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.’”
* * *
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.”
After graduating from Corona Del Mar High School, Cook went to Texas, where her brother, an Air Force veteran, ran a flight school. She obtained her pilot’s license; later that summer, she spent 23 days in the Colorado wilderness through the Outward Bound program. “It was a life-changing experience for me,” she says. “It made me realize how much I could do, and it got me interested in earth science.”
Cook majored in the subject at Cal State Long Beach, where she enrolled in 1972, spending most of her free time playing co-ed volleyball and falling in love with one of her teammates, John Fisher. They married when Cook was 21; she took a break from her studies to give birth to a son, Jonathan, before graduating in 1978.
After college, she spent 15 years running her family’s office-equipment business and volunteering as a physical educator and grant writer at her son’s school in Huntington Beach—where Cook moved out of frustration with the school district in Westminster, which rebuffed her efforts to provide outdoor-education courses for students.
By then, seeing the gradual destruction of open space in Orange County had turned Cook, who described herself in those days as “apolitical,” into an environmental activist.
“The loss of open space really bothered me,” she says. “Before they built Fashion Island, I remember my dad looking out there and saying this will all be gone someday. I thought that was just awful. It’s amazing any land has been protected—and its taken a lot of struggle.”
In 1989, within a year of arriving in Huntington Beach, Cook waged her first battle to prevent developers from taking away open space. She discovered the city had a plan to build a golf course in an undeveloped portion of Central Park. “We found out the city had done a survey and the residents didn’t want a golf course there,” she says. “We decided that this is public land, and the public ought to have a say.”
Cook spoke out against the project at city hall and met other residents who were organizing against Pierside Village, 57,000 square feet of restaurants and retail space the city planned to build along the beach south of the pier. She and other activists gathered 18,000 signatures in support of a city measure called “Save Our Parks and Beaches.” Developers—chiefly the Huntington Beach Co., a real-estate outfit formed by Chevron Corp., a major proponent of Pierside Village—funded an alternative measure aimed at confusing voters.
“They had so much more money than us,” Cook recalls. “They had signs everywhere saying this would stop all these youth programs and other projects.” Nevertheless, Cook’s measure won 74 percent of the vote. “We had the grassroots support,” she says.
By then, however, the city had already approved Pierside Village, so Cook asked the California Coastal Commission to appeal the project. Although the commission at first refused, Cook tried again when its membership changed and won a decision that blocked the project. Meanwhile, she enrolled at Western State University School of Law in Irvine. After three years of classes, she passed the state bar exam and became an attorney, immediately joining the legal team of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, an environmental group opposed to real-estate development on the Bolsa Chica mesa.
The Koll Co., backed by Huntington Beach city officials, planned to build hundreds of homes on Orange County’s last remaining coastal wetlands. Cook spent five years filing lawsuits against the project. Her legal work helped win a Coastal Commission ruling that protected the mesa from new housing. In 1998, Connie Boardman, one of Cook’s colleagues at the land trust, ran for Huntington Beach City Council. She lost by 137 votes. Two years later, she ran again. There were two open seats on the council, and Cook ran alongside Boardman in hopes of using their positions to protect Bolsa Chica and other city resources.
“We walked neighborhoods together every weekend,” recalls Boardman, who left city politics after a single term in office and is now a teacher at Cerritos College. “I was really happy to have Debbie run with me. I think we kept each other motivated.”
Despite a well-funded effort to paint them as liberal zealots, both Boardman and Cook topped the slate of candidates and won jobs at city hall.
“They sent out four or five negative pieces against us, and we only had money to do a partial mailing,” Cook says. “But we had walkers and activists and grassroots support. We’d been working in the community for years.”
* * *
In 2000, Boardman and Cook joined a Huntington Beach City Council beset by scandal. Former mayor and longtime conservative Republican council member Dave Garofalo, who also ran a local newspaper, had been the subject of an ongoing corruption investigation over his practice of voting to provide lucrative city contracts to his paper’s advertisers. He resigned in 2002 after pleading guilty to a felony and 15 misdemeanor charges and was prohibited from ever running for office again.
A year after joining the city council, Cook led an effort to eliminate the city’s sewage waiver, which allowed untreated county water waste to be dumped into the ocean. Getting rid of the waiver would cost county taxpayers money, but Cook argued it was worthwhile because it would allow that water to be treated and eventually replenish the county’s supply of drinking water. At the time, Republican council member Peter Green served as the city’s appointee on the Orange County Sanitation District board. Green refused to vote to eliminate the sewage waiver, so Cook, who had become mayor that year, voted herself into Green’s seat on the board.
