Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook will challenge Dana Rohrabacher for the 46th congressional district
By John Earl
OC Voice Editor
Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook, a democrat, believes that she may be the first challenger in 20 years to unseat Dana Rohrabacher, the popular republican firebrand who represents the 46th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The district includes all of Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Seal Beach, Avalon, Rancho Pal os Verdes, Rolling Hills, Palos Verdes Estates and Rolling Hills Estates and parts of Long Beach, Westminster, Santa Ana and San Pedro.
Rohrabacher built his political career by bringing lucrative defense contracts to the district and zealously supporting unbridled U.S. military intervention abroad, voicing strong anti-“illegal immigrant” themes and by attacking local and global efforts to protect the env ironment.
He has consistently defeated his Democratic Party opponents and third party challengers by land slide margins. In 2001 the 46th was reshaped in a gerrymandering agreement between republicans and democrats in the state legislature and it is considered a “safe” republican district.
But Cook is not deterred. “There’s never been an elected official to oppose him,” she says, adding that Rohrabacher has failed to serve his district on important issues like groundwater replenishment (saving the local underground water supply from saltwater intrusion), preserving the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, dredging of Huntington Harbor or saving the bluffs on PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) from erosion.
“He’s been a Johnny Come Lately to those issues. When he sees the tide fully switch, then he jumps on, like he did with groundwater replenishment,” Cook claims.
On paper, Cook’s odds may look bleak, even in what is surely her strongest bastion of support, Huntington Beach. The city has by far the single largest chunk of registered voters in the district, but democrats make up only 29 percent of registered voters to 50.2 percent for republicans, according to 2002 figures.
But Cook has garnered strong support across political boundaries in Huntington Beach, where city council elections and local issues are considered non-partisan, and where voting records indicate that she has been one of the most popular city council members in Huntington Beach history since being elected in 2000.
Cook has also gained respect in the region and statewide as a leading advocate for energy conservation and as chairperson of the Energy and Environment Committee for the Southern California Association of Governments.
In 1989, as a community activist, Cook played a leading role in writing and organizing support for a successful ballot initiative, Measure C, which protected the city’s parks from being turned into golf courses and beach malls.
Later, she joined the Bolsa Chica Land Trust and helped it sue the Coastal Commission in a precedent setting case to stop construction of thousands of homes on 1,700 acres of California’s diminishing wetlands located on Warner and PCH.
As a member of the city council, Cook has earned a reputation as a fiscal conservative and opposed a plan recently passed by some of her colleagues that will require $22 million in developer park fees-leaving the city’s park fund nearly tapped out-for a 45,000 square foot senior center to be built in Central Park.
Cook also helped sponsor a resolution adopted by the city council to join six other cities in Orange County in signing the U.S. Mayor’s Agreement on Global Warming. But Rohrabacher has laid the blame for global warming on natural, not man made causes.
Cook also opposed the Poseidon desalination plant that will be built near Newland and PCH in southeast Huntington Beach. The plant would turn 50 million gallons of seawater into drinking water each day, but opponents say it violates public water rights, would raise water rates and require government subsidies, pollute the ocean and contribute unnecessarily to global warming by wasting energy.
By contrast, Rohrabacher was a strong behind the scenes supporter of the desalination project, which he called a “godsend.”
In a 2005 letter to then Mayor Jill Hardy, Rohrabacher complained about “No-growth Nimby-ism” opposing the project and warned-or threatened-that “the city should not expect the federal government to take seriously future requests [from the city] for assistance” if the city council did not certify Poseidon’s Environmental Impact Report.
There are signs that Cook is wining over some of the hard-core conservative voters she will need to be elected to congress in November. Like Huntington Beach resident Milt Dartis, a self-described Goldwater conservative, who refers to the congressman as “Dana Roarless” because of his alleged lack of attention to the district and his support of Poseidon.
“It is time we dump Dana Roarless and Scot Baba and allow the taxpayers to have true Congressional representation instead of only Special Interest representation,” Dartis wrote on a local Internet talk web site.
The OC Voice recently sat down with Cook at the Bodhi Tree Vegetarian Café in downtown Huntington Beach for an interview in order to discuss her reasons for running and her views on some of the important issues facing the district, the nation and the world. We thought that we were interviewing her, but readers can decide who was actually being interviewed.
What is it that voters in the 46th District are so dissatisfied with about Congressman Dana Rohrabacher that makes you think that you can win?
This is a new day. Not just because of this election or the excitement generated because of Barack. People are really concerned about the economy, the use of the military around the globe, the environment, climate change, the energy situations and it’s all starting to come to come together.
Is there any kind of anti-Rohrabacher uprising or anti-Rohrabacher sentiment in the 46th District that you detect?
