Politics & Policy

John Wood’s California Dream

In the Golden State's least fertile ground, a young Republican sows seeds for the future.

John Wood Jr. is spending Election Day campaigning against one of the most unbeatable Democrats in America.

The 27-year-old digital-marketing sales rep, jazz trumpeter, and occasional rapper is facing a 111-to-1 spending disadvantage, a 4-to-1 disadvantage in party registration, and 24 years of incumbency. His opponent, Los Angeles County congresswoman Maxine Waters, has taken at least 70 percent of the vote in every election since 1990; in seven of those races she took more than 80 percent. According to September voter-registration data from the California secretary of state’s office, Wood could turn out every single Republican voter in the recently gerrymandered 43rd congressionaldDistrict, along with every minor-party voter and every decline-to-stater, and he would still lose 60 percent to 40 percent.

“I do expect that, win or lose, this will prove itself to be the most successful campaign ever run against Maxine Waters,” Wood tells National Review Online. “Obviously the bar is low. The fundraising differential is enormous.”

In short, Wood will almost certainly not be one of the Republican legislative gains in the 2014 midterms — which are expected to be substantial in this sixth year of the Obama presidency. But the extreme-long-shot candidate is notable for bringing a message of free markets and conservative values to a place where the former are a foreign language and the latter have been buried under the Democratic party’s technocratic progressivism. Wood may be marking the twilight of Republican California or planting the seeds of its future. Either way, he’s an interesting candidate, for several reasons.

To begin with, Wood is actually a Republican. In 2012, when Waters was last reaffirmed to her seat, it was against Democrat Bob Flores (who held her to a mere 71.2 percent in the polls). California’s adoption of the Louisiana primary system in 2010 effectively turns general elections into runoffs, in which the top two vote-getters from sparsely attended primaries run against each other. While the new system was sold as a way to make elections more competitive, it merely strengthened the Democratic party’s stranglehold in the state, with the number of Democrat-versus-Democrat elections increasing. Races like Tuesday’s — in which a Republican runs against a Democrat — are becoming rare not just in the 43rd district but in many parts of California.

Wood has also been as viable as a man in a no-win situation can be. In the June primary, with about 50,000 of the district’s 350,000 voters turning out, Wood made a bigger dent in Waters’s support than did most previous opponents, pulling down a respectable (for a Republican in a district that includes towns such as Inglewood, parts of South L.A., and unincorporated county areas) 33 percent of the vote. He has managed that despite an almost comical level of disinterest from the media and the establishments of both parties. Waters has not debated Wood (though she did acknowledge that ”we’ve been watching you” when he buttonholed her at a 2013 town hall), and the Republican party has been unwilling to provide money or much support. According to Wood, when a series of anti-Waters “poverty pimp” signs appeared around the district (and possibly in front of Waters’s Hancock Park home), L.A.’s CBS affiliate reported that there was no evidence that the Wood campaign was involved but didn’t bother to call him. (The current version of the CBS story has a statement from Wood, who says his campaign had “nothing to do with the posters.”) The Torrance Daily Breeze ran a recent profile of Wood topped by a large photo of the candidate and bearing the headline “Newcomer Wood on a Quest against Waters in 43rd Congressional District,” but within a few hours the top photo was swapped out for one of Waters, and the headline was changed to “Newcomer in quixotic challenge of political veteran Maxine Waters in 43rd Congressional District.” According to OpenSecrets, Wood has a total of $10,223 on hand; Waters has $1.1 million.

Yet he will have about 20 volunteers walking the 700,000-population district on Election Day.

Perhaps most important in a calling-card campaign by a young candidate, Wood has gotten visibly better as the race has gone on. When National Review Online caught up with him in the spring, Wood, father of a three-year-old son and with a second child due in May, was knowledgeable but hesitant. His emergence as a Republican has been fairly recent (he volunteered for Obama in 2008) and driven largely by his study of economics and his sense that progressive pieties have failed the people of the district. (Wood was born in Inglewood and his wife is from Watts.) During his 2013 town-hall exchange with Waters, Wood went on way too long in a media-untrained performance that combined stemwinding, skylarking and woolgathering. A video ad he put together suggests limited budget and experience.

