When Jessica Millan Patterson first ran to lead California Republicans, there was hesitation from some folks.
Some of that doubt arose from the fact that no woman — especially someone as young as Patterson — had held the seat prior.
Patterson, 42, has risen through the ranks within the state Republican party, starting as an intern and serving as the chief executive of California Trailblazers, the state party’s year-round candidate training program, before leading the California Republican Party.
And she’s quickly emerging as a national GOP figure, from efforts to get Republican voters to cast their ballots early to her work bringing presidential candidates to Anaheim for the CAGOP’s fall convention.
In 2019, Patterson, who hails from Southern California, ran against a former Assemblymember and a longtime party activist, both men, in a bid to lead the state party.
“All of the chairs in the past have been men, some who were elected to office before,” said Randall Avila, executive director of the Orange County Republican Party and Patterson’s friend. “Some folks thought, ‘Could a staffer be the chair?’”
But Patterson comfortably won the election to the California Republican Party chair in February 2019 with over 54%, defeating former Assemblymember Travis Allen of Huntington Beach and party activist Steve Frank.
Patterson’s ascent to the top of the state party was significant in numerous ways. She was the first woman, the first Latina and the first millennial to helm the CAGOP — taking over while it was on the verge of collapse after state Democrats crushed state Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections, defeating incumbents Jeff Denham, David Valadao, Steve Knight, Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher in congressional races.
Elected just a few months after those 2018 midterm elections, Patterson has “proven herself and exceeded all expectations,” Avila said.
In 2020, Orange County voters chose President Joe Biden over Donald Trump, but Republicans made gains at the congressional level.
Orange County Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel were elected, becoming the first two of three Korean-American women in Congress. Valadao flipped back his seat in the Central Valley, giving California Republicans one more victory.
In the last two election cycles, California Republicans have picked up five congressional seats, and national Republicans currently have a nine-seat House majority.
“When you think of winning back the House, the road comes through California,” Patterson said. “On Super Tuesday, there is no state in the country that has more delegates than California. All eyes will be on California Republicans.”
Part of that attention will come when, this week, four presidential candidates — Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — head to Anaheim to court Republican voters at the CAGOP convention. And that’s only two days after the second presidential primary debate will be held about 70 miles northwest at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
That’s unprecedented, Patterson said.
“All of these candidates are drawn to California because we’re delegate-rich, we are early in the process and California Republicans have been making a difference on the national stage — as you saw with those five congressional seats we picked up,” Patterson said.
Patterson has been able to strike up people who are motivated and interested in speaking to California Republicans, said Republican national committeeman Shawn Steel.
“She is state of the art for a chair in any political organization,” Steel said.
And the decision of the state GOP earlier this summer to change how its 169 delegates will be awarded during the March 5 presidential primary played a crucial role in attracting a record number of presidential hopefuls to California, Patterson said.
“I think that the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” she said. “Since we announced the process that we have for delegate accounting, we’ve had four presidential candidates that have committed to coming to our convention. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a convention with four presidential candidates.”
In 2016, three presidential candidates — Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich — spoke to convention attendees.
“If we had kept it proportional by congressional district, then you’d likely see a two-person race here. Now, when you have candidates who have the opportunity to walk away with delegates, you’re going to see a lot more candidates playing here in California,” said Patterson.
Tackling the party issues
The California Republican Party had a branding problem before Patterson came onto the scene, Avila said.
“This party is a party that represents Latinos and minorities and women and especially mothers,” Avila said. “I saw that day-to-day with volunteers and everyday voters, but I hadn’t seen that with leadership.”
And while Patterson is one of the most important people within the state party, she doesn’t behave like a superior, said Avila. In fact, when asked about her role in bringing presidential candidates to Southern California for this story, Patterson instead sought to give credit to others.
Avila first met Patterson when he was an intern for the CACOP in 2010 at its Burbank office. Patterson had moved into the office at the time to do work for Meg Whitman’s gubernatorial campaign.
