Photo by James BunoanGrassroots democracy smells like hair-care products, the undersides of old sofa cushions and the nose-itching suspicion that microscopic life forms are springing airborne from the fibers of a dusty old carpet. But Gerrie Schipske refuses to sneeze at it. She's sympathetic enough when you ah-choo, but not apologetic. "We didn't thoroughly clean this place before we moved in," she explains pragmatically, glancing about the office she rents on the outskirts of an old Long Beach shopping center, right above a beauty college. "We just couldn't waste the volunteers' time on that."
Schipske is a Democrat running for Congress in the 46th District against incumbent Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), and election day is only a month away. She has pinched an hour from her schedule to sit for an interview, but even as she stops scurrying and settles onto a metal folding chair, it's obvious her attention—and her allegiance—are with the dozen people who have shown up to fold fliers and stuff envelopes. They're spending a sunny autumn morning in a windowless room, clustered around a long table, surrounded by the maps, signs, boxes and newspaper clippings that decorate and clutter this sinus headache of a campaign headquarters. But they're not sneezing, either.
"These are the kinds of people who are going to decide this election," Schipske promises in the hopeful tradition of all political challengers, "and that bodes well for me."
If that's true—if smelly old grassroots democracy is the winner in the 46th District—Schipske's chances are probably good. But that type of campaign is a longer shot than ever in an era of declining voter turnout and diminishing issues-oriented political news coverage.
Clearly, Schipske could use some help from above—like, the upper echelon of the Democratic Party. Mysteriously, however, this is where she has run into her greatest obstacle. The Schipske for Congress campaign is receiving no financial assistance from Democratic power-brokers—none from the party, none from its PACs. And since such money is what triggers high-profile endorsements, most of her most-natural major allies have remained silent.
"We're on our own," Schipske acknowledges. "We're fending for ourselves."
Ask Schipske about this abandonment, and she gets up from her folding chair and closes the door between her office and the volunteers who are still preparing campaign mailers. She doesn't want them to hear, although she concedes they already know.
"My understanding is that a deal was cut," Schipske says. "Democrats ponied up money to get new district lines drawn the way they wanted them, and a deal was cut with Republicans that the new lines would solidify certain Republican seats. That way, the Republicans would not object to the redistricting."
It's true that for the first time in memory, Republicans filed no court challenges to the redistricting.
"The other implicit deal that's been made," Schipske continues, "is that neither party will fund aggressive campaigns against the incumbents who have been made safe by redistricting."
Sure enough, with the exception of Gary Condit's seat up north, it's hard to find a district in California—congressional, assembly or state senate—where the Democrat and Republican parties are vigorously contesting one another.
"The boundaries were drawn to assure that the party in power would continue to have the advantage in that district," Schipske says, shaking her head. "There's something drastically wrong with that picture."
Meanwhile, although Schipske's positions on a number of issues—the environment, human rights, reproductive choice—are distinctly different than Rohrabacher's, she has not picked up endorsements from organizations including the California League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, the Human Rights Campaign or the National Abortion Rights Action League.
Why? Isn't Schipske very obviously a better friend to the environment than Rohrabacher?
"That's certainly true," says David Allgood, Southern California director of the California League of Conservation Voters (CLCV). "But the CLCV has a position that we don't look at races where viability is in question."
Allgood means he doesn't know if Schipske can win. "We have limited resources," he explains, "and we have to conserve them."
But even if the CLCV can't donate monetarily, can't it at least help with an endorsement?
"No because it takes a lot of staff time to set up the endorsement process, to do the interview, process the answers, all of that," Allgood says. "We don't have the resources to do all of that when we have questions over whether the candidate is viable."
If the CLCV doesn't have the time to set up the endorsement process, how does it have the time to determine a candidate's viability?
"Look, we've been doing this for 30 years," says Allgood. "We look at the party registration numbers in the district and we look at the candidates past performances. Rohrabacher is an incumbent where the registration is in his favor. So we chose to look elsewhere."
