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California's Inland Empire District to Choose Between GOP Latina and Transgender Democrat for State Senate

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A white woman wearing glasses and a blue jacket stands behind a microphone and podium in front a group of people who are seated.
Lisa Middleton, Palm Springs City Council member, speaks during a Pass Democratic Club meeting at the Four Seasons in Beaumont on March 27, 2024.  (Elisa Ferrari/CalMatters)

Soon after the March primary, state Senate candidate Lisa Middleton pitched her vision for Inland Empire transportation to the Pass Democratic Club in Beaumont.

“We’ve not built the roadways we need to serve the growing population,” she said, referring to chronic congestion on Interstate 10.

Middleton, a Palm Springs City Council member and former mayor, won applause describing how she secured $50 million for a storm-damaged bridge in Palm Springs. If elected, she vowed to build bridges for traffic as well as “bridges to people.”

“Lastly, I’m a very proud member of the LGBTQ community, and I am transgender,” Middleton, 71, concluded.

“If I’m elected, I’ll be the first transgender person in the state Legislature. That’s not a reason to vote for me. But in California, it is time that we stand up and say anyone can run. Everyone has a chance.”

Middleton does have a chance, although she has her work cut out for her. She earned 46.2% of the vote in the newly constituted state Senate District 19, against incumbent Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh’s 53.8%.

Like Middleton, Ochoa Bogh also knows something about breaking new ground in the Inland Empire. Since 2020, she has been the first Republican Latina lawmaker elected to the state Senate.

Their personal stories appear primed for a culture wars clash, but neither candidate is choosing that route. Instead they are campaigning on bread-and-butter issues, such as jobs, infrastructure and public safety.

“I don’t do theater; I don’t do drama,” Ochoa Bogh, 51, told CalMatters. “I will support policies that I think are good for people.”

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With more than a dozen LGBTQ representatives in the state Legislature, sexual and gender identity may no longer be a key factor in California races.

“That fits with where we are in California politics,” said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political science professor.  “There have been so many people who have been groundbreaking in their identity that now they have the freedom just to be public servants.”

Smart politics or culture clash?

If these candidates’ campaign strategies seem quaint in an era of partisan polarization, that may be smart politics for the district.

This district combines the liberal neighborhoods of Coachella Valley with conservative bedroom communities and industrial areas in San Bernardino County.

This is the first time Inland Empire voters will cast ballots in this state Senate district, which was redrawn after the 2020 census. In a quirk of that process, it was designated a “deferred district,” with no elected senator since then.

Ochoa Bogh currently represents state Senate District 23, which partially overlaps with District 19.

Voter registration in the new district has shifted from predominantly Republican in 2008 to a 1.5-point Democratic advantage, making for a competitive race.

In San Bernardino County, Ochoa Bogh prevailed with about 63% of the vote, but in Riverside County Middleton led with 53%, according to California Target Book.

“It’s not that every part of this district is purple; there’s blue and red mixed together,” Kousser said. “That makes political messaging really tricky. How do you come up with messages that work for commuter suburbs as well as Palm Springs?”

In a sense, Ochoa and Middleton’s messages aren’t that different. Both focus on quality of life, middle-class opportunity, and their life stories as examples of the American Dream.

A woman stands behind a podium that says "Fix California" on the front with people in the background.
State Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa) addresses reporters about the public school system, during a press conference outside the 3rd District Court of Appeal building in Sacramento, on Jan. 25, 2023. (Rahul Lal/Sipa USA via Reuters)

Both candidates tout their working-class backgrounds, Ochoa Bogh as the daughter of Mexican immigrant parents and Middleton as the granddaughter of Dust Bowl refugees who settled in California.

Incumbent experienced homelessness

Ochoa Bogh’s childhood included moves to California, Hawaii, Florida and Mexico. Once she lived with her mother and sister in a single room of an apartment shared with another family, she said.

“When we talk about homelessness, not having a place to live, I know what that’s like,” she said.

