Races of the Week:Ashburn vs. Costa

Sunday, Aug. 29, 2004: More than 4,000 angry Fresno citizens braved 90-plus-degree humidity and swarmed City Hall in Fresno, Calif., to demonstrate their support for traditional marriage. “This is a political issue,” declared local pastor Jim Franklin, making it clear that citizens such as this would not forget office-holders who supported any definition of marriage other than a union between