Here’s my report of two days and 320 miles of being a political reporter in Southern California
My goal, beginning on Monday when the stock market plunged and the temperature soared, was to examine Riverside County for my column in Truthdig. I thought that by looking there, I might get a line on how Middle America feels about the presidential election.
Riverside county, unlike the more populous coastal California, is Republican. Neighboring San Bernardino, more blue collar, is Democratic—but certainly is no Westside L.A. or San Francisco. Heading north from these counties—known as the Inland Empire—a traveler encounters the moderate to conservative Central Valley. From San Bernardino to the counties north of Sacramento, color California purple. While California is expected to go for Barack Obama, these purple counties represent a swing vote, probably undecided between him and Sen. John McCain.
On Monday, I met my friend and former Times colleague Deane Wylie for lunch at Ciao Bella, an excellent restaurant near the University of California Riverside. We were joined by Patricia Barnes, a former editor on the Times Ontario edition and an ex Riverside Press Enterprise staffer, and David Glidden, a UCR philosophy professor.
They filled me in on the basics: Riverside County, which reaches south to the rich desert communities in the Palm Desert area, is Republican with a few Democratic enclaves. Foreclosures have hit the area hard, but not hard enough to shake the Republicans.
After lunch, I drove to the UCR campus to interview Professor Martin Johnson, who helps run the school’s growing polling center. I got his name from Kris Lovekin, the UCR director of media relations.He provided a copy of a survey that showed great worry about foreclosures—and hostility to the banks, information that backed up House of Representatives reluctance on the Wall Street rescue bill.
The next day, I headed back to Riverside County from my home in West Los Angeles. I drove through residential subdivisions in Moreno Valley, a city adjacent to Riverside. Moreno Valley is a solidly Democratic city.
I had read about the foreclosures that have hit the area and seen television reports on them. But nothing I had seen or read prepared me for six houses for sale in a .4 mile stretch of a street, two of them now owned by banks. Disaster has struck in a random manner. Some blocks had no for-sale signs. Some just had one or two. Then I came across one with a big “Auction” sign, reminiscent of scenes from movies and books about the Great Depression. In some houses without for sale signs, neglected yards and generally shabby appearances suggested the owners had left and the occupants were renting.
I talked to a couple of volunteers in the local Democratic headquarters, Radene Hires and Cherylynn Glass. They confirmed the economic and emotional impact of the foreclosures, but didn’t want to guess how they would influence the presidential election.
I drove back to Los Angeles. I had been invited to introduce Millicent (Mama) Hill, at an event marking the 13th anniversary of Project Acorn, a liberal community activist group I occasionally write about. Hill, an English teacher at Crenshaw High School before she retired in 2000, runs a program in her South Los Angeles home designed to help young women and men avoid the gang life and crime. A lender foreclosed on her mortgage, but ACORN intervened to save her home and program.
I was early, so on the way I stopped at a famous L.A. political hangout, the Pacific Dining Car, for a drink. At 5 p.m. none of the lobbyists, lawyers and politicians who frequent the place were there. The man next to me was drinking a sidecar over ice. He explained to me that it was an old fashioned drink made of brandy, triple sec and lime or lemon juice but he liked it. I said I knew. I told him I’d enjoyed sidecars when I started drinking but had to quit them because they made me crazy as well as drunk.
The Project Acorn event was at the headquarters of Local 721 of the Service Employees Union. It hadn’t started so I walked around the Virgil Avenue neighborhood, a few miles west of downtown. It’s a neighborhood of apartments, probably affordable for working families (if they double up) but they will be out of range if building ever resumes. At the union hall, I ran into Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, and interviewed him on the closed Martin Luther King Jr. hospital for a story I plan to do for LA Observed on his race with Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks. Then I introduced both Mama Hill and a short video about her and about how she faced foreclosure.
I had dealt with hard times ranging from foreclosures in the Moreno Valley to foreclosures and bad health care in South L.A, traveling many miles as the temperature rose and my car radio provided a background of bad news. I’d had days like that when I wrote for the Times. It was fascinating then, as it is now.