In a fiercely competitive campaign year, South Bay volunteers and organizers rely on grassroots volunteers to get their candidates elected. Meet five tireless workers, each with an enthusiastic eye on November.
- Written byMichele Garber
The last presidential election created a shift in the political landscape and our general perception of elections. As Tony Hale, director of the Democratic Action Center, explains, “After the campaign of 2008, now all elections are national.”
This may ring especially ironic for Californians. Though we live in the most populous state in the union and thus are awash in a rich supply of electoral votes, we are largely ignored by both political parties when electing a president. Why?
It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since California last elected a Republican to the White House. Our state is considered by all parties involved to be resolutely in the “blue” column. There seems little reason for politicians to bother with spending precious time or money here when elections are truly won in those prized, delegate-rich swing states. Florida, Ohio and Colorado? Yes. California? No.
But be sure, neither party has forgotten entirely about California. Fiscally challenged as our state may be, we remain home to a large chunk of the nation’s wealthiest and most politically engaged residents. California may not be the state in which to spend ad dollars, hold frequent bus tours or patronize local diners, but we’re a treasure trove for big-donor fundraisers.
As David Hadley, president of the Beach Cities Republicans, succinctly describes it, “California has become an ATM.” Candidates fly in, spend an hour or two pressing palms at $25,000-per-plate lunches and dinners, and fly out. Are you starting to feel a bit used?
For many politically-minded Californians, the whole process has become increasingly frustrating. There’s nothing more demoralizing than feeling inconsequential, especially when living in a place that should carry the most—rather than the least—political clout.
Yet there are still reasons to feel inspired, especially in the South Bay. The 2010 census and the newly implemented district map make several races throughout the county viable for either party. Contested races mean an influx of funds and attention that many prior races lacked.
The South Bay is lucky enough to have one of this year’s single most hotly contested races of the November ballot. Democrat Al Muratsuchi and Republican Craig Huey will face off to represent the newly created 66th Assembly district. Normally, Assembly seats—even when contested—garner only marginal attention, but this race promises to be one of the most watched and hardest fought in the state.
With Democrats lingering on the fringe of reaching that coveted two-thirds majority in the Assembly, they are highly motivated to win this and every seat in play. On the flip side, Republicans see a win of this seat as a stop-gap measure, protecting their state party from virtual obsolescence. Winning a seat they haven’t been able to win since the districts were redrawn following the 2000 census would rightfully bolster the party, its brand and its influence in future local, county and statewide elections. The 66th Assembly race actually has more tangible repercussions for the South Bay than even the race for presidential does.
At the heart of winning these elections, whether for an Assembly seat or for president, is the grassroots effort performed on the local level. The presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 are directly linked to the success of the grassroots infrastructure.
Most grassroots initiatives are done by volunteers, who give their time, talent, energy and hard-earned pay to see to it that their candidate wins. They visit phone banks on weekends, calling voters in other states. They walk neighborhoods, speaking to anyone willing to open the door. They attend meetings and rallies and sit for hours in public places working to register voters. They step up and run for offices of local clubs, or even to be delegates to central committees—the entry level of party hierarchy—to ensure their party’s brand is preserved and properly represented.
What makes these unique individuals give so much of themselves, especially in a place like California, where it can seem fruitless to even bother being active? Meet a few South Bay grassroots heroes in action. We want to know what they do, why they do it and why it all matters.
Going door-to-door in his Torrance community is only one way Omar gets his message out to neighbors.
Since he was 5 years old, Omar Navarro has had one dream … he hopes to someday be president of the United States. His grandmother, a Cuban immigrant utterly devoted to her new country, instilled in her grandson core values and political beliefs that have shaped the young man he has become. Activism and leadership is in Omar’s DNA.
At 19, he volunteered on Sen. John McCain’s campaign. At 22, he was lead intern on Craig Huey’s congressional campaign. Impressed by his dedication and work ethic, he was tapped to chair the South Bay Young Tea Party.
He’s a board member of the Torrance Lomita Republican Assembly, as well as a board member of the Beach Cities Republicans. And if that’s not enough, he is founder and president of the South Bay Young Republicans.
“My goal in California is to reunite the Republicans who are Hispanic and Latino and tell them to come out,” he shares. “Not all are Democrats. So many are conservative, but they don’t talk about it, because they don’t want to be ostracized.”
