Rocky Chavez's Theory on Why Darrell Issa Endorsed Someone Else

Politics

Rocky Chavez's Theory on Why Issa Endorsed Someone Else

Assemblyman Rocky Chavez ran for Congress but the departing occupant of that seat, Darrell Issa, endorsed a rival. Chavez thinks he knows why.

Assemblyman Rocky Chavez sits down with CALmatters Senior Editor Dan Morain for an exit interview. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

This post originally appeared in the Oct. 12 Sacramento Report. Get the Sacramento Report delivered to your inbox every Friday. 

In their own ways, Democrats and Republicans came together this year to stop Assemblyman Rocky Chavez.

The moderate conservative from Oceanside — a Latino and a former Marine — was an early favorite and viewed as someone who could bridge the racial and social divides in the mostly coastal 49th Congressional District. Plus, he occasionally breaks with the majority of Republicans in the Assembly.

All that made him a threat to both parties, he told an audience at VOSD’s Politifest Saturday, reflecting on his time in the Assembly and his failed run for Congress earlier this year.

Chavez offered more details on what occurred behind the scenes of the congressional primary and gave a fuller sense of who he believes abandoned him and why. He aimed most of his criticism at fellow Republicans.

The seat had been held since 2000 by Rep. Darrell Issa, a Trump supporter who barely won the 2016 election. After that, Chavez said, Issa presented congressional leaders in D.C. with a way to keep GOP control of the 49th District; in exchange, he wanted an appointment within the Trump administration.

The two men sat down to talk and, Chavez recalled, Issa said, “I know you’re the only one who can hold that seat” and offered an endorsement.

In the meantime, progressive activists started rallying outside Issa’s office.

In late 2017, Chavez’s staff polled residents in the district and found that he was significantly better positioned than the leading Democratic challenger at the time, Doug Applegate, Chavez said, so he shared that polling with Issa.

Weeks later, Issa announced he would not seek re-election — but instead of endorsing Chavez, he threw his support to Diane Harkey, a Republican from Orange County. Why?

“Because Darrell Issa knew that … if a Republican won this race, it would show that Darrell Issa was the problem,” Chavez said. “If there’s one thing I know about Darrell, Darrell has a huge ego.”

Neither Issa’s office nor a political consultant for Harkey returned a request for comment Monday.

A significant portion of Chavez’s exit interview, conducted by CALmatters’ Dan Morain, focused on his vote to extend California’s cap-and-trade program in 2017, which continues to haunt him.

But during private discussions, Chavez said, somewhere between 12 and 15 Republicans seemed to be on board with the climate program, even if it was being carried by a Democratic governor. The program had originally been a Republican idea — a way to use markets to curb greenhouse gas emissions rather than bureaucratic mandates.

That support faded, however, when a letter arrived from Rep. Kevin McCarthy — the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives and a power-broker in California — urging a no vote, Chavez said. Only seven Assembly Republicans wound up voting for cap-and-trade.

The subsequent fury from the party’s activist base caused Assemblyman Chad Mayes, then leader of the Assembly Republicans, to resign his leadership post.

Chavez was hurt in the process too, but the greatest damage to his political ambitions came from a claim on the right that Chavez had voted in favor of raising the state’s gas tax. He hadn’t. But they conflated his vote for cap-and-trade with the separate vote to raise the gas tax, now the subject of a repeal effort on the November ballot.

Chavez said people he’d known for years began to back away. Combined with his opposition to Trump’s border wall, word began to spread that conservatives couldn’t trust him.

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