“She for some reason gravitated toward me and encouraged me,” said Avila. “She wanted to know what my interests were, what my path was, if I wanted to stay in politics,” Avila said.
“Being a young Latina woman at that time in a staffing role for what was a competitive campaign, she really stepped up and wanted to prove herself,” Avila said. “But I noticed it wasn’t just for her own benefit — she wanted others like myself and other interns who were rising in ranks to stay involved and really feel like a part of a team, to feel like there was a pathway for us to stay in politics.”
Fast forward to Avila’s first day as the executive director of the OCGOP in 2018, and Patterson was the first person to show up to the office to congratulate him, Avila said.
“I didn’t even know she was coming,” Avila said. “So her remembering me after all that time and taking the time out of her day to come over and say congratulations really meant a lot.”
California has been “written off” by the national party, Avila said, but Patterson’s work has put the state “back on the map.” There have been investments, he said, in congressional districts, such as new local offices opening in Orange County, San Diego and the Central Valley.
And then there was the time, in 2021, when data firm Political Data Inc., decided to exclusively work with Democrats. The CAGOP had been using its services to access campaign data, and Patterson had to get the party fully integrated with the RNC’s system in about a month’s time, he said.
“From top to bottom, (Patterson) has really kind of forced the RNC’s hand and proven to them, ‘Hey, California is worth investments,’” said Avila.
An emphasis on diversity
When Patterson was elected, she said: “Diversity doesn’t end with me.“
One of those ways she sought to engage with diverse voters, she said, is by building community centers around the state. In August, the CAGOP opened a new center in Little Saigon. It’s meant to serve as a hub for community events as well as a place to recruit and train volunteers for voter outreach.
“This is not typical campaign headquarters where we just launch precinct walks and do phone banks,” said Patterson. “We do that, too, but we also have tai chi practice there on Sunday. We have a Vietnamese dance team that practices there on Saturday.”
There are “Latino-focused” community centers throughout the state as well, including in the districts of Rep. Mike Garcia, David Valadao and John Duarte. And it was Garcia’s victory in the Democratic-leaning area that cemented GOP control of the House in 2022.
“Being present and talking to people about things that are important to them, not just when a campaign is happening, that is what is important,” Patterson said.
Patterson grew up in Hacienda Heights, located in the eastern San Gabriel Valley just under 25 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Avila grew up in nearby Monterey Park, just down State Route 60.
Republicans hadn’t set foot into the area they were from, said Avila. So he was surprised when Whitman opened up an East Los Angeles campaign office.
“(Patterson) was a big part of planning that and making sure that we were going into areas and that Meg was going into areas that we had not traditionally competed for,” Avila said. “That office was probably about five minutes away from my house. And so me being a young Latino and a Republican, seeing Jessica and the campaign make that investment and going to places like that … showed me that she was willing to fight.”
Steel recalled in detail Patterson traveling to Orange County to canvas for Rep. Michelle Steel, his wife and now a two-time member of Congress.
Patterson showed up in the morning, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, Shawn Steel said, and spent hours in the hot sun with high school- and college-aged volunteers, knocking on doors, talking to voters and urging them to vote.
“Normally, a state party or a national party person would show up, take a picture in front of a home, then walk by maybe two homes, and then a black car takes them away,” Shawn Steel said. “That wasn’t her story. That’s not what happened here.”
Outside of work, Patterson is “someone you can grab a beer with,” Avila said, and because she was a former staffer, she can relate with those she works with.
“We can have a comfortable and honest conversation,” Avila said. “If I’m sitting there complaining about staying up all night making walk lists for a precinct walk, she gets it. She understands what it means to be up all night doing that.”
Shawn Steel said he’s always known she’s competent, and that California was ready for her.
“She’s willing to do a job that’s not really happy for a lot of people. It’s a tough job and there’s a lot of mean people,” he said. “And she has really measured up.”
Source: Orange County Register