“I took some heat for replacing him,” she recalls. “But I was able to convince enough of the board to eliminate the waiver so that when it came down to the board, we won by one vote. Because we did that, it can go back to the aquifer. We are reusing a valuable resource instead of dumping it in the ocean.”
During her first term on the city council, Cook also took heat for refusing to vote to place yellow ribbons on all city vehicles, an initiative proposed by a local chapter of Young Americans for Freedom. An unapologetic Cook publicly called the notion “jingoistic” and said it was a waste of taxpayer money—a stand that drew a stack of hate mail. “Feminazi, liberal, agenda-pushing ‘women’ like you make me sick,” wrote one constituent. “The people of Huntignton [sic] Beach deserve much better than you. I hear Communist China is looking to elect some new leaders.”
Not long after Garofalo’s ignominious exit, another Republican on the council, Pamela Julien-Houchen, a local real-estate agent, followed him out of politics after the Weekly revealed her role in an illegal condo-conversion scheme (see “Condomania,” Oct. 18, 2003; “Putting the Con in Condo,” May 7, 2004; and “Slammer Time!” Oct. 28, 2005). In 2004, she pleaded guilty to several felony charges and was sentenced to three years in state prison.
Although she ran on a platform of bringing “good governance” back to city hall, Cook says she feels bad for Garofalo and Houchen.
“I really believe there are some people in this world who don’t realize they are doing things they aren’t supposed to do,” Cook says of the former council members. “This notion of public trust is so fragile and can be violated so easily.”
Cook is not without her own critics, however. One of the early victims of Houchen’s condo-conversion scandal complained to both city police and the council when her building was condemned shortly after she purchased it. “When I met with the council, nobody believed me until you guys [the Weekly] broke the story and the OC Register finally got on the ball,” the victim, who asked to remain anonymous, says. “But Debbie was probably the most resistant to me.”
Because city officials were slow to respond to her complaint, the source argues, many more people ended up buying bogus condos than otherwise would have. “I’m frustrated that somebody didn’t do something earlier to save all the people in 2003 and 2004 who were hurt. Nobody over there at city hall has a backbone.”
Another source close to the scandal laughs at the notion that Cook lived up to her campaign pledge to clean up city government. “Once she got in, she was completely seduced by the newfound fame, activity and the platform for her ideas,” this source, who also asked to remain anonymous, says. “But once it was time to stand up and take a stand with regard to the condo thing, she became a deaf-mute.”
Cook asserts that she did as much as she could as soon as she could. “As soon as we found out, the city bent over backward to help these people,” she says. “The city was a big loser in this.
“I can’t speak for what other people knew,” she adds, “but I can say I didn’t know about it until after the fact.”
Despite fierce criticism by some of her opponents, Cook took pains to reach across party lines to achieve consensus about issues facing the city council, recalls Boardman. “She looks for solutions,” the former council member says. “I remember some times on the council when I was thinking, ‘Why can’t everyone just agree with me?’ and then Debbie would come up with a solution, or at least she would try to find common ground. This will serve her well in Congress. A lot of politicians are ego-driven, and that’s not true of Debbie at all.”
After Cook’s eventful first term, her conservative critics predicted she would lose her seat. Instead, in 2004, she earned the largest victory margin in the city’s history—more than 10,000 votes.
By then, Cook had been appointed by her colleagues to represent Huntington Beach on the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). Her aim was to rally other officials to the cause of solving what she saw as Southern California’s biggest challenges: transportation and energy.
“New airports are not the solution,” she says. “Look at the price of gas; airlines are going out of business. We need mass transportation, light rail, not toll roads. We can only solve these things when we work together: water, runoff, transportation, air quality and the port [of Long Beach]. That huge red plume from the port sits over Huntington Beach. We’re impacted by all that bad air.”
Through SCAG, Cook opposed building a commercial airport at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, as well as a desalination plant slated to operate as an appendage of the aging AES Huntington Beach Generating Station. “One of the things I learned is what a boondoggle ocean desalination is,” she says. “The energy intensity is unbelievable. It can’t be sustainable as energy prices go up.”
