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Rep. Gil Cisneros and Young Kim face CA-39 rematch under very different circumstances

In some ways, this year’s race for the tri-county 39th District feels like a repeat of 2018, with Democrat Gil Cisneros and Republican Young Kim again trading barbs in one of the most competitive House races in California.

But beyond the contenders, the 2020 rematch between Cisneros and Kim is in largely new territory.

Two years ago, when the pair first squared off, CA-39 was open following the retirement of long-time GOP House member Ed Royce. And the economy was growing in 2018, meaning the race was largely about non-pocketbook issues. Cisneros won that round and he now has the advantage of incumbency.

But the circumstances this year are different. The pandemic could drag down turnout, among other things. And the staggering economy could cloud the electorate’s mood.

Also, Cisneros’ incumbency gives him a record in office. The congressman is confident that his legislation supporting veterans, frequent community town halls and bipartisan praise from the business community for helping them through the pandemic will boost his standing in the 2020 race.

And most pundits agree that the race leans toward Cisneros, as the district gets more blue, President Donald Trump’s divisiveness hampers down-ballot Republicans, and the soft-spoken incumbent finds his voice in Congress.

But Kim is eager to use Cisneros’ record against him. Her campaign has argued that Cisneros’ record of consistently voting in line with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shows he is too liberal for a district that is still purple.

Kim has name recognition of her own. She’s a former State Assembly member and was a longtime staffer to Royce. She’s also shown herself to be the rare Republican willing to speak out against Trump when she disagrees with his stance. And she’s pitching herself as the most trustworthy candidate to help the district, and the nation, return to solid economic footing.

“I think the trend is leaning toward Republicans taking back these seats,” Kim said. “We are very much in play.”

Setting the stage for a rematch

Republican voters long outnumbered Democrats in the 39th District, and Royce represented the area for years. But voters supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, making CA-39 a target for Democrats to flip in 2018. And Royce opted not to run for reelection.

That led 17 candidates — including Cisneros and Kim — to jump into a pricey and messy open 2018 primary. Kim and Cisneros advanced to November, with Kim taking 21.2% of the 2018 primary vote and Cisneros earning 19.4%.

Cisneros trailed Kim on November 2018’s general election night by 3,900 votes, leading to early announcements that Kim had become the first Korean American woman in Congress. But after election night, as mail-in ballots were counted, Cisneros pulled ahead. And more than a week later he was declared the winner, beating Kim by 3.2 percentage points, or 7,611 votes.

Kim immediately raised concerns about voter fraud, echoing similar cries from Trump and other high-profile Republicans. Since no evidence of fraud was ever found, that drew harsh criticism from experts who worried such baseless claims could undermine faith in the election process.

Asked about that accusation now, Kim referred to reports about large numbers of dead or relocated people turning up on California voters rolls. She said she believes those rolls have since largely been cleaned up heading into November.

“We have to trust that the voting system will be fair,” she said.

During the March 3 primary, Kim beat Cisneros by more than 2,000 votes, with 48.4% of the vote to the incumbent’s 46.8%.

But analysts note primaries tend to draw more GOP voters than general elections. Plus independent candidate Steve Cox pulled in more than 8,000 votes, with independent voters most likely to vote in line with their district registration, which now leans blue in CA-39.

Finding a voice

When Cisneros was one of six Democrats in the 2018 primary for CA-39, activist Jim Gallagher of Chino Hills said Cisneros initially didn’t stand out from the pack; that the candidate was unassuming and less slick than some of the others. But the more community members heard from Cisneros, Gallagher said, he made an impression because of his approachability, his convictions and a plan for achieving his goals in the House.

“He wasn’t just strictly coming across as a Democrat, or a progressive, but as a thinking politician,” said Gallagher, who ended up volunteering for Cisneros’ campaign in 2018 and is one of his most active volunteers this cycle. “He hasn’t let me down yet.”

Cisneros is the son of a public school cafeteria worker and a Vietnam veteran. He attended college on a Navy scholarship was the first in his family to graduate. After serving in the Navy for 11 years, Cisneros became a manager with Frito Lay. In 2010, shortly after he was laid off from that job, Cisneros’ life changed dramatically — he won a $266 million lottery jackpot. That’s when he begin to focus on educational philanthropy and politics.

Cisneros was a Republican until 2008.

“My values didn’t change,” he said, “but I was increasingly disillusioned with the party’s catastrophic mishandling of the Iraq War, and I strongly opposed party leadership’s efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare.”

Since taking office as a Democrat in January 2019, Cisneros has focused on policies impacting veterans and the military, with 13 of 15 bills he’s sponsored dealing with those areas. That includes a bill that would give the estimated 3,000 Korean immigrants who fought in the Vietnam War and have become naturalized U.S. citizens access to the same medical care that other American veterans receive through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Two of Cisneros’ bills have passed the House, though both have stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate. The congressman said passing those bills — which created a pilot program aimed at improving healthcare for veteran women and required information about veteran benefits to be available in Spanish and Tagalog — are his proudest moments in office so far.

He’s also cosponsored nearly 800 bills, including many introduced by Republicans. He’s on the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees, and he joined other freshmen representatives in calling for an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Cisneros wasn’t initially an obvious star among the freshmen in Congress, according to Marcia Godwin, a public administration professor at University of La Verne who’s studied local elections. But after flying a bit under the radar for the first months, Godwin said Cisneros has started to get a reputation for being responsive to constituents, speaking out on key issues and introducing some fresh legislation.

