Capitol Alert

Jeff Denham beat back a recall. Can he survive a blue wave, too?

Jeff Denham
Jeff Denham AP

Can a blue wave knock out a tough-to-beat Central Valley Republican who has stared down a recall campaign and repeated attempts to unseat him?

Eight primary challengers think this is the year to make a run at U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and they’re drawing widespread enthusiasm from San Joaquin Valley Democrats for their campaigns.

Take a Democratic Party debate scheduled for this Friday in downtown Modesto. It sold out a 440-seat theater five months before voters will cast ballots in the June primary.

That kind of interest, mirrored in other campaigns this year challenging Republic incumbents like Tom McClintock and Dana Rohrabacher, is rare for left-leaning voters in the state’s red districts.

“It’s extraordinary,” said Dennis Cardoza, a former Democratic congressman who represented Modesto and other parts of what is now Denham’s District from 2002 to 2012. “If you look at polling and the intensity levels, in my mind, this is one of those years that certainly looks like it can be problematic for Republican incumbents.”

Denham’s 10th Congressional District district is on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 2018 target list to flip the House. Voters there went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump last year. Denham has served as its representative since 2010.

Six Democrats and two independents are running in the 2018 June primary, along with Denham. The Democrats include a 31-year-old venture capitalist named Josh Harder, who raised $95,000 in the last two months of 2017, according to an analysis of Federal Elections Commission filings by Rob Pyers, research director for the California Target Book. Among Harder’s campaign contributors are filmmaker George Lucas, a native of Modesto.

Lucas contributed $2,700 in September, federal filings show. His sister, Kate Nyegaard, also of Modesto, has given Harder money and is helping him in his first run for elected office. Reached by phone Wednesday, she said she’s excited about Harder and has been getting confused with another 10th District candidate, Dotty Nygard, an emergency room nurse and Bernie Sanders supporter who has the endorsement from the California Nurses Association.

Other Democrats include Turlock engineer T.J. Cox, former Modesto City Schools Board of Education President Sue Zwahlen and former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueno.

“I’m backing Harder,” said Nyegaard, 81, who also previously served on the Modesto City Schools Board. “He understands the issue with taking away people’s access to medical care, he’s committed to public education and he understands that in this valley, we need immigrants. And he’s a techie guy who’s going to be able to fund (his campaign).”

Unseating Denham will be tough. The Air Force veteran beat a recall campaign as a state senator in 2007 that was backed by Don Perata, who at the time was president of the state Senate. Denham also won 52 percent of the vote in November 2016 and has raised $1.5 million in the 2018 cycle, more than double Harder’s total of $739,000.

“The Democrats and Nancy Pelosi said they were going to take (Denham’s) seat in 2014 and 2016 and each time they failed, because Congressman Denham represents his district well,” said California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte. “His constituents re-elect him election after election because the voters know that Jeff Denham protects water and agriculture, doesn’t raise taxes, and supports small businesses.”

Jessica Self, incoming president of the Central Valley Democratic Club, which is hosting Friday’s debate, said the tickets were snapped up last week. Topics on tap include women’s rights, racial injustice and equality for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender community. The group is holding some seats for late-comers at the Gallo Center for the Arts.

“People were interested from those from the get-go,” Self said.

Welcome to the AM Alert, your morning rundown on California policy and politics. To receive it regularly, please sign up here.

WORTH REPEATING: “The sponsors of the bill have sat on their hands and done nothing the past six months.” – Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, on single-payer health care legislation he held last year.

CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES: State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblywoman Monique Limón, both Democrats from Santa Barbara, announced a trio of bills this year to address problems with California’s emergency alert system and other risks exposed by wildfires that have devastated communities from Ventura County to Mendocino.

The bills would allow counties to automatically enroll all residents into a location-based cell phone and email emergency alert system, similar to the Amber alert. Under the proposal, residents would have to opt out to stop receiving notifications.

Their proposal comes amid widespread scrutiny, particularly in the North Bay, over the public notification system following October fires that killed 44 people. Authorities decided against sending out large-scale emergency alerts. Many people learned about fast-approaching flames through social media or from neighbors knocking on their doors.

Only 30 percent of residents in the path of the Thomas Fire had signed up for wireless alerts, according to Jackson’s office.

“Recent California wildfires have driven home how important it is that we have a way to notify people quickly and effectively, so they can leave burning neighborhoods, check in on loved ones and make the best choices for their safety at any hour of the day or night,” Jackson said in a statement. “With climate change creating the potential for longer and more severe fire seasons, we must strengthen our emergency alert systems and allow officials to effectively target alerts to specific areas or neighborhoods under threat.”

Other measures would allow state fire officials to weigh in on potential wildfire risk in new developments and expand public information available to Spanish-only speakers.

TRACKING RACIAL PROFILING: Many California law enforcement agencies have collected data on traffic stops and searches since 2016 in a statewide effort to track and prevent racial profiling. Agencies are required to hand data over to the newly created Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory board, which produces annual reports for the state Department of Justice as required under a state law passed in 2015, authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego.

The first annual report was released this week. Officers must record perceived race or ethnicity of the person stopped, their perceived age, gender and whether they are perceived as being gay, bisexual or transgender, among other details. They also must record basic details such as the reason for the stop. In 2016, the 451 law enforcement agencies across the state required to collect information reported 399 complaints of racial profiling. The full report is available here.

CELEBRATE: Happy birthday to California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, who turns 56 today, and to state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, who turns 54 today. Also wishing a happy birthday to Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, who turns 54 on Friday, and Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, who turns 46 on Saturday.

Angela Hart: 916-326-5528, @ahartreports Reporter Adam Ashton contributed to this report.