What the Chuck?
Does Irvine Assemblyman Chuck DeVore honestly think he can Twitter and parody-video his way through the Republican primary and into a title bout with Senator Barbara Boxer next year? Yep
A SigAlert snarled the northbound Highway 57 the day Chuck DeVore promised to speak to a gathering of Republican women in Pomona. The California state assemblyman for the 70th District only had about an hour to leave his Irvine offices, navigate the traffic mess and make the meeting on time—and this commute came just after he had flown into John Wayne Airport from Sacramento.
Even though they had a shorter trip than DeVore, most members of the Republican Women Federated chapters of Puente Hills, East San Gabriel Valley and Walnut arrived late to the scheduled 5:30 p.m. get-together at the Pomona Valley Mining Co., a down-home restaurant on a hill near the Interstate 10/Highway 57 interchange. There to meet them in the Eureka Room was DeVore: tall and gangly, with a pale, cherubic face and wiry hair, working the room like a bellhop, all handshakes and laughs, with nary a sweat bead on his forehead from the harrying drive. He wants to speak to all 300-some California chapters of Republican Women Federated to promote his quixotic campaign to defeat Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer in 2010. Today, he’s meeting with groups 55 through 57.
About 30 people eventually show up, ranging from middle-aged to elderly, almost exclusively white. After an invocation, steak-or-chicken dinner and brief statements by candidates for other local races, DeVore stood up to speak. He’s given 10 minutes; he’ll speak for an hour.
“I never have prepared remarks—I suck at speeches,” DeVore tells the audience as he walks in front of the lectern. “I go crazy behind podiums.” He warms up the audience by asking which of them had filed for an extension on paying their taxes. A few people raise their hands.
“These people are still eligible to become members of President Obama’s cabinet!” he says as the audience roars.
DeVore mentions a bomb scare that occurred earlier that day near the state Capitol. “I’m sure someone will blame it on people who attended a Tea Party,” he says, referring to the hundreds of protests organized nationwide on April 15 by conservative activists against Barack Obama’s administration. “How many of you attended?”
Most of the audience raises its hands.
“You’re all domestic terrorists, according to the Department of Homeland Security!” he cracks.
DeVore throws more Republican red meat at them while he roams the Eureka room with a wireless mic: limited government, no universal health care, Reagan, energy policy, Boxer is a liberal, and the like. Rhetoric indistinguishable from most GOP-candidate forums. The Republican ladies lap up the spiel, if a bit lackadaisically. But their interest is piqued when DeVore discloses his ace for defeating Boxer. “My campaign is different than traditional, normal, losing Republican campaigns,” he states. “I’m not self-financed. I won’t bombard the voters senseless.” His trick? The powers of the Internet.
Silence. DeVore explains the tools—Facebook, Twitter, blogging, YouTube—he’s banking on to pull off the legislative upset of California’s young century. Most of the audience responds only with quizzical looks. “Your groups should have a Facebook page,” he says after discovering few people in the room have even a personal account. “It’s a great, easy way to communicate ideas. Just because Al Gore invented the Internet does not mean it’s something we Republicans should avoid!” More laughs.
He plugs his greatest Internet hits: a tax calculator on his website (chuckdevore.com); a YouTube video that currently pits DeVore in a legal battle against former Eagles member Don Henley; multiple Twitter updates a day (he tweeted about the Capitol bomb scare); fund-raising via Twitter—the first such effort by a politician in the United States.
Almost no one has heard of this stuff.
DeVore is unflappable. His smile and enthusiasm remain electric. “This is a good fight,” he concludes. “I’ll literally talk till midnight, till the cleaning crew comes out, to get my message across.”
* * *
DeVore is as loyal an OC GOP soldier as Reagan could imagine; indeed, he worked in the Reagan administration as a Pentagon special assistant for foreign affairs and drove then-Congressman Bob Dornan to the Great Communicator’s 1984 re-election kickoff party at Mile Square Park—to this day, Orange County’s largest political rally. He helped start the College Republicans at Cal State Fullerton in the early 1980s. His entry into politics was as Chris Cox’s first staffer. (Of his former boss’ much-criticized reign as Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, DeVore says, “History is going to be the final judge once people can step back from the current crisis. It’s going to be interesting, but he will be treated better than [he] certainly [has been] in the past nine months.”) DeVore sat on the Republican Party of Orange County’s Central Committee for more than a decade, serving as the head of its ethics committee. He wasn’t afraid to discipline candidates for violations ranging from misstated endorsements to campaign-finance tricks (among those he admonished: former Assemblymembers Marilyn Brewer and Ken Maddox). And DeVore quit his position as the Assembly’s Chief Republican Whip out of principle when it became apparent members of his party would vote for the most recent California state budget.
