COLTON, Calif. – In the nineteenth century, this southern California town was famous for the “battle of the crossing,” the tense faceoff of two rival railroad lines that intersected here. Now, it’s another kind of crossroads: Of competing Democratic ambitions for a congressional seat currently held by a Republican.
Eloise Gomez Reyes, 58, grew up here, picking onions and grapes in the summer to pay for school clothes at a secondhand store. Until she announced her inaugural run for Congress in the 31st congressional district, she ran her labor law practice out of a refurbished Victorian mansion in town. Now it’s her campaign headquarters.
Until recently, Reyes was the underdog in this race. Pete Aguilar, the Democratic mayor of nearby Redlands, lost the 2012 election to Republican Gary Miller, but held onto the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He was both a known quantity, as a mayor, and a fresh face at only 34; she had never held any elected office. Aguilar was racking up major local party and labor endorsements before Reyes could even get a meeting.
Reyes couldn’t boast of much more than an endorsement from EMILY’s List. But the new year has been good to this serene lawyer. First she announced she had raised $302,000 in the last quarter of 2013 – more than Aguilar and Miller combined. Then Miller, who had prevailed in a district that went heavily for Obama essentially in a fluke related to California’s then-new “jungle primary,” announced he was retiring.
Suddenly, Reyes, who has been billed as the more progressive alternative to Aguilar, is now a contender.
Supporters point to Reyes’ labor roots and her promise to push back at proposed cuts in Social Security through changing the formula by which benefits are calculated. Blue America PAC gushed in its endorsement, “To spend time with her is to be inspired anew at the promise of what America used to mean and can mean again.”
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Reyes’ first language was Spanish. She still has deep roots in the local community – her mother lives right down the street in Colton. The candidate worked her way from community college to University of Southern California and Loyola Law School, and focused on workers’ compensation in her practice.
“I represented lots of women workers, lots of injured workers, working families, those that can least afford to be out of work, and try to go through the system that has changed so much, and so much against the worker,” Reyes said in an interview.
She also worked with residents of a local housing project in their struggle against a toxic waste site. “This is what I have done for 30 years,” she said.
Much changed for Reyes when she got the attention of EMILY’s List – and its donors. “If Emily’s List had not spoken with me at the beginning of this campaign, I would not be in the race,” said Reyes.
Said Marcy Stech, spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, “Research suggests that women need to be asked up to 7 times to run for office, and that’s what we do every day. Our network is excited about Eloise– her story and her vision.”
The 2012 race here was unquestionably a blunder for Democrats: The heavily Latino and working class district went overwhelmingly for Obama, but in California’s then-new top two primary system, the crowded Democratic field split the vote. In the end, voters had to choose between two Republicans for the congressional seat. That left this district the most Democratic in the country to be represented by a Republican.
The national party was determined not to make the same mistake twice. But in the haste to line up behind Aguilar, Reyes was shut out of the DCCC and many local Democratic club endorsements. She didn’t take it quietly.
“The hardest part at first was knowing that some decisions had been made without ever considering me,” Reyes said. “I think that all my life, I have fought for equality, equal access, and to know that decisions were made and I was excluded from it – It was an injustice being committed at the local level, and I wanted to shed light on it.”
EMILY’s List, she said, is “something that, I think, helps women to level the playing field.” About a third of the money she’s raised was via Emily’s List donors, Reyes said.
Per the requirements of EMILY’s List candidates, Reyes resolutely supports abortion rights. “That is an absolute,” she said. “She has the right to make her decision. Nobody’s going to tell her what to do. If we change the law, then we’re going to have a bunch of young girls in jail. Is that what we’re looking for?”
And while she isn’t the only one to pledge to work on immigration reform and a path to citizenship, it’s in the foreground of her campaign, as well as her own identity “as a woman, as a Latina, as an attorney, as someone who’s committed to this community at so many levels.” A third of the voters in the district are Hispanic, and the general population is nearly half Hispanic.
Addressing a circle of high school and college students one recent afternoon, in a circle under a lemon tree behind her office, Reyes made her pitch in terms of keeping promises. Not just to senior citizens, whose concerns might have seemed remote to the students. “We make promises to you guys too,” she said. “We tell you, get a college education, with a college education get better jobs. Then you find out the jobs shipped overseas.”
The students asked earnestly about the minimum wage, about marriage equality, about comprehensive sexual health education and abortion rights. (Reyes supports all of the above). She was somewhat vague on specifics of job development.
“There are lots of theories about why, how we ended up with a Republican,” she told MSNBC of the 2012 aberration. “Many say that it’s because the vote was split, with the Democrats. My theory is that we didn’t have a Democrat who brought enough of a difference that the Democrats that were willing to get out to vote.”
But despite her recent momentum, observers say Reyes still faces an uphill battle.
“Pete Aguilar is probably the favorite to face off against Miller,” says John J. Pitney, a professor of American politics at nearby Claremont McKenna College. “If a closed primary had taken place in 2012, he almost certainly would have been the Democratic nominee and the winner in November. He has name identification and labor support. That said, turnout is likely to be extremely low, and low-turnout primaries can take unexpected bounces.”
Local civil rights activist and supporter Frances Grice, 80, said she expects Reyes to be a legislator in the mold of Elizabeth Warren.“The underdog is turning out to be the favorite,” crowed Grice.
“I’ve been a community activist all my life, and she’d be a breath of fresh air,” Grice said. “Some of our Democrats get so important, they think they’re gods and not congresspeople.”