been more aggressive in campaigning against Hedrick.
In the end, Calvert’s strong showing in south Orange County provided him with an 8,100-vote lead over Hedrick—an advantage even Hedrick admits is insurmountable. But the Republican Party’s delusion of supremacy in the region has been shaken to the core, with Calvert’s own campaign manager describing the election as “a wake-up call for the party both nationally and locally.”
“We attribute the closeness of the election to three primary factors,” says Billy Essayli. “One, obviously, was the Obama factor—there was just a lot of energy and support for the Democrats nationally. Second was the high level of registration of Democrats in the Riverside County area. We’ve never seen so many Democrats registered in such a short period of time, including about 3,000 late registrations in the UCR area. Third was the lack of any registration effort by the Republican Party in the county. There was just a complacency—the Republican Party had assumed that Riverside would always be a strong Republican area, and it has been for so long. We attribute it to complacency, and I assure you that will change.”
Hedrick and California Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland, while agreeing with Essayli’s take on the Democratic voter registrations, dismissed the rest of his explanation as nonsense. Hedrick insists his strong showing had less to do with Obama than his campaign’s hard work, pointing to the fact he received strong support from both Democratic and Republican voters in Riverside and Orange counties. Mulholland was characteristically more blunt.
“It sounds like he’s saying, ‘Hey, we did everything we could to win and we could have used some help,’” Mulholland says. “Didn’t one of their guys go to jail for his registration efforts in the Inland Empire?”
This was in reference to GOP voter registration contractor Mark Jacoby, who was arrested in October for allegedly lying about his residence on his own voter-registration card. Unrelated to those charges, Jacoby’s company, YPM, is under investigation by the state Secretary of State’s office for alleged voter-registration fraud.
Hector Barajas, spokesman for the California Republican Party, also had a problem with Essayli’s comments, essentially saying that Calvert might have helped himself more had he just gotten off his ass and campaigned.
“Ultimately, the elections stemmed down to the candidates themselves, especially in this year, when we had quite a bit of registration by Democrats with Barack and Hillary Clinton in the race,” he says. “We spoke to every candidate and said, ‘Look, you’ve got to get off your hands and campaign door-to-door—simply having the title of congressman or councilman won’t be enough.’
“This election had 16 seats targeted by the Democrats, and we ultimately had a net loss of two, so we got out of this election fairly well,” he says. “We did mass mailings in the Riverside area, made thousands of phone calls in the Riverside area, had volunteers out in the area. But campaigns are ultimately about a choice—who’s got better ideas and who’s actually communicating to their constituents. (The 44th District) election sends a message to Republican candidates that you’ve got to go out there and campaign.”
The election also sent a message to Hedrick: Whatever the final vote tally, he’s running against Calvert again in 2010.
“I intend to find that two percent I need to win,” he says. “I don’t have any regrets, except, of course, I would like to have won this time. But we’re going to work on registration and work on meeting more people in southern Orange County, and I’m going to win this.”