She earned an undergraduate degree from UC Santa Barbara in 1996, then worked as a teacher and later a real estate agent while raising her young children. Volunteer work at her children’s school led to a seat on the Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District Board and then election to state Senate.

“I wasn’t very politically engaged, but I was very civically engaged,” she said.

The state Legislature offered a crash course in partisan politics. Shortly after her election she discovered the California Latino Legislative Caucus, but learned that Republicans weren’t welcome in the group.

“In the Legislature, there’s a lot of talk about diversity, inclusion,” Ochoa Bogh said, “but only if you think their way. If you think differently, you’re vilified.”

In her first term, Ochoa Bogh has passed about a dozen bills, but her proposals to notify criminal defendants of possible murder charges for fentanyl-related deaths and to increase penalties for shoplifters failed to pass. This session she’s revisiting fentanyl addiction with bipartisan bills to expedite drug treatment and provide fentanyl tests.

“She’s very thoughtful, and does the very best job she can to represent the entire district, and make sure she listens to all of her constituents,” said Brian Jones, the Republican state Senate minority leader from San Diego.

Challenger grew up in union household

Middleton grew up in the city of Bell Gardens, in Los Angeles County, where she said her blue-collar parents entered the middle class through union jobs.

A white woman wearing glasses and a blue jacket sits down with books in the background.
Lisa Middleton, Palm Springs City Council member, at the Four Seasons in Beaumont on March 27, 2024. (Elisa Ferrari/CalMatters)

She earned a BA from UCLA, then a master’s in public administration from the University of Southern California, she said. During a 36-year career with the State Compensation Insurance Fund, which administers workers’ compensation, she served as an auditor, claims officer and executive.

“You don’t get what you pay for; you get what you audit,” she told the Pass Democratic Club members.

Middleton made her gender transition in 1995 and said her biggest cheerleaders were her two children from a previous marriage.

“It was a lifelong struggle that I finally accepted myself as who I was,” she said, “and I have been very fortunate in coming out to have been one of those folks who continued to have opportunities.”

Those opportunities expanded after she left her state job, moved to the desert and swapped what she expected to be a quiet retirement for a planning commission position. She later became a council member and mayor of Palm Springs.

She ticks off her accomplishments in that role: boosting salaries for Palm Springs police and fire departments, expanding the city’s financial reserves, and supporting the renovation of restaurants and small businesses.

Middleton is “literally one of the best elected officials I have worked with” over 40 years of policing, said Palm Springs Police Chief Andrew Mills. He credits her with helping improve retention and morale in the department, which led to the local police association endorsing her.

“The officers as well have a lot of confidence in her as an elected official, and that’s kind of rare,” he said. “But she’s that calming voice that tries to bring people together, rather than find the extremes and push people apart.”

Senate candidates clash on environment

For all their emphasis on the political middle ground, Ochoa and Middleton offer some sharp contrasts on environmental and social issues.

To Middleton, renewable energy projects such as wind and solar are win-win solutions that fight climate change and help union workers.

“Building out those industries is an opportunity for us to have well-paying jobs,” she said.

Not so fast, said Ochoa Bogh, who argues that there’s a downside to renewable energy projects that raise the price of energy or require adoption of costly electric fleets.

A woman wearing all black holds a microphone and stands behind a podium.
California State Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh speaks during the opening for Rep. Ken Calvert’s office in Palm Desert, on Jan. 13, 2024. (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun via Reuters)

“Who doesn’t want to be green?” she asked. “But all of those goals have a huge financial impact on working Californians, and nobody talks about that.”

Middleton also points to differences in their positions on abortion, noting she supports California’s stance as a haven for reproductive freedom, including abortion rights.

Ochoa Bogh did not state her position on abortion, but she has opposed bills aimed at reinforcing abortion rights in California and has received a 0% rating from Planned Parenthood and a 100% rating from the California Pro-Life Council.

Both candidates identified parental rights as key to their campaigns, but they appear to diverge on what that means.

