Elizabeth Emken remembers the red-faced invectives she faced while lobbying on Capitol Hill.
She recalls being tossed out of former Wisconsin Rep. David Obey’s office. She locked horns with ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter.
But Emken, a veteran autism advocate and parent of a severely disabled young adult, says she was most bothered by the level of indifference to her cause.
Her frustration culminated after a brief exchange with Rep. Jerry McNerney outside a committee hearing room. Emken said she recalls the Stockton Democrat staring back blankly when she talked about amending the federal health care law to include behavioral health treatment.
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“You get really tenacious if you are trying to save your kid. And you get really angry when people won’t listen to you about what it’s going to take,” said Emken, 51, then a resident of Danville. “I had that moment where I no longer believed I could have the most dramatic impact doing what I was doing.”
She mounted an uphill challenge against McNerney in 2010, running last in the primary among four Republicans. Two years later, she beat out nearly two dozen primary contenders in a U.S. Senate race but lost by a wide margin to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Now Emken is targeting a congressional district covering suburban Sacramento County. Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, a physician from Elk Grove, captured the competitive seat in a rematch two years ago with Dan Lungren.
Emken insists she’s not the characteristic perennial candidate. The losses helped establish her political brand, she said, and confirmed for her that the political process is stacked in favor of career politicians and the “extremely” wealthy candidates who can write themselves a $1 million check.
“I am not a crony capitalist. I am not on some sort of ideological bandwagon,” she said. “My husband and I work for a living. We have a mortgage. We have kids in school. Everything in my background shows a compassion and concern for families and children. Isn’t that what we want? A representative who will go back there and fight for our families and our kids?”
Emken intersperses her criticism of Bera by needling her Republican opponents, former Rep. Doug Ose and Igor Birman, on leave as an aide to Rep. Tom McClintock. Ose is generally viewed as a moderate, while Birman is backed by tea-party-affiliated groups. Emken said they represent the dysfunction in the GOP. “The Hatfields and the McCoys,” she likes to say.
Amid some feuding between the two, she’s kept a low profile, eschewing traditional advertising and the media and focusing her attention on those expected to vote in the primary. Even some supporters question her tactics. Ted Hart of Rancho Murieta described Emken as a high-energy, high-caliber candidate.
“She’s kind of a jewel who deserves a chance,” he said. “But I don’t think she’s doing enough. She’s not active and visible enough.”
Emken isn’t worried. She’s busy wrangling volunteers to work the phones and knock on doors. “Execute the plan,” she said, repeating the phrase like a mantra.
“In Washington, we heard over and over, ‘You’re never going to get there. You’re never going to do it. It’s never going to happen. It’s impossible,’” she said of her time advancing autism legislation. “Then, overnight, it becomes inevitable.”
Obamacare called a ‘fiasco’
Emken has been campaigning locally for more than a year and spent time here when she ran for the Senate. Enticed by a competitive congressional district, the family purchased a home in Fair Oaks early last year. She said those scrutinizing her move should look first at Ose and Birman. Birman, a Russian-born graduate of UC Davis, grew up with his family in the East Bay. Birman said he moved from Washington to a rented home in Rancho Cordova last fall. Ose, a product of the redrawn district, lives just outside its borders.
Beyond politics, Emken’s family also moved to the Valley to send her youngest daughter to Capital Christian School and to accommodate her son, Alex, who has autism and is in his final year of transition at Laurel Ruff Center. He also is a client at Alta California Regional Center in Sacramento, a facility that assists with placement of people with developmental disabilities.
The Emkens said they have been through the dark valley and back again with Alex. The struggles helped shape what Emken believes is core to her political ideology: A smaller, limited government that recognizes there will always be an element of the population that relies on the government for help. Under the state’s new top-two primary system, that could endear her to independents and Democrats in a general election.
“My intuition and experience suggest that Elizabeth might be the toughest challenger to Ami Bera,” said Lew Uhler, the founder and president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, which has not endorsed in the race. For Emken, being the only woman and having a deep understanding of autism could “upset the natural proclivity (of voters) to believe in doctors,” he added.
Emken takes traditionally conservative positions on abortion, same-sex marriage and reducing taxes and regulations. In an interview at her campaign headquarters in Rancho Cordova, she predicted the race would come down to Bera’s support for the federal health care law, which she dismissed as a “fiasco” that must be repealed and replaced.