People for a very long time have been unhappy that our district doesn’t get the attention that other districts get. If our city is seeking money [from Washington] for things like help with dredging Huntington Harbor or the bluffs on PCH to help stop erosion, we don’t get any attention. He’s not interested in promoting those kinds of issues that are important to cities. And that’s true in Long Beach, Westminster, Fountain Valley and Huntington Beach.
You’re going against the tide, right?
You know what? I’ve always taken the hard path, whether people told me we couldn’t pass Measure C or they told us we couldn’t save Bolsa Chica. But we did.
You are well known for your work on the environment and the energy crisis, but I haven’t heard you talk much about the effect of pollution and energy shortages on the people who are probably affected the most, and that’s lower income people.
I’ve talked a lot about that. For example 1.5 million people in this country had their utilities shut off last summer because they couldn’t pay their bills.
What are the things that you would support doing to help the poor in this country to pay for their energy bills?
We’re not going to solve everybody’s problems, period.
We have such a huge energy crisis coming up.
It’s going to be really difficult to dig ourselves out of the energy hole.
Everywhere that water and energy issues are playing out there are class issues involved.
Yes. And it’s only getting worse. So (raising voice) what do you think we can do? I mean, really?
I’m not running for congress.
It doesn’t matter. What is the problem? You want me to make decisions in a vacuum. And I’m the kind of person who wants to go out and learn as much as I can about an issue from the people who are impacted. I don’t have the answers.
What are you leaning toward? What are some ideas on that?
To get us out of the energy hole?
To address the people who are most affected.
The $150 billion that the president wants to give back-that money should go toward helping people reduce their energy bills. If you said you can only use this money to buy an Energy Star refrigerator, right there you just reduced somebody’s energy bill by about $50 per month forever…In the last seven years, Americans have spent $1.2 trillion more on energy costs than they did the previous 7 years. This is really hurting people. The only way to solve it is by getting people [to live] closer to their jobs.
What about the amount of money spent on the war?
Do you watch Bill Moyers?
He was interviewing this woman, who was helping displaced Iraqis, millions who are now in Aman Jordan, about their lives, the destruction of their families and all that. Obviously, I would not have gone into Iraq in the first place. Now we’re there. How do we get out of there without causing even more harm? Have we thought about the implications of removing our troops? … How do we prepare Americans for that loss: 2 million barrels [of oil] a day? I’m not saying that’s a bad thing or a good thing. I’m just saying that we have to prepare a plan to deal with that because otherwise we have gas lines. We have got to get off oil [or]we’re going to be constantly fighting these resource wars all over the globe.
Corporations and Iraq
What about that our foreign policy for the last one-half century? It seems like we’ve always been on the wrong side and–
The world’s resources are not ours. You can’t own those.
–in favor of the corporations, exploiting other countries and getting their oil.
I know you like to blame the corporations, but we only have ourselves to blame.
Is there no blame for corporations in Iraq?
Blame the people in corporations. But I don’t just broad brush.
I don’t know enough about those things.
It’s called “The Selling of Iraq.”
Oh, yeah. I know.
Are not certain corporations that are friendly to the current [Bush] administration–
We’re over there for oil.
And other services and whatever we can get out of it.
We are over there for oil. We have ourselves to blame.
But that’s part of a corporate structure, right?
Well, if you want-You know what? If that’s the tactic you’re taking (voice rising in anger)-
A lot of people want to know what you think.
Well, no, YOU want to know.
A lot of other people want to know.
No. Well. No! No! You want to hear me say that all corporations are bad. That’s what you want to know.
People want to know what you think about it.
No, no, no, no. John.
I’m not trying to get you to say…
Yes you are. Yes you are.
Getting Out of Iraq
What do we do now? Get out in 6 months?
I would be running for president if I knew the answer to that. I don’t know. What does it look like to you? I mean, seriously, what does it look like to you?
What does it look like to me?
Yes. What does a withdrawal look like to you?
To me it looks like we take our troops out of there.
And then what?
Then it’s up to the Iraqis.
We’re back here and how do we deal with the gas lines and all of that, that loss of 2 million [barrels of oil a day]?
Should we sustain a war and keep our troops in Iraq just to keep our gas lines OK here?
No. No. No. But think it through for me. I need to see what that looks like.
I don’t know exactly what it would look like, but–
John, me too, I don’t know what it looks like, but we need a plan.
OK, so I’m just asking you–
What does it look like to you in Iraq?
It looks like a total mess. It looks like we have no net gain for anybody there. That we shouldn’t have been in there. And it raises moral issues about our foreign policy in the world.
What about the moral issues of abandoning people…. Do we do the same thing we did in Vietnam? Do we allow the Iraqis who helped us over there to come back to the U.S.?
Maybe we could. Is that what you think?
Do we need a plan for that?
