The entry of Thousand Oaks City Councilwoman Jacqui Irwin into the 44th Assembly District race could test the pragmatism of county Democratic activists. By virtue of geography, biography, experience and circumstance, Irwin appears to be a formidable candidate -- and one who would appear to be well suited to be competitive in what might be classified as a center-right district, even though it includes the overwhelmingly Democratic city of Oxnard.
Irwin's political base is in the Republican heart of the district, and she is a proven vote-getter in Thousand Oaks, having topped the ballot in City Council races in 2008 and 2012. She is also an engineer with a private-sector background, and her entry into local politics followed the path taken by many successful women elected officials -- involvement in the PTA and youth sports organizations, followed by broader civic engagement, followed by election to nonpartisan office.
She also has the capacity to self-fund at least the launch of a respectable campaign; her husband, Jon, is the former president of the Seattle-based music download firm Rhapsody International. In addition, she has retained long-time Los Angeles political consultant Larry Levine to manage her campaign. Levine also managed her city council campaigns.
The question will be whether she is Democratic enough (capital "D") to appeal to the party loyalists who tend to dominate the primary electorate. Yes, yes, California now has a top-two primary system that was designed to lessen the influence of the more extreme voters from both parties, but the fact is that it will take several election cycles, if ever, for the less politically engaged voters in the center to meaningfully participate in primary elections.
The seven-paragraph news release issued today announcing her candidacy did not once mention Irwin's party affiliation. In addition, she has never endorsed a Democratic candidate in a local partisan race -- not even Rep. Julia Brownley or Sen. Fran Pavley when both were engaged in very tough campaigns in 2012. Beyond that, when I asked Irwin over the weekend whether she voted for President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, she declined to answer.
So the question is out there for Democratic primary voters: Is Irwin Democratic enough?
Potential options include Oxnard Harbor District Commissioner Jason Hodge, who not only hails from the Democratic base of the district but also has close ties to the party establishment in Sacramento (his wife, Fiona Ma, is former speaker pro tem of the Assembly). In addition, former Moorpark Mayor Bernardo Perez has a resume that appeals strongly to social-justice advocates, having served as co-chair of the Ventura County Living Wage Coalition and as a member of the Peace and Justice Commission of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdioces.
If either or both are on the ballot alongside Irwin in June, progressive Democrats might have to decide whether to vote reflexively with their hearts or to weigh the electability of all the candidates before making their choices.
Meanwhile, the entry of Pastor Rob McCoy into the race as a Republican guarantees a lively debate during the primary campaign. McCoy is an engaging, articulate speaker with a strong conservative point of view, and he promises that some high-profile national Republicans will come to district to appear at fundraisers with him.