So about an hour ago I returned from the Faith Episcopal Church in Laguna Niguel. That’s where the Aliso Niguel Democratic Club hosted a debate/forum to meet the seven people fighting to run in next year’s 48th Congressional District general election against Dana Rohrabacher.
On a whole, I thought it was a pretty solid event. The room was packed—which was awfully encouraging. People were polite, deferential, informed. The six men and one woman were given a full four minutes to speak at the start, which was probably a bit long (for some reason, folks running for office always feel the need to milk every second. It’s often a mistake), but ultimately fine. The Q&A session that followed was a mixed bag. An inordinate amount of time was devoted to a potential military draft (predictably, none of the seven want one), while precious little attention was spent answering the most important question of 2017: How do you beat a 28-year Republican incumbent in a district that still leans heavily toward the right?)
Anyhow, it proved to be a solid opportunity to size up the candidates. So here, based on my observations, lies the best-to-worst rankings from the night …
• 1. Harley Rouda: So I met Harley for breakfast several months ago, and came away with mixed feelings. I liked him, I thought his heart was in the right place. But I couldn’t tell how well versed he was on issues, and whether his background (Ohio, not California) would hurt. Well, he sorta owned tonight. Harley has a presence—a factual presence. He speaks clearly, he stands straight, he looks like the president of a bank. When he referred to Donald Trump as “a madman … a threat to world security,” people felt the rage. Is he liberal enough for far-left Dems? Maybe not. But do the optics work when he stands next to Dana Rohrabacher? Yes. Can he hold his own in a debate setting? Based on this evening—also yes.
• 2. Michael Kotick: Throughout the early stages of this race, a solid 95 percent of the attention has been devoted to Rouda, Hans Keirstead and Laura Oatman. Among other things, that means guys like Kotick have sorta slipped beneath the radar. Well, tonight the 34-year-old Nestlé executive emerged. I found Kotick to be energetic, smart, extremely informed and articulate. Late in the evening the candidates were asked by a high school student to name what they considered to be the greatest threat to America. There were varied replies, most of them flat and predictable. Kotick’s statement, however, morphed into this poignant address on how we, as Democrats, need to stop bashing folks who voted for Trump, and instead work on wooing them. For my money, it was the moment of the night.
• 3. Laura Oatman: I met Laura for the first time earlier today, at Starbucks, and I walked away impressed. I thought she really soared through the first, oh, 40 percent of the event—then dropped precipitously. In particular, three of the candidates were asked a question related to the FAA, and planes flying inappropriate patterns as they leave Orange County. Both Rouda and Keirstead deftly offered their takes. Oatman, meanwhile, admitted she really didn’t know much about the problem. This was both honest and (to be blunt) unfortunate. People tend to hate politics because the practitioners are deemed full of shit. But sometimes you do (factually) have to bullshit your way through an answer. This was one of those moments.
Oatman also went on a bit of a riff on how, with women in charge, things work out better. Which may well be true. In fact, it probably is true. But those sort of lines, while good for quick applause, don’t fly in a general election when 50 percent of your voters are male.
Bright side: She owned climate change and spoke passionately about her desire to run out of love for Orange County. Those were stirring (and important) moments.
• 4. Omar Siddiqui: Really interesting candidate with the most unique background of the bunch. Throughout the election I’ve repeatedly heard Siddiqui referred to as a “Reagan Democrat,” and (just being honest) I cringe. I mean, on the one hand, whoever runs against Dana Rohrabacher will have to be moderate. This is non-negotiable—you can’t win the 48th with a granola-eating, John Denver-quoting, Bernie Sanders-immitating uber liberal. I wish you could, but we’re not there yet. So perhaps “Reagan Democrat” is OK. But … well … um … when the phrase was uttered, you felt a cold shudder in the room. You just did. Stylistically, I also didn’t love his need to stand with every answer, as the other candidates sat. It felt rehearsed and inauthentic.
That all being said, Siddiqui has worked as a private advisor and consultant to the FBI, and he was the only person in the room able to name drop personal encounters with Barack Obama and James Comey. That kind of thing matters, especially when you’re running against a congressman who’s been around since the heyday of Juan Samuel and the Cabbage Patch Kid.
• 5. Hans Keirstead: So I’ve now seen Keirstead twice, and I’m increasingly confident that the Democratic National Committee—which seems committed to backing Hans as its candidate of choice—is making a mistake. Resume? Check. Money? Check. Turns invisible in a room? Check. I’m not trying to be mean, because he seems like a lovely guy. But Keirstead was barely noticeable, even though he sat in the front of the room. He also tends to answer in long, winding statements and sentences. When asked to name America’s top threat, he said, “Macroeconomic destabilization of the country.” And while this is, in fact, a valid thought, it’s also one that leaves 75.7 percent of the folks in any room collectively scratching their heads.
In short, he’s quickly becoming the Jeb Bush of this race. That needs to change.
• 6. Tony Zarkades: Of the seven people on the stage, this is the one I’d choose to have a beer with. That said, I’d also enjoy a beer with George W. Bush.
Zarkades goes by “Tony Z.” That’s mistake No. 1—it comes off amateurish. I’m selecting a congressman, not my son’s flag football coach. Mistake No. 2—he just didn’t seem to have a strong grasp on the specifics of issues. These sort of events can by dry and sleep-inducing, but they do serve to expose people who might not be ready for the majors. Tony Z was entertaining, sincere, dogged, funny. But I couldn’t imagine voting for him over the five other prime candidates.
• 7. Boyd Roberts: I mean … um … eh … I’ll just leave it with this: His stated goal is to have 100 percent of Orange County voting blue.
My stated goal is to fly to Jupiter in five minutes powered by Coca Cola and Thin Mints.