But his campaign to unseat Boxer has drawn smirks, derision and overall disbelief in California political circles. There’s Boxer’s longtime popularity, fund-raising prowess and two-time-incumbency status. Few people outside Orange County have ever heard of DeVore. Local history also stands against him: Orange County Republicans have failed spectacularly in running for statewide office; only one, Senator Thomas Kuchel of Anaheim, has ever won an election. (The only other local Republican to hold statewide office, former Senator John Seymour, replaced Pete Wilson by Senate appointment after Wilson became California’s governor in 1991; in Seymour’s only race for the seat, current senator Dianne Feinstein whipped him by 16 points.)
One local conservative activist who requested anonymity but who has been involved in GOP politics since the 1980s says, “Chuckles is crazy. He stands no chance whatsoever. None. No one knows him, and to think he can win is just wasting time and, frankly, looking like a fool.”
DeVore, a retired lieutenant colonel for the Army National Guard, remains a true believer. “Currently in Sacramento, we’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” DeVore says in an interview before his Pomona Valley Mining Co. speech. “Many of California’s problems are becoming America’s problems. I can stand against this in Washington. Boxer is part of the problem we currently face.”
What distinguishes DeVore from other politicians is his unabashed nerdiness, one manifested not just in self-deprecating talk but with a mastery and embrace of modern technology that keeps him constantly wired to friends, enemies and anyone who wants to chat with him. His constant use of Twitter earned DeVore a January Wall Street Journal front-page article, complete with a pencil-point portrait illustration that DeVore used as his Facebook profile picture for months (he carries a copy of that article to show off at community lectures). He has blogged since 2004 (nowadays mostly for the Red County network and Big Hollywood, a website created by Matt Drudge disciple Andrew Breitbart to counter perceived entertainment-industry liberalism) against the advice of his staffers and others in the Republican Party.
“They say the Internet is forever and things I write could be used against me in the future. If Alexander Hamilton and Lincoln lived today, would they be using their technology to get their message across? Yes,” DeVore declares. “What are the Federalist Papers but the technological equivalent in the 1700s of the blogs?”
Such an embrace has spurred the national GOP to urge its members to make like the Democrats and use social-networking sites to spread their conservative gospel. DeVore even won an award from Twitter for the best political use of the medium.
But his Net notoriety is still mostly among the political chattering classes; what is currently garnering him national attention are two parody videos you can no longer legally see. Earlier this year, DeVore’s staff produced their own versions of two songs by former Eagles front man Don Henley: “All She Wants to Do Is Tax,” an ode to Boxer lampooning Henley’s “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” and a remake of “The Boys of Summer” with new lyrics criticizing the Obama administration. The idea came while DeVore campaigned in the Bakersfield area and spotted a Toyota Prius with a fading Barack Obama sticker. “It reminded me of the line in Don’s song: ‘Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.’ He’s known to be thin-skinned and is a very liberal individual who gives thousands of dollars to Democrats. I thought, ‘Let’s parody!’ If there’s anyone fun to pick a fight with, Henley would be fun to poke.”
DeVore published the “new” lyrics to “The Boys of Summer” on Big Hollywood and “All She Wants to Do Is Tax” on chuckdevore.com and YouTube. The video was only up for a couple of days before Henley’s lawyers sued DeVore for copyright infringement in California federal court. (The Weekly also received a notification from Henley’s lawyers to remove the latter video from our Navel Gazing blog; about this, DeVore Twittered, “Don Henley’s legal goons threaten a liberal weekly over their posting and mocking of my mockery, egads!”). DeVore’s reaction? “I high-fived a staffer,” he says. “We’re using his material to skewer him and the people who support him. And having a heck of a good time doing it!”
Recently, Henley’s attorney notified DeVore and offered a compromise: If he agreed to take down the lyrics, as well as all video and audio, and never do this again, Henley would drop his lawsuit. “This shows me it’s not about intellectual property; it’s that he’s a liberal and I’m a conservative,” DeVore retorts. “Our response: Damn the torpedoes! I’m going to fight to the last attorney! Not only no, but heck no, and I’m going to take it all away around to the Supreme Court if we have to.”
By press time, Henley’s attorney had not returned calls seeking comment for this story.
