By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
Seeds of Change?
With little help from her fellow Democrats, Surf City mayor Debbie Cook takes on OC’s weirdest Republican congressman
At just after 9 on a recent weekend morning, the late-summer sun is still invisible below the marine layer that blankets the Palos Verdes peninsula. A cool breeze flows south along the coast as 20 volunteers squat on either side of a dirt road bisecting the White Point Nature Preserve. Using hand trowels and weed-pullers, their goal within the next three hours is to remove every bush of Russian Thistle—an invasive, non-native species better known as tumbleweed—from a large dun-colored field.
One of the volunteers is Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook, a veteran environmental activist and Democrat who is running against U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher for the 46th Congressional District this November. The district, which Rohrabacher has represented since 1988 without ever facing a serious challenge, stretches from Costa Mesa through coastal Long Beach to Palos Verdes.
The weed-clearing operation is part of a nationwide “day of service”—mostly community-cleanup campaigns and food drives—organized by progressive Democrats who support presidential nominee Barack Obama. Cook (who says she voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary) has arrived for the job dressed in brown work pants and a T-shirt that declares “Democrats Work,” which most of the volunteers also wear.
In contrast to her brochures, which show her in typical Orange County corporate attire, the weekend weed-warrior Cook is makeup-free—but at age 54, she has the same smile, physique and eyes that not long ago led OC Weekly to include her on our annual list of the county’s sexiest people.
Given the fact that she started late in the race—she only announced her candidacy in February of this year (which, thanks to term limits, will be her last on the Huntington Beach City Council)—and has struggled to raise money, even from her own party, one could argue that Cook might have more important things to do eight weeks before Election Day. According to the Federal Electoral Commission, President George W. Bush received 57 percent of the vote in the 46th District in 2004; two years later, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger won 69 percent.
Although Cook has hosted dozens of small fund-raising parties and began airing her first campaign commercial on local cable networks this week, she’s running low on cash. And while her fellow Democrats consider her to be a qualified and impressive candidate, she isn’t viewed as a serious enough challenge by Democratic fund-raisers to earn priority support in the party’s “Red to Blue” or “Emerging Races” cash-infusion programs.
But Cook isn’t worried. “We’re not really counting on getting a lot of money from anyone,” she says. “I know I’m an unlikely candidate. I’m not doing this for the retirement package, which I’m told [Rohrabacher] enjoys. I don’t have a burning desire to be in Congress. I have a burning desire to make a difference.”
Her fight to defeat Rohrabacher, she insists, is simply a measure of her frustration with his aloofness to his own constituents and his legendary antipathy to everything she stands for: preservation of local habitats, “sensible development” that protects resources and a commitment to finding “sustainable sources of energy” to replace fossil fuels. She’s infuriated by Rohrabacher’s public statement that global warming is a “hoax” and his sarcastic speculation that global warming 55 million years ago was caused by “dinosaur flatulence.”
In the past two decades since joining Congress, Rohrabacher, who calls himself the “Surfing Congressman,” has survived half a dozen re-election races with victory margins of 15 percent to 30 percent. But he’s never faced someone as determined or experienced as Cook, who views her candidacy on an epic scale.
“We have been waiting for 20 years for Dana to do something,” she says. “We can’t afford to wait another 20 years. When someone cut the last tree down on Easter Island, what were the people thinking who were standing there, watching? I kind of view myself as the last person standing, saying, ‘Don’t cut down the last tree! We might need it!’ Don’t use up that oil; we need it for more important things than blowing out the exhaust pipe of your SUV.’”
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Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1954 to a U.S. Navy reservist who fought in both World War II and the Korean War, Cook grew up with four brothers and an attitude. “I never thought boys were better than girls,” she says. “I could run faster than my brothers, climb a tree faster than anybody. My dad never made me feel there was anything I couldn’t do.”
Cook spent her early childhood in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where she excelled at sports. When her parents moved to Newport Beach in the mid-1960s, Cook says she never quite made the transition from Midwestern tomboy to beach girl. “I felt out of place,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of money, and my mom made my clothes. Nobody wore socks, and I wore knee socks and got a lot of weird looks. It was a tough adjustment.”