“Now he really is proposing some fairly creative, innovative ideas,” Godwin said. “I don’t know how feasible they are because, as a freshman member of congress, there’s limited influence that you have. But he’s not standing on the sidelines.”

Cisneros is campaigning this cycle on issues such as healthcare for all, rights for LGBTQ people, ending gun violence, and college affordability.

The 49-year-old lives in Yorba Linda with his wife, Jacki, and their twin boys.

Gallagher said campaign staff and volunteers all know Cisneros jealously guards his Sundays as family time. When he has to be in Washington, D.C. during the week, Gallagher said he always flies home for the weekend. And they know not to bother him on Sundays unless it’s an emergency.

“I admire that,” Gallagher said. “He really is what I expect a congressman to be.”

Moderate GOP challenger

Kim has also built a strong following in CA-39 after three decades of living in the area, volunteering, and working in public service.

Campaign volunteer Janice Lim of Yorba Linda, who has two teenagers, said she got to know Kim years ago through her work for local schools. Lim, 50, said she’s always been impressed by Kim’s willingness to work with and fight for people regardless of their political views.

“You almost can’t even tell which political line she’s on,” Lim said. “She listens. And she’s a problem solver.”

Kim and her husband are immigrants from South Korea. They’ve been married for 33 years, have four grown children and live in La Habra.

Kim, 57, said she’s been staying sane in these difficult times, including the recent loss of her mother-in-law, through daily morning walks with her husband, Bible study and prayer.

Kim worked in finance before starting her own small business in the women’s clothing industry. She also worked as a district aide for Royce for more than two decades, heading up the office’s community outreach.

In 2014, she became the first Korean-American Republican woman elected to California’s Assembly, representing AD-65. While in office, Kim introduced state legislation to build a veterans hospital in Orange County and to protect victims of domestic violence.

Kim lost her reelection bid in 2016, then narrowly lost the 2018 challenge against Cisneros.

While Kim said losing is always disappointing, she pointed to Cisneros using $9 million of his personal wealth, and to the outside money that flowed into the CA-39 race, as factors in the 2018 result.

“Despite all that, I barely lost,” she said said. “This is not a huge win for him.”

While she’s voting for Trump, Kim has taken a stand against the president on a few occasions. Most recently, she criticized Trump for calling the coronavirus the “kung flu,” saying the term is hurtful to the Asian American community.

If elected to congress, Kim is pledging to address homelessness, reform immigration, lower regulations for businesses and improve healthcare.

Kim said she isn’t pushing to repeal Obamacare, as Trump is trying to do, because she believes in working on solutions with bipartisan support. Instead, she thinks change can be made to lower costs of insurance and prescriptions and eliminate surprise bills while still covering preexisting conditions.

Lim said that healthcare plan, plus what she believes is the most detailed and realistic plan to ease homelessness, are some of the reasons she’s putting in roughly 10 hours a week to volunteer for Kim’s campaign.

“She’s someone we can trust to fight for us,” Lim said. “This is her time.”

Campaign clashes continue

In line with their parties, Cisneros and Kim hold opposing views on many major issues. He supports universal healthcare, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose, while Kim opposes all four policies.

Both support policies to tackle climate change, though Kim says more research and some additional regulations are needed while Cisneros advocates rejoining the Paris Agreement to reduce climate change.

Both also want to repeal the part of the Trump administration’s 2018 tax cut that caps the deduction for state income tax, a rule that hurts higher earning Californian residents. Kim supports the rest of Trump’s tax plan; Cisneros does not.

The two are so far pretty evenly matched in terms of fundraising. Cisneros has taken in $2.8 million this cycle and has $1.67 million in cash on hand, while Kim has raised $3 million and has more than $1.5 million cash left.

Kim has the momentum, though, raising twice as much as Cineros in the most recent quarter. And Cisneros’ total includes $100,000 he loaned himself in June.

Kim’s campaign said Cisneros’ move to again dip into his personal fortune to help fund his bid is a sign that he’s concerned. Cisneros’ campaign dismissed that, saying that instead of fundraising his priority in recent months has been getting protective gear and aid to CA-39 residents during the pandemic.

The two campaigns have been engaged in a back-and-forth battle for months. Most of the barbs from both sides lack teeth, a Register analysis has found, relying on dated or incomplete information. Others don’t have a clear victor.

Since both candidates are pledging to lower healthcare and prescription drug costs, for example, they’ve each painted the other as hypocritical, since Kim has received campaign funds from big pharma while Cisneros has major investments in drug companies.

So far, on both sides, national party leaders and major PACs have focused local funds on the nearby 48th District race between Rep. Harley Rouda and Supervisor Michelle Steel. That could be a signal that outside players agree with the pundits who see CA-39 as less competitive this cycle.

By early October 2018, for example, Federal Election Commission records show that outside groups had already independently spent nearly $2 million to support or oppose Cisneros or Kim. This year, the only independent expenditure so far reported in the race is $12,000 from the Republican Party of Orange County on social media ads to oppose Cisneros.

The two candidates will square off for a second time on ballots that will be mailed to all registered voters in the district starting Oct. 5.

Voters can register or verify their registration status at registertovote.ca.gov. They can return their ballots through the mail, at a secure drop box or at a vote center, which will open a few days before Nov. 3. And voters can get automatically updated on the status of their ballots by signing up for alerts at california.ballottrax.net/voter.


Source: Orange County Register

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