For activists and lawmakers on the right, parental rights has focused on shielding students from what they consider to be inappropriate or sexually explicit materials, and notifying parents of changes to their children’s sexual or gender identities.

Many on the left believe parental rights includes the ability to honor their children’s choices and expose them to diverse educational material.

Although she didn’t elaborate on her position, Ochoa Bogh authored a bill that would ban elementary and middle schools and libraries from offering what the bill defines as obscene material. Last year she also voted against the new law that requires a supermajority of school board members to ban books and provides a process for parents to appeal those decisions.

Middleton argues that parents of transgender and LGBTQ children are being disenfranchised in other states by laws restricting their options for care and treatment.

“Parents are being told ‘you cannot make decisions for your child,’” she said.

Who can motivate Inland Empire voters?

In the closely divided district, the race will hinge not only on whose message resonates, but also who can turn out their party base.

“The opportunities are with us, doing the canvassing, texting, phone-banking and just having the boots on the ground,” said Jim Mercado, president of the Pass Democratic Club.

Ochoa Bogh says she doesn’t stop with her own base but knocks on doors of Democratic and No Party Preference voters as well.

“I have no problem reaching out to them, because to me it’s about discussing ideas,” she said.

As a Republican, Ochoa Bogh maintains she can provide a counterweight to the Democratic supermajority, while also finding common ground.

“She’s done a very good job advocating for the conservative principles that she believes in, while also being effective at building relationships across the aisle,” Jones said.

At the Democratic Club meeting, Beaumont City Councilmember Julio Martinez agreed that Ochoa Bogh has worked well with local governments, but he worried that minority party members are at a disadvantage in state budget talks.

“For our region, how do we get our fair share of the money the state gives out?” he asked. “How much influence can a Republican have in this state?”

Cash, demographics and identity

For now, Ochoa Bogh has an overwhelming campaign cash advantage with $605,677 and has raised more than double the average for state legislators, based on her most recent campaign finance report. Meanwhile Middleton’s campaign reported a cash balance of $53,053.

It remains to be seen how the candidates’ identities will intersect with the district’s demographics. About 38% of the electorate is Latino, and Ochoa Bogh believes her focus on education and business appeals to them.

“I think I have a pretty strong hold on the Latino vote,” she said. “But I don’t take that for granted, which is why I knock on the doors.”

If elected, Middleton would not only be the first transgender state legislator in California, but she’d be among only a handful in the country, said Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs for the Victory Fund, which helps elect LGBTQ politicians nationwide and is supporting her campaign.

The first was Danica Roem, sworn in to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2018, followed by Sarah McBride, a Delaware state senator now running for Congress.

Meloy expects voters in Coachella Valley’s substantial LGBTQ community will be galvanized by Middleton’s historic race for state Senate.

“I think in a place like Palm Springs there is a higher amount of LGBTQ people, and they’re yearning for some representation in the state Legislature,” he said. “And Lisa is a community leader with proven results who offers that opportunity.”

A group of people seated inside a building.
Members of the Pass Democratic Club during a meeting at the Four Seasons in Beaumont on March 27, 2024. (Elisa Ferrari/CalMatters)

She also enjoys the synergy of campaigning alongside other LGBTQ Democratic candidates in the region, including Will Rollins, a former federal prosecutor challenging incumbent Rep. Ken Calvert for the 41st Congressional District, and Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstedge, who is running for the 47th Assembly District.

So far Meloy said Middleton has not been subjected to attacks on her gender identity, adding he hopes that civility continues as the race heats up.

Middleton said she and her opponent have agreed to run “honestly and respectfully,” focusing on policy differences. For her part, Ochoa Bogh says that anti-LGBTQ rhetoric will play no part in her campaign strategy.

“I can win this without vilifying my opponent,” she said.

For the record: The story was updated to reflect that Middleton, if elected, would be among only a handful of state legislators in the country who is transgender. The source quoted in the story originally said Middleton would be one of three, but information obtained later indicates there may be more.

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