Outcome of Battle for Remote State Assembly Seat Could Break Dem’s Supermajority in Sacto
A collection of campaign mailers from the 36th State Assembly race between Democratic incumbent Steve Fox and Republican challenger Tom Lackey. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)
It took nearly 40 years before voters in the Antelope Valley north of L.A. put a Democrat in the state legislature. Assemblyman Steve Fox is a self-described “conservative” Democrat who won the 36th Assembly seat by a hair 2 years ago.
But Republicans are determined to retake the district come Election Day.
On a warm October afternoon in the sun-bleached city of Lancaster about an hour or so drive north of Los Angeles, Assemblyman Fox is dozing off on a couch in his campaign office. While nearby, a couple dozen enthusiastic young volunteers gear up for another day on the trail.
As campaign chief Chris Antonelli delivers the day’s marching orders Fox, laid low by a stubborn cold, shambles into a back room and settles in behind a table stacked with campaign material.
Wearing a slightly rumpled opened collar shirt, his graying hair a bit unkempt and dogged by a persistent cough Fox is anything but the picture of a slick, partisan politician.
“I hired half Dems and half Republicans in my office,” says Fox.
“My head senior field rep is a hardcore Republican who owns numerous firearms. We reflect this district”
A district that until recently was solidly Republican. In fact, Fox himself actually switched parties several years ago. Critics say it was a calculated move to seize on the 36th District’s shift to the left; registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans by about 7%. But Fox says he didn’t leave the GOP. The Party left him.
“It wasn’t as responsive as I thought. And I decided to change because I was really dead center,” Fox explains.
“I don’t represent some special interest. A lot of my goals have been district oriented. And that’s great because they’ve never seen it before.”
Fox touts over a dozen bills he’s had a hand in crafting over the last two years including legislation that offered tax breaks to the region’s sizable aerospace industry.
But he remains one of the most vulnerable state Democrats facing re-election in November. His seat could be key in determining whether or not Democrats will keep a lock on their legislative “super majority”.
That’s why the party is pouring resources into the campaign in this fast growing region of L.A. County, and working overtime on voter registration and early voting drives.
“Democrats weren’t really investing before. Now democrats have come and backed him up because they see this area as not going back it’s gonna stay Democrat,” says longtime Lancaster resident Jonathan Ervin.
Ervin won Fox’s endorsement when he ran, unsuccessfully, for city council last year. He praises Fox sponsored legislation that benefits some of the region’s biggest aerospace companies, including Raytheon where Ervin is an engineer.
“That legislation, some of the best legislation we’ve ever had out of this district,” says Ervin.
“He’s been able to do some things that quite frankly a Republican couldn’t do in a democratically controlled legislature.”
The Republican's best shot for taking back the 36th District is Tom Lackey, a plain spoken city councilman and retired California Highway patrolman from Palmdale.
On a recent Friday evening Lackey is headed about an hour north to the town of California City for a candidate’s forum.
The occasional jet zooms overhead on its way to or from Edwards Air Force Base and nearby research centers – backbones of the district’s economy.
But unemployment here still hovers around 10%, well above the state average. Lackey believes a break of the Democrats hold in the state legislature could help change that.
“And I believe I’m the vehicle that represents that whole movement of trying to have a government that’s a little friendlier to business,” says Lackey.
“And makes businesses want to take a look at California, not leave California.”
Tonight’s event in California City was billed as a debate. But Assemblyman Steve Fox passed. While the two candidates have debated before, Lackey says Fox’s apparent snub is typical of the Assemblyman’s poor representation of the district. He points to dozens of pieces of legislation that Fox abstained from voting on.
“And I think that rips off the people that he’s supposed to represent,” says Lackey.
“It’s important that voters know that this is the pathway he has chosen quite frequently, especially on some of the issues that are fairly important to the Valley.”
But, says Fox, he’s not required to cast a vote on every piece of legislation that comes over the transom.
“If my district is split for some reason I will abstain,” says Fox.
“That’s the right thing. Yes, no or abstention I am representing my public.”
Fox is also accused of blurring the line between public and private. Two former staffers from Fox’s private legal firm sued him over allegations that include refusing to pay overtime and pressuring employees in his Assembly office to do work for his law office.
One of the x-staffers also says Fox exposed himself to her. Fox says his accusers are money hungry opportunists looking to derail his reelection bid.
“One of them was a Republican,” says Fox.
“They made demands for humongous settlements that are ludicrous, and we do what’s right here we don’t do what is expedient.”
Fox denies all of the allegations.
“And I have taken declarations from other employees and they refute everything,” he says.
True or not, opponent Tom Lackey is seizing on the scandals in a series of local TV and radio ads.
“People need to know at least what’s been alleged because these are his own people,” says Lackey.
“But our focus is on Tom Lackey and I hope to be a vote of confidence, not of protest.”
California City’s mayoral and council races eat up most of the evening’s 5-hour forum. That gives Lackey about 15 minutes to make his pitch and field a few questions.
It’s after 10pm. A lot of people have already cleared out of the small school auditorium.
But campaign chief George Andrews, dispatched by the state GOP to run Lackey’s campaign, says it’s worth it.
Republicans lost this district 2 years ago by less than 150 votes.
“There’s no part of the district we haven’t reached out to,” says Andrews.
“We’ve swept the district multiple times and you’ll see on Election Day the difference.”
A difference that could return the 36th Assembly District to the GOP and dilute the power of Democrats in Sacramento.