Cook’s interest in sustainable energy took her to a 2004 conference in Denver held by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, which argues that global oil production peaked in the 1970s and has been on a steady and inevitable decline ever since. The conference sealed her passion for lobbying for alternative sources of energy. “There is nothing more important to our society than energy,” she argues. “America will drill 50,000 wells this year alone. We drill 150 new wells every day. We are drilling like madmen, and it’s just a thimbleful of oil out there. But politicians don’t stay in office by telling the truth.”
* * *
If ever there were a politician who represents everything Cook is trying to eradicate in Orange County politics, it is the man she is trying to drive out of office. Rohrabacher got his start in politics as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan. An ardent anti-communist, he took a personal interest in the various “freedom fighters” opposing Soviet-backed regimes in the Third World, including the Nicaraguan contras—many of whom were viewed as terrorists and drug dealers by the U.S. Congress, which blocked funding to the rebels in 1984—and the South African apartheid regime-backed UNITA rebels of Angola.
Rohrabacher once told the Weekly he personally hosted a cocktail party for Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi at a Republican congressman’s house in Washington and that so much alcohol was imbibed and expunged in the back yard that the grass would probably never grow again. In November 1988, Rohrabacher has also bragged, he visited the front lines of the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion. During that trip, he says, he was warned to stay away from a group of “Saudi Arabians under a crazy commander named bin Laden.”
After being elected to Congress that year, Rohrabacher made a name for himself as a far-right-wing legislator matched only in craziness by his colleague Robert K. Dornan, who in 1996 lost his seat to Democrat Loretta Sanchez. Rohrabacher chaired a series of environmental panels that featured testimony by hand-picked scientists who claimed global warming was a hoax and that all the greatest human achievements, such as the medieval-era construction of European cathedrals, took place during periods of relative global warming.
As a conservative Republican, Rohrabacher not only railed against liberal “hoaxes,” but also consistently voted against any spending bill that would benefit his own district. Meanwhile, he retained his interest in global affairs—especially an upstart group of religious zealots in Afghanistan who turned up on the scene in the mid-1990s: the Taliban. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Rohrabacher claimed he’d tried to warn the Clinton administration about the dangers of the Taliban, but as reported by the Weekly’s R. Scott Moxley, nothing could be further from the truth.
In “Rogue Statesman” (Sept. 7, 2002), Moxley reported that in 1996, as the Taliban imposed its brutal interpretation of Islam on Afghanistan—caning unveiled women, beating barbers who trimmed beards, and bashing radios and televisions to smithereens being the less brutal examples of their reign—Rohrabacher was hyping the jihadists on Capitol Hill.
“The potential rise of power of the Taliban does not alarm Rohrabacher,” the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs noted that year, because the congressman believes the “Taliban could provide stability in an area where chaos was creating a real threat to the U.S.” Rohrabacher also claimed that the Taliban are “not terrorists or revolutionaries,” that liberal-media accounts of the Taliban’s human-rights abuses were “nonsense,” and that the Taliban would bring about a “disciplined, moral society” that did not harbor terrorists and would pose no threat to the United States.
Since 9/11, Rohrabacher has continued pushing his eccentric views on terrorism by unsuccessfully seeking to force Congress to reopen an investigation into the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, convinced that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were recruited by Islamic terrorists. But he frequently found himself in close contact with shady businessmen already being investigated by his own government. In 2005, Rohrabacher got in trouble for helping a would-be film producer, Joseph Medawar, obtain access to U.S. Department of Homeland Security installations for a supposed film project that never materialized. In return for Rohrabacher’s help, Medawar optioned a decades-old film script Rohrabacher wrote. That year, the FBI indicted Medawar for swindling investors.
And of all the Republican politicians ensnared by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, few have seen their name mentioned as often as Rohrabacher, who took numerous trips abroad with members of Abramoff’s firm. When Abramoff pleaded guilty last year to felony fraud charges, Rohrabacher was the only congress member to request leniency for his friend. “I think he’s been dealt a bad hand and the worst, rawest deal I’ve ever seen in my life,” Rohrabacher said. “Words like bribery are being used to describe things that happened every day in Washington and are not bribes.”