I think we need a plan. There are a lot of plans…Kucinich has a plan. Nader has a plan-6 months and get the other countries in the area involved. There are a number of alternatives. So I was just wondering if–
Well, we need a plan.
…there’s one you favored or–
You really want someone–
I know Rohrabacher’s plan so I’m just wondering about your plan.
I don’t have access to the information that a congressperson has.
Then what is wrong with Rohrabacher’s stand on the war?
He wants to stay there so we can continue to exploit the resources there. I don’t[ want to do that. I want America to get real on its energy policy in dealing with its own house so that we don’t need foreign oil.
What about the parent whose kid-or wife whose husband-or husband whose wife-is in Iraq, and wants to know how many more times a member of their family is going to have to go over there-Congressperson Cook? And what are you going to do about it?
And what about the people that we’ve abandoned over there?
And what about the over 1.5 million people, depending on which estimate you go by, who have been killed there since the first [Gulf] war by the boycott and bombings supported by Clinton and the current administration and all the democrats [in the congress]?
That’s something I wouldn’t have done. That’s not something I supported.
What about holding people accountable who take us into a war based on [lies]?
Yes! We should be closing down Guantanamo. We should absolutely close down Guantanamo.
What about holding somebody accountable who violated the Constitution [to make war]?
They should be held accountable. I believe in the rule of law.
Do you have any specific–
No. I believe in the rule of law, but I’m also not going to sit as judge and jury over something I don’t know about. I’ve been focused here locally on local issues. I don’t spend my time 24/7 studying what Bush did or didn’t do.
I’m sure that you’re not giving yourself [enough] credit for knowing what’s going on in the world. I don’t believe that you’re totally ignorant.
I think they [Congress] are going to go forward with something, but they don’t have the two-thirds vote in the senate. I’m not big on just going through the motions for things. I mean if there’s no chance of achieving–
You’re talking about impeachment?
Yeah. If you’re not going to achieve some goal at the end…We don’t need America to be more polarized. If you don’t have the two-thirds in the Senate, are there other ways to achieve what you’re trying to achieve?
Do you support a single payer health care system?
I haven’t read the particulars, but yeah. In fact, I just spoke to my doctor last week. She absolutely supports and most doctors support it because there’s so much being wasted in this system just trying to get people paid. We already have single-payer with Medicare.
What about immigration? That’s one of Rohrabacher’s signature issues.
My daughter-in-law is an immigrant. She’s from Scotland and we have a lot of issues trying to get her over hear. So I certainly understand the issues related to family members who are here and they have kids who are citizens now and they aren’t. We can’t just kick people out. But I also know that this country can not absorb as many people as would like to come here and that we have limited resources. So we have to do something to keep those borders from being the sieve that they are.
A lot of people on the progressive side say that the McCain Kennedy bill is just another way of exploiting the workers like the Bracero program did.
We’re basically exploiting those workers that are here. I mean we absolutely are exploiting them and we do it really because, it’s really faulty reasoning. My son says “That’s what teenagers are for.” And he’s right. Fifteen-years-ago that’s exactly what teenagers were used for. They did a lot of those kinds of jobs and there’s probably a lot of teenagers who would be better off working than shopping. But workers should be earning more money and they should have access to facilities and services and all of those things that everyone else does.
What about the effect of international treaties like NAFTA?
I think to a large extent it’s going to resolve itself because of the energy issue. A lot of this consumerist mentality that we’ve been raised on that we’re told is so good is actually what’s hurting us because we can afford so much stuff that we need or want in our lives. And it comes over here in a container, somebody buys it, they wear it a day, it goes into your trash can, cities have to get rid of it.
I mean the fact that it’s cheaper for Mexicans to buy American corn in Mexico than their own corn that is causing people to lose their jobs there. What’s your stand on NAFTA or at least that aspect of it?
NAFTA’s going to have a really hard time to because as Canada’s gas depletes America is going to say that “because of NAFTA you have to sell us your gas.” And Canadians are going to say “Wait a minute, it’s freezing up here and we want our gas for us.” And with oil declining now precipitously, they’re going to say, “We can’t ship you anymore oil.” And Americans are going to say, “But NAFTA says you have to ship us your oil.” A lot is going to change in this next 5 years. A lot. And it’s all based on energy…I see that this whole energy thing is going to come to bare on so many issues and change the way we think about a lot of things.
Are We Represented Well?
What is going to be the main point you try to get across to people as to why people should vote for you instead of Rohrabacher?
Do you think this district has been well represented?
That’s what you’re going to ask them?
No, I’m asking you.
(Laughing) I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not running. No one cares what I think.
That’s not true. I care. I care what everybody thinks. I do. I like working with people, especially people who think differently because that’s the way that you learn. And that’s the only way society can solve problems-by including everybody. This has not been a very inclusive 20 years with him [Rohrabacher]. I’m hoping that I can change that so we can include everybody.