But Wood has become notably more polished, and he’s been aggressively hitting churches and community groups around the district. Along with promoting himself, he has had some success introducing high-profile Republicans to residents of south L.A. County.

“What makes John so special is not only is he a gifted speaker, but he demonstrates a real courage in his convictions,” Pete Peterson, the GOP’s Los Angeles Times–endorsed candidate for for secretary of state, tells National Review Online. “He’s willing to go anywhere and tell anybody why he supports conservative principles. And because of his confidence, he’s able to engage folks in a non-confrontational way — it’s very disarming to people who’ve never met him before and have a certain perception of Republicans.”

Wood is the kind of candidate the GOP could get great value from if not for the “woeful inadequacy of the California Republican party,” says Joe Hicks, vice president of the think tank Community Advocates Inc. in downtown L.A. and a contributor to Project 21. ”They’re unable to do anything with a guy like this, who is a go-getter, a very good speaker. . . .  The party is so inept at doing what you need to do to win. I’m not saying they have to compromise principles, but get better at communicating them.”

What is he communicating? Wood’s platform includes a dramatic tax simplification as well as pension and welfare reform; a security-first immigration plan; health-savings accounts; and personal accounts with safeguards for Social Security. Wood also tells NRO that it would be “accurate” to describe him as a social conservative. “I have run a culturally conservative campaign,” he says, “in churches in Inglewood and Watts, in Gardena and West Carson. In this community, the churches are the anchor of values and society. Within that social conservatism comes a larger package which is not disparaging anybody’s particular lifestyle but strengthening the nuclear family as a unit and upholding the sanctity of life of the unborn.”

A little-noted feature of Barack Obama’s 2008 landslide in the Golden State was how closely the results for Obama in black and Latino areas tracked with results for Prop 8, the state’s subsequently overturned ban on gay marriage. By margins that shamed Democrats and puzzled Republicans, voters in those districts liked both, which suggests room for conservative inroads. On family issues, Democrats have very little to offer minorities, and Republicans have barely tried.

“I would like to see up-and-coming candidates in a district like Maxine’s zero in on education,” says Hicks. “It would be great to see a candidate in this district say, ‘Take a look at this woman who’s supposedly been serving you guys all these years. What can you point to that she’s delivered for you — Maxine Waters, who’s been in that office since they invented baseball?’”

Even a prominent Waters supporter, KTYM and KPFK radio host Earl Ofari Hutchinson, tells NRO he is not completely comfortable with the congresswoman’s immovability. “It is so top-heavy,” Hutchinson says. “Even the redistricting was done so carefully as not to upset the political applecart. Unless a challenger like John Wood Jr. has a lot of money, has done a lot of homework, and really has resources, it’s hopeless. No, it’s not fair. I support Maxine Waters but I can still see the bigger picture, and people need to have more choices available.”

Hutchinson predicts Waters will get between 70 percent and 75 percent of the vote once again, because of her long credentials (she first won elected office, to the state assembly, in 1976); her considerable skill at retail politics, which she has demonstrated with a close focus on the newly added areas of the district; and the fact that she has “no shortage of funds.”

The strength and unaccountability of California’s Democrats can hardly be overstated, nor can the failure of the state’s institutions. Those two trends collided Friday as former state senator Rod Wright, sentenced to 90 days for felonious vote fraud, arrived at an L.A. County jail to begin serving his sentence but was sent home because of overcrowding. California’s emergence as a one-party polity is a problem not just for Republicans but for anybody who believes in competitive politics.

“God bless him,” says Jon Fleischman, founder of FlashReport.org, California’s leading political news site. “He and every other candidate who has the gumption to hold up the banner of conservatism in areas where it’s not much heard are deserving of praise.”

Wood has a similar view of his role in Tuesday’s vote. “With a very modest budget, this campaign is showing that a more conservative message can work,” he says.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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