Rohrabacher did not respond to an interview request for this story, continuing his tradition of refusing to speak with any Weekly reporter since the publication of Moxley’s “Rogue Statesman” article, which featured a photograph of a grizzled Rohrabacher posing in the late 1990s with Afghan jihadists. But he recently told the Long Beach Press-Telegram that he took seriously the threat posed by Cook to his job security. “She’s a very attractive person, physically, and has a title, so I’m taking it seriously,” Rohrabacher said. “But I’m also very confident. . . . My beliefs are closer to what the beliefs of this constituency are all about.”
* * *
Just how likely is it that Cook can defeat Rohrabacher and win the 46th Congressional district?
The voter-registration numbers certainly stack up in favor of the incumbent. According the California Secretary of State’s website, as of May, some 45.2 percent of the district’s 398,000 voters were Republicans, while 31.4 percent were Democrats.
David Wasserman, house editor for the Cook Political Report (no relation to Debbie), says the district is currently rated as “likely Republican”; in previous years, it was in the “solidly Republican” camp. “This is a more significant challenge than Rohrabacher has faced in the past, but that’s not saying much,” Wasserman says. “I think he’ll have to make a mistake in order to lose this race. His statement that he’s paying attention to this race because his opponent is ‘attractive’ is a warning sign.”
It all comes down to money, or the lack of it, Wasserman says, noting that Cook’s campaign has so far failed to raise enough money to pay for the kind of television ads that might get her message across to voters. “We need to see some significant progress by Cook in the next month if she’s going to be in striking distance,” he says. “She’s really not there yet.”
According to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) website, Rohrabacher had raised $388,000 as of July 21, but hadn’t spent much of it. Joe Shaw, Cook’s campaign spokesman, claims her campaign has currently raised close to $300,000; the FEC site showed Cook had $97,000 in cash on hand on July 21.
Cook’s own party has yet to provide her with much support. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which funds strong candidates in local races, hasn’t sent her a dime. “There has been no public indication that the DCCC is going to spend money to help Debbie Cook,” says one source close to the DCCC. “She came into the race late. She’s a great candidate, but she’s in a very tough district.”
“We have several races to support and can’t favor one over the other,” says Melehat Rafiei, executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County (DPOC). “But with Debbie being the mayor of Huntington Beach and having a strong following from all walks of life and a big vote-getter in that city, she has the best shot we’ve had at the seat, and I really hope she pulls it off.”
Cook’s status as Surf City’s mayor hasn’t gone unnoticed by local Republicans. Mike Schroeder, a conservative political consultant and perennial litigator, unsuccessfully sued the Orange County Registrar of Voters to remove “mayor” from Cook’s job description on the ballot. He didn’t respond to an interview request for this story.
Gus Ayer, a Fountain Valley city councilman and Cook campaign adviser, says her campaign is using state-of-the-art software provided by the DPOC that allows volunteers to target likely voters block-by-block. “It makes everything we do more efficient,” Ayer says. “The most effective way of getting votes is actually going out and talking to people door-to-door. It is several times more effective than anything else you can do.”
Although he acknowledges that Cook entered the race relatively late, he insists Cook has made considerable progress raising money. “We’ve outraised Rohrabacher in the past two reporting cycles and have ads up on TV,” he says. “We have money coming in. We’ve raised $10,000 online this week.” Cook’s chances, he adds, have less to do with how much cash she raises than Rohrabacher’s ability to sabotage his own chances. “We’ve always counted on him to do something stupid. I think it’s a safe bet.”
* * *
After three hours, the brown field next to the decommissioned missile silo at the White Point Nature Preserve in Palos Verdes has been completely cleared of tumbleweeds. They sit in two huge piles on the service road, where the 20 volunteers have gathered to hear a few remarks from Cook.
She compliments her fellow volunteers on their weed-pulling tenacity. “We did the same thing when I worked with the Bolsa Chica Land Trust,” she says. “We cleared out the invasive weeds and planted some really beautiful sage on the mesa, and I know this is going to be just as beautiful.”
One of the volunteers, a middle-aged woman, asks Cook what they can do to help her defeat Rohrabacher. “Well, I’m sure all of you know at least one person who lives in this district,” she says. “It would be really helpful if you could talk to them and see if they might be interested in walking door-to-door, or working the phone banks, or making a small contribution.”
The sun is hot now, although there’s still a merciful breeze coming off the ocean. Cook is in no mood to give a stump speech.
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“I really don’t want to talk about politics right now,” she says. “It’s a beautiful day. Why ruin it?”