The first congressional grudge match of the 2014 cycle has launched in California’s Inland Empire.
Redistricting, ambition and dynasty politics laid the groundwork there last year for the unceremonious end to former Rep. Joe Baca’s two-decade reign.
His fellow California Democrat, freshman Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod, took advantage of a new top-two primary system and a redrawn district to defeat the six-term incumbent by a remarkable 12 points. But to the surprise of few, the ambitious Baca wants back in, adding a new chapter to what some local observers have dubbed a “blood feud” between the two politicos.
Baca, one of seven California incumbents to lose in 2012, blamed his defeat in the vast exurbs east of Los Angeles on $3.3 million in outside spending. In the final weeks of the campaign, a super PAC controlled by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched the multimillion-dollar campaign targeting Baca’s conservative record on gun control.
Few quibble with the effect of the late network TV ad blitz, but Golden State party strategists said there were also some underlying issues that contributed to the downfall of the longtime elected official in a region where the politics of the present remain intertwined with the past.
“I would say that Joe Baca really became a political institution in the Inland Empire, and I think he did that through force of personality, political successes and just a combination of things and forces,” Los Angeles Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman said. “But that said, he has, on more than one occasion, overreached.”
The history between Baca and Negrete McLeod, who live in opposite ends of the 35th District, dates back to 1999. Negrete McLeod served as a field representative for Baca during his year in the state Senate. Baca’s political career took a turn when he quickly jumped into a special election to replace the late Democratic Rep. George E. Brown Jr.
Democratic strategists said a palpable bitterness remains from that race, in which Baca defeated Marta Macias Brown, the late congressman’s widow, in the all-party primary. It was one year after both Mary Bono and Lois Capps succeeded their late husbands in the California delegation.
“As the saying goes, all politics are local, and the local politics in the Inland Empire have long been dominated by this struggle between Congressman Brown and Joe Baca,” said Andrew Acosta, who managed Baca’s campaign that year. “And it’s still playing itself out today.”
Since that first House race, Baca has had little trouble with re-election. And after a few years in Congress, he turned his attention to helping his children in their own quests for public office. That’s where Negrete McLeod and Baca’s paths crossed again.
The Bacas wanted 2006 to be a banner year for their political family: Joe Baca Jr., then a first-term assemblyman, ran for an open state Senate seat, and his younger brother, Jeremy, ran for Joe Jr.’s assembly seat.
Although their districts didn’t perfectly overlap, the three Bacas shared campaign infrastructure and rode in convertibles together in a local Memorial Day parade ahead of the June primaries. The ambitions of the Baca family were clear: In a local newspaper, Jeremy openly compared the “Baca legacy” to “the Kennedys.”
But the representative was the only one of the three to emerge victorious from the primaries. Both of his sons lost by double digits — Joe Jr. at the hands of Negrete McLeod. The defeat led to headlines such as this in the Riverside Press-Enterprise: “Voters Rejecting Dynasty.”
Similar headlines popped up in 2012, with losses by Baca and Joe Jr., who was running to return to the state Assembly, and Negrete McLeod was once again at the center of it.
In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Negrete McLeod played down talk of a bitter personal battle with the Bacas. “That blood feud stuff is just craziness from everybody,” Negrete McLeod said in a phone interview Monday. “I think they would like to see something like that. But it’s just two people running against each other wanting to represent the district. That’s it.”
Baca could not be reached for comment, but he has previously denied attempting to build a dynasty. “It’s not about family, or anyone. It’s about public service,” Baca told the San Bernardino County Sun in November.
Voters were likely turned off by perceived dynasty ambitions, party strategists said. But in his most recent loss, Baca may also have faced blowback from his son’s state Assembly race. Joe Jr. challenged a black candidate — Cheryl Brown, who used to work for Negrete McLeod — for a seat previously held by a black legislator, in an area with a large black community. He ended up losing by the same margin as his father, 12 points.
Democrats also quietly grumbled about Baca’s decision to run in the more Democratic 35th District instead of in the 31st, in which his Rialto home was drawn. GOP Rep. Gary G. Miller won in the Democratic-leaning 31st District after not a single Democrat made it out of the top-two primary.
Some Democrats — especially Negrete McLeod backers — hold out hope Baca will run in the 31st District this cycle. But Baca told the Press-Enterprise that his sights are set on unseating Negrete McLeod.
“Baca was and maybe still is a force to be reckoned with,” Bauman said. “But he took a gamble in this particular election ... and in so doing, not only did he reopen and allow old wounds to fester, he also irritated a lot of local activists,” who believed Democrats should have won both seats.