As a Senate candidate, Emken criticized the law and wrote a 1,000-word policy critique. She says Obama’s plan doesn’t provide enough competition to drive down costs and puts a disproportionate burden on small-business owners. She said she doubts that many previously uninsured people are purchasing plans.
“I would argue that the net increase of (insured) people on Obamacare doesn’t exist, and if it does exist, it will be 1 million or fewer,” she said.
At the same time, Emken defended her role in pushing for an amendment to the health care overhaul that barred insurance companies from excluding people with autism by including a provision for behavioral health treatment. She reasons that just because she worked on the bill doesn’t mean she ultimately supported the law in its entirety.
That hasn’t stopped GOP opponents over the years from charging that she was a cheerleader for the Democratic-backed legislation.
“I never, ever, ever supported Obamacare,” she said. “I supported an end to the ability to discriminate against individuals with autism. That’s what I supported.”
‘Not a politician’
A child of schoolteachers, Emken grew up on a dairy farm in Artesia in southeast Los Angeles County. She studied economics and political science before graduating from UCLA and going to work full time on cost and financial analysis for IBM. In 1997, Emken and her husband, Craig Swartz, an enterprise architect at Dell, learned their 4-year-old had autism. She became a volunteer advocate and later was named a vice president for the group Autism Speaks.
“She went from very much a grass-roots advocate to become one of the most skilled professional advocates that I’ve ever seen,” said Craig Snyder, a former consultant for Autism Speaks. “She had no formal training, no experience on the Hill or in legislation. She just took to it in this really Lincolnesque kind of way.”
The growth of those diagnosed with disorders on the autism spectrum has been unrelenting. A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 1 in 68 U.S. children has such disorders, a 30 percent increase from the 1 in 88 just two years ago.
The cause is unknown, and Emken and her colleagues have pushed for more research. Her political resume cites the federal Children’s Health Act of 2000, the Combating Autism Act of 2006 and laws in about 30 states to end insurance marketplace discrimination against children with autism.
Snyder was the chief of staff for Specter before becoming a lobbyist. The late senator, whose appropriations committee funded the National Institutes of Health, had a reputation for being tough on staff and constituents. At a meeting early in Emken’s career, Specter was steaming from a national television report saying celebrities were skewing disease funding. Snyder and Emken had their own celebrity in tow: Anthony Edwards of the NBC hit “ER.”
“I don’t think I got more than five words out of introduction and the senator just cut me off, looked at Tony and Elizabeth and said, ‘Why do you believe you can come up here, and because you are a famous person, you can influence the way in which medical research dollars are spent?” Snyder said.
Edwards recoiled, but Emken wasn’t shaken, Snyder recalled.
“Very quietly, very calmly and very confidently she got about 6 inches from the senator’s face when he was red-hot angry, and said, ‘I am a mother. I am not a celebrity. You chair the committee that decides these things for the whole country. And I have a right to be here ’ He immediately backed down and all of a sudden we got the meeting we wanted to have. That shouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t there or had handled it any other way.”
Later, Emken was working on re-authorization of the bipartisan-approved Combating Autism Act when she visited the office of then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. She was told the senator would not support so-called “single disease” bills. Emken was persistent, skillfully managing the relationship between Autism Speaks and the 2008 presidential campaigns of Obama and John McCain, Snyder said.
“It went from ‘Sen. Obama doesn’t believe in anything related to single diseases’ to a full-blown platform about autism on the campaign website,” he said.
Despite her successful legislative efforts in Washington, Emken remains bothered by what she sees as a lack of managerial oversight in federal agencies. She chalks up much of the morass and fighting at the appropriations level to “authorizing language that never expires.”
“I am a detail gal,” she said. “I believe we can tackle the lack of government oversight and accountability by simply managing these processes better.”
The attention to particulars is evident in the campaign. Emken says she could account for every nickel flowing in and out of her account. Though she recently repaid $65,000 of a $285,000 personal loan, her campaign is confident it has enough money to advance in the primary. Much of her support is unpaid.
“She’s fresh. She’s new,” said Lisa Garcia, a volunteer and local GOP activist, before settling on her favorite attribute. “She’s not a politician.”