Joanne (center) leads a phone bank gathering for Obama organized at a local restaurant.
Neighborhood Team Builder
In the 1970s, Joanne Washington left her hometown of Cleveland to move to Torrance and become a paralegal. Like so many Americans, she was busy raising her family and running her small business. Though a regular voter, she hadn’t paid that close attention to day-to-day politics and had never worked on a local or national campaign.
Then the recent economic downturn hit, and like many industries, the law profession was hit hard by the rapid slowdown. Many law firms closed, while others moved their paralegal services in-house, adversely affecting Joanne’s small business.
Now a grandmother and great-grandmother of four young girls, she became increasingly concerned for her business and her family. For the first time in her adult life, she felt compelled to become politically active. Joanne joined Organizing for America and completed their Fall Fellowship Program, an intense, 12-week curriculum that trains Organizing Fellows to work on the grassroots level of the Democratic Party’s campaign, from top to bottom of the ticket.
She now serves as a Neighborhood Team Leader for Torrance, Lawndale and Lennox. With the help of her dedicated team of volunteers, Joanne organizes local phone banks, hosts house meetings and assists other aspiring community organizers in starting and building their own teams.
The work can be grueling, but Joanne finds it incredibly gratifying. “We get it done. We try to have fun and find pleasure in what we do,” she says. “If we can get our message across to just one person each day, we’ve succeeded. People need to be informed.”
Tony meets with local Democratic volunteers at a brainstorming meeting.
Advocate for Action
Tony Hale’s foray into the political arena was working on Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign. At the time, Tony was more interested with issues than party politics. A single father, he took a break from politics to raise his daughter, but in 2004, he felt compelled to get back in the game. This time his focus was on party politics as a whole, not just the issues.
Tony is the director of the Democratic Action Center (DAC) in Torrance, the LA basin’s only year-round grassroots Democratic headquarters, staffed with volunteers and funded solely by donations. It operates regular phone banks and precinct walking, while primarily focusing on voter registration, voter education and get-out-the vote efforts. Tony is also an executive board member of the California State Democratic Party and chair of the environmental caucus.
Tony views grassroots activism as an essential part of our political system, or as he puts it, “a fundamental transaction in our democracy.” He adds, “When you get involved at the local level, you can actually play a role in who is nominated for local office. Our candidate for the assembly race was nominated by local grassroots voters.”
Patti and David were both recently elected as Central Committee Members for the 66th Assembly district.
David Hadley and Patti LaGrelius
Throughout his adult life, David Hadley has cared about and paid attention to politics, but his involvement was essentially on the periphery. As he describes it, “I’ve always been interested, in the sense that I think the issues are important and we’re fortunate to live in a country where our input on everything from our voting to our participation matters.”
But it wasn’t until after the 2008 Democratic sweep of the White House and Congress that David decided it was time to become politically active. He started modestly by raising money for candidates, giving talks and blogging. After the 2010 elections, he was asked to become president of the Beach Cities Republicans (BCR), the largest grassroots Republican group in the area.
As BCR president, he oversees the organization’s daily operations and volunteer initiatives and is involved at multiple levels, from hosting guest speakers and writing the monthly newsletter to precinct walking. In June, he took his political commitment to the next level and was elected as a Central Committee Member for the 66th Assembly district.
“I’m involved to help build the party and do the things that central committees and activists should do beyond individual candidate races, as they don’t have the time horizon. We’re working to build the big tent Republican coalition.”
Like David, Patti LaGrelius was politically aware but not politically active. Yet in just in a few short years, she’s gone from being a concerned citizen on the sidelines of the political arena to a fully engaged, grassroots, star player.
In 2010, impressed by assembly candidate Nathan Mintz, Patti volunteered on her first political campaign. Bit by the political bug, Patti got passionately involved on Craig Huey’s congressional campaign, while also becoming a local precinct captain. She joined the Beach Cities Republicans and this June was elected as a Central Committee Member for the newly created 66th Assembly district, cementing her role in the South Bay’s grassroots scene.
“I’d seen how this wonderful state and nation are heading in the wrong direction and making changes that are for the worse,” she says. “I don’t want to just sit back and watch. I want to be involved and be part of making things happen.”