Schipske's complaint is that, with no endorsement, voters are left to assume that there is no difference between her and Rohrabacher on environmental issues—or on any of the other issues where high-profile organizations have withheld comment on her candidacy.
"I would suggest things are moving toward a time when people say, 'Well, why have elections? If the parties have gotten together and colluded to determine who is going to be in office, why go through the charade?' I'm starting to sense—and this is not the candidate in me talking, but the political scientist, the citizen—that the average voter is getting tired of this. People are coming down with political fatigue, with democracy fatigue."
The phone bleats, and Schipske is rattled back into candidate hyperdrive. Sharon Davis, the wife of the governor, is the featured draw at a fund-raiser at Chimayo's at the Beach restaurant in Huntington Beach on Oct. 6. There's a fund-raising dinner at the West Coast Long Beach Hotel at Queens Way Drive on Oct. 13 and a Halloween fund-raising rally at the Teamsters Hall in Long Beach on Oct. 31.
"We're in the homestretch," Schipske says, and she's smiling again. "We're not overwhelmed. I've been in this position before."
So has Rohrabacher. Word is that his congressional seat is vulnerable this year. He has been switched to the redrawn 46th District, where the new borders exclude some ultraconservative voters in Newport Beach and stretch into Los Angeles County through more diverse neighborhoods—from gay to middle class to labor unionist—areas of Long Beach and Wilmington to the wealth of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
"It's a much more moderate district than Rohrabacher has run in before," Schipske observes.
But Rohrabacher's so-called vulnerability has been the word in every election year for more than a decade. For challenger after challenger—most recently, Patricia Neal, Sally Alexander and Ted Crisell—it has been the last word of their political careers.
The difference this time may be that Schipske is not a short-straw, warm-body, ballot-filling longshot like most of the rest of them. She's a qualified candidate—a political-science professor at Cal State Long Beach with a long history of effective activism in the areas of health care, senior issues, women's rights, environmental concerns—with a green thumb in grassroots campaigning.
In fact, Schipske draws some of her viability from two previous losses (both by less than 1 percent) to other supposedly unassailable Republicans: Assemblyman Steve Kuykendall in 1996 and Congressman Steve Horn in 2000.
"Both times, the expert assessment about me was, 'She doesn't have a chance,' and the expert assessors were wrong," says Schipske. "You don't come that close in races that important and not emerge even more viable and competitive."
Schipske thinks Rohrabacher's refusal to debate is telling—in more ways than one. "It's a sign that he's most concerned," she says. "And it's also his slap in the face of democracy. The arrogance of saying, 'I don't need to debate' or, 'I won't debate' goes against the grain of what our system of government is supposed to be about."
However, Aaron Lewis, a spokeman in Rohrabacher's Washington, D.C., office, insists the congressman has scheduled a debate with Schipske on Oct. 30 at Orange Coast College. "The congressman hasn't ever categorically refused to debate," said Lewis. "But he really doesn't have time for more than one. It would require an open schedule and Congress being out of session. It's just a logistical problem."
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In Rohrabacher's absence, there's nobody to stop Schipske once she starts her spiel on him.
"I'm running against a man who favors offshore oil drilling, who opposes mandating increased fuel efficiency in cars, who did not think the Orange County Sanitation District should be forced to treat its sewage to the standards of the Clean Water Act, who was in favor of turning El Toro into an airport, and who now says Long Beach and John Wayne airports must accept more flights," Schipske says. "Rohrabacher offers no plans for improving our systems of education and health care, for creating jobs, for combating the potential of terrorism at the two major ports that are now in the 46th District. He just doesn't seem to be too concerned about much other than going on a lot of foreign trips and posturing as Secretary of State."
Schipske pauses before she delivers her final blow.
"Just like Bob Dornan," she says, "Dana Rohrabacher's faade is starting to crack."