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Democrats: "Inland Empire ripe for the picking"

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Bruising election puts 'blue' dent in once GOP frontier

Chris Levister

A decade ago when geologist Marie Nye registered as a Democrat her staunch Republican family all but shunned her. Her boyfriend dumped, her co-workers promptly struck her name from social and professional invites and the left-leaning campaign signs she placed in her Riverside yard were routinely picked off and trashed.

“It was as if I’d committed a mortal sin,” Nye recalls of the backlash.

Fast forward to Election Night 2012 app-addicted Nye tuned in to CNN’s ‘magic wall’, an oversized touch pad with walls and crawls and ever shifting checkerboard imagery.

“I saw John King’s fingertips whisking states red and blue,” said Nye. “Before my eyes, this seismic shift - the Inland Empire turned from a bright red to a muddy shade of purple.”

Voters in Riverside and San Bernardino counties elected three Democrats to Congress – two Latinos and a gay Asian American after having sent only two Democrats to Washington in the last 40 years. Before the election, Republicans represented the city of Riverside in Congress, the state Senate and the Assembly. On Election Night Democrats took all three seats.

“Republicans and Democrats made sharply different bets about who would vote this year,” said Nye.

It turned out that Inland voters who cast ballots looked collectively much more like what local Democrats had envisioned — a diverse tapestry that reflected a changing America — than the whiter, older electorate local Republicans had banked on.

Younger voters and minorities came to the polls at levels not far off from the historic coalition President Obama assembled in 2008.

“Earth-shattering,” Democratic National Convention delegate and blogger Linnie Frank Bailey said of the Democratic rump. In 2007 she along with newly elected State Assembly member Jose Medina formed a lively group of grass roots supporters called Obama Riverside.

Obama Riverside consisted of local high school students, an active group from UCR, old timers, members of the religious community, all races, the LGBT community, and even a few Republicans! We came together in our hope for change and better times.

Bailey added the group managed to open a campaign office in Riverside even though most of them had never been involved in politics before. “The group united the community in a way that had not previously been done.”

What surprised Bailey the most were the numbers. “In Riverside and in communities across the state Democratic candidates didn’t just win they won big in some races by as much as 20,000 votes, she added.

At 9:00 pm on Election Night Jose Medina walked into the banquet hall at historic Zacateca’s Restaurant on Riverside’s Eastside to flashing cameras, loud cheers and thunderous applause of hundreds of supporters. Surrounded by a wall of blue and white balloons, Medina announced that he had captured 57 percent of the vote against Republican challenger Bill Batey in the Riverside based 61st Assembly District.

The cheering crowd was faces of every color, African-American, Latino, Native-American, White and Asian-American, women, young people, gays and lesbians.

Nearby at a crowded union hall, high school teacher and Riverside College board trustee Mark Takano wasn’t yet ready to claim victory as early returns showed him outpacing Republican opponent John Tavaglione in the newly-drawn 41st Congressional District.

“So let’s be patient, luxuriate in the feeling we have now and be hopeful that change has come to Riverside,” Takano told supporters.

Within hours, it was clear that Takano had delivered that change. He’s the first openly gay Asian American ever elected to Congress.

“We’re younger and more diverse. We look like America,” he told a sea of cheering supporters. Takano beat Tavaglione 57 to 43 percent, a margin larger than many had expected. Takano was unsuccessful in two earlier Congressional bids during the early 1990s - when opponents circulated pink anti-gay campaign flyers targeting the candidate.

He said his sexual orientation never became a campaign issue which shows how the region has changed.

In one of Election 2012’s biggest political shockers, political first-timer Raul Ruiz edged out veteran GOP congresswoman Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs.

Ruiz credited his strong showing in part to a strong voter registration campaign, especially among Latinos.

“We were able to stay focused on the issues affecting the region’s spiraling growth, changing demographics and a pent-up desire to feel included,” said Ruiz.

The trend away from the GOP was accelerated by mushrooming growth. The Inland Empire’s population jumped by nearly 1 million between 2000 and 2010, census figures show. Accounting for more than three quarters of that rise were Latinos, who traditionally vote for Democrats and now make up almost half of the 4.2 million people living in the two counties.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won Riverside County. Voters in San Bernardino handed Barack Obama only a 5 percentage point victory compared with the President’s 20 point victory statewide.

Republicans held their ground in other parts of the Inland Empire, including the 31st Congressional District that includes the cities of San Bernardino and Rancho Cucamonga. But by toppling the GOP in several other key races, Democrats might begin to see the region as a winnable battleground for future state and national candidates.

So what should Democrats do to hold on to its freshly minted political capital? “Acceleration and Momentum,” says Bailey. “For starters, local Democrats captured the attention of the state and national political parties which has been a struggle for Republicans and Democrats for years.

Bailey stressed the need to strengthen the Riverside Central Committee to reflect the area’s changing demographics; work on creating a coalition capable of identifying and grooming quality candidates.

She said by all accounts, the electoral spanking Inland voters laid on the GOP was stunning in its swiftness and magnitude said Bailey.

“Everyone was planning for a long night of waiting on returns instead we were all simply bowled over by those shades of blue and the promise of what’s to come.”

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