Attention-getting lawsuits are fine and all but don’t guarantee votes. For DeVore, who freely admits he can’t possibly raise enough funds to match Boxer (first quarter fund-raising reports showed DeVore raised only $132,000 to Boxer’s $4.6 million campaign chest), such frankness and low-level efforts, little by little, eventually can translate into a political movement. What turned DeVore on to the possibilities of technology to wage unconventional campaigns was a cable commercial filmed in 2002, when he lost a race for an Irvine City Council seat by about 150 votes. “I wanted to do an intro piece—you know, me, my wife, two daughters and dog introducing ourselves,” he recalls.
The results were a disaster. The DeVores’ dog, Moxie, wouldn’t bark on cue, while one daughter kept preening herself on-camera. After seeing the footage, it occurred to DeVore that the outtakes were much more interesting than the boilerplate offerings he originally intended. The finished product: the bloopers, with DeVore telling viewers, “Support Chuck DeVore: Help him hire professional actors and trained dogs.”
“I went to a town-hall meeting for seniors a couple of days later,” DeVore recounted. “A lady got up, and, in the tone of the ‘Where’s the beef?’ lady, asked, ‘Where’s Moxie?’ Everyone in the room laughed. They had seen the commercial and liked it.”
Two years later, DeVore became a state assemblyman.
“Modern campaigns have degenerated into a two-part process: You raise obscene amounts of money, and then you spend them on very costly consulting, polls and paid advertising,” he says. “You bombard the voters with prepackaged and crafted messages. This is not what our representative democracy was supposed to be. The intent was that the voters could interact with their elected representatives and ask them tough questions in unscripted environments.
“I’m not a self-funded candidate or a celebrity, but I do hold a consistent set of principles that I feel very comfortable articulating,” he adds. “What works for me is that people are attracted to that, even if they don’t agree with everything I believe in. Because it’s the real me, not a focus-group-created phony.”
* * *
Orange County GOP chairman Scott Baugh has known DeVore for better than a decade through their work on the party’s Central Committee; they gave him a 2007 Assemblymember of the Year award. “Given that he holds a position in a minority party, there are always challenges in getting his legislation through, but Chuck’s undaunted by the deck that’s stacked against him and doggedly pursues legislation that he believes makes California better,” Baugh says. “He participates in party activities, is always helpful; he’s always willing to show up and give a speech and carry the flag. When it comes to campaigns, there are a lot of elected officials who don’t show up for the precinct walks; Chuck DeVore, without fail, will show up.
“I’m glad he’s [running for Senate],” Baugh adds. “Chuck is tenacious, and he will beat on the drum and beat the message across. He’s being innovative, and he has good issues that need to be brought to the forefront. He has a good a shot as anyone right now. We will always stand behind Chuck—we don’t get involved in primaries, but certainly we’ll stand with Chuck.”
Despite DeVore’s eternal optimism and Baugh’s support, DeVore’s campaign for Senate must deal with far more obstacles than a state assembly member usually faces. There’s no guarantee DeVore can even secure his own party’s nomination. So far, he’s the only Republican who has established an official committee for the Senate race. But it’s just a matter of time before other candidates emerge—and the polling isn’t favoring DeVore. According to a May Field Poll, DeVore would pull in only 9 percent of the votes in a hypothetical Republican primary featuring two people rumored to be seeking the GOP’s senatorial candidacy, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Hewlett-Packard head Carly Fiorina. Even worse, the survey found only 18 percent of California voters surveyed even have an opinion of DeVore—meaning that few people have ever heard of him outside the 70th Assembly District.
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DeVore is fully aware of the challenges ahead, even from his own party. (The Lincoln Party, the county’s premier conservative kingmakers, did not return calls for this story.) “It’s common knowledge that the National Republican Committee is actively recruiting big-government Republicans” to run for California’s senatorial primary, he says calmly. “People are going to do what they’re going to do. What I look to is that never in the history of California, with the exception of the actors [Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Murphy], has there been an individual who had no public experience who won statewide office. And any time a multimillionaire has run a self-financed campaign for Senate or governor, never once have they won. My job is going to be to convince people that I am the future of the party.”
He points to his first successful electoral victory: the 2004 Republican primary for the state assembly seat he currently holds. Favored heavily at the time was Cristi Cristich, a darling of moderate Republicans who outspent DeVore about 2-1 and ran with the support of the New Majority, the then-new PAC created by conservatives who thought the local GOP needed to move to the center instead of the right. “Cristi used a traditional campaign: the best consultants, the glossiest mass-mailers. I raised money, but mostly relied on volunteers. We won by 20 points. Money helps in politics, but it’s not the only thing.”
Chuck Tweets on the issues! Click here for more!