Rep. Ami Bera’s votes leave Democrats debating whether to support him

Rep. Ami Bera walks to a weekly Democratic luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Rep. Ami Bera walks to a weekly Democratic luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Tribune Content Agency

Robert Longer, a California Democrat and union political director, has been a supporter of U.S. Rep. Ami Bera since Bera’s first election campaign. He’s walked door-to-door with Bera to drum up votes, and he hosted a fundraiser for Bera at his Elk Grove home.

But disillusion began to set in in June, when the second-term Democratic congressman broke with his party to vote for a trade bill fiercely opposed by labor unions.

“It kind of opened up the door to a lot of scrutiny and looking at his record, which maybe some folks didn’t really do before that,” said Longer, the legislative-political director for Communications Workers of America Local 9421. “Once folks did, myself included, we saw a lot of things that we didn’t like.”

Bera’s votes on issues such as Syria refugees and trade are coming under intense examination as local Democrats debate withholding endorsement from him in his re-election race against Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a Republican.

Last week, the Elk Grove-South County Democratic Club, Bera’s home club, voted against endorsing him. This week, Jones pounced on the trade issue, announcing that he is joining with labor unions to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. Bera was among just 28 of the 188 House Democrats who voted to give the president fast-track authority to negotiate the deal.

“I fear without greater protections, countless American jobs will be shipped overseas and lost for good at a time when our economy and jobless picture continues to struggle,” Jones said in the announcement.

Ami has a very interesting and complex district. I think ultimately the district will reward him for an independent voting record.

Former Sacramento-area Democratic Congressman Vic Fazio

Bera has called his vote on the trade bill an effort to give the president power to negotiate a deal with the potential to create good jobs in Sacramento County. Bera said he hasn’t decided whether to support the trade agreement itself, which has yet to come before Congress.

Bera, who was traveling this week on a congressional visit to India, said in an email that he isn’t worried about the Democratic endorsement controversy.

“My job is to serve my district and to address the issues that matter to residents,” he said. “Washington is broken and I firmly believe that we must work together, across the aisle, to get things done and I will continue to do that.”

Bruce Cain, a Stanford University political scientist, said the Democrats are playing a dangerous game, imposing the kind of ideological purity test that’s become increasingly popular in the Republican Party.

At risk, he said, is a Democratic loss of a congressional seat in one of California’s most politically divided districts, which stretches across Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova and Folsom.

“Ami Bera has just barely survived a couple of these elections, and if you’re going to win in the Central Valley you’re going to have to make some concessions to conservative social positions,” Cain said.

Bera’s voting record is mixed. The influential liberal group Americans for Democratic Action gave Bera a score of 55 percent for his voting record on highlighted issues in 2014, the most recent figures compiled. That tied him with Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat from Walnut Grove, who also represents a politically divided district in the Central Valley.

Just one of California’s 39 House Democrats, Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, received a lower score from the group.

Bera supported the president’s agenda 67 percent of the time in 2014, according to CQ Roll Call’s Vote Studies analysis. Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento, who represents a far more liberal district, backed Obama 92 percent of the time. Republican Tom McClintock, who represents a district from Truckee to Fresno, backed the president just 6 percent of the time.

If Bera thinks his 2014 race was tough, wait until he tries running this year without a unified Democrat party behind him.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Zach Hunter

When it came down to all votes that divided the parties throughout 2014, Bera sided with his fellow Democrats 88 percent of the time, according to the CQ analysis. Matsui did so 99 percent of the time.

“Ami has a very interesting and complex district. I think ultimately the district will reward him for an independent voting record,” said Washington lobbyist Vic Fazio, a former Sacramento-area congressman who was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the early 1990s. “But there will be some rough spots in the road and I think he would anticipate that.”

Republicans are licking their chops at the Democratic dissension over Bera.

“If Bera thinks his 2014 race was tough, wait until he tries running this year without a unified Democrat party behind him,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Zach Hunter said in an email.

Sandi Russell, a Democratic activist and former president of the Elk Grove-South County Democratic Club, acknowledged that criticizing Bera could help Republicans. But Russell said Bera hasn’t been meeting with local Democrats to explain his positions.

“I want someone who will listen to the people, not get elected and not listen,” Russell said.

Kerri Asbury, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Sacramento County, said she believes there’s enough concern about Bera that regional party activists won’t vote to endorse him on Jan. 31. That would force a vote on whether to endorse Bera at the state party convention next month in San Jose.

Asbury said she understands unions are also trying to decide “where to invest limited dollars, what races to sink that money into.” That could be a serious concern for Bera, whose 2014 race against Republican Doug Ose turned into the most expensive House race in the nation.

Bera most recently drew fire from liberals for breaking with his party to support legislation requiring the heads of three national security agencies to personally vouch for every Syrian and Iraqi refugee applicant before they can be allowed into the country. Opponents of the bill say it would block the resettlement of refugees in the U.S., an argument Bera rejects.

Bera was also one of just 22 Democrats to vote for a resolution condemning the Obama administration for not giving Congress advance notice of the exchange of captured Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners.

The Obama administration has asserted Bergdahl could have been killed if Congress leaked word of the deal. Bera said he was disappointed with the release of high-level terror suspects and that at a minimum the administration could have consulted with congressional leadership.

And Bera faces criticism from Democratic activists for joining the 29 House Democrats last year in a vote to scale back some of the banking regulations adopted after the 2008 financial crisis. Bera said he supports tightened Wall Street oversight and was just moving to extend the deadline for small businesses to get temporary access to cheaper loans.

Democratic activist Dan Schmitt said Bera is in a tough district and “fighting every day to basically keep his seat.”

“Although I don’t necessarily like some of the votes that he has taken, I understand. He represents everybody, he doesn’t just represent us liberals,” Schmitt said.

Schmitt said many other Democrats disagree with him, though. Schmitt is the current president of the Elk Grove-South County Democratic Club.

Longer, a delegate to the state party convention, said Democrats need to be questioned when they take Republican positions.

“I think he will probably receive the endorsement next month at the state convention but he’s certainly going to have to make a case for why he should receive it,” Longer said.

Stanford political scientist Cain said the debate over Bera represents a renewal of the tensions between “the liberal left and the pragmatic left.” He called Bera’s race a key test case.

“It’s a really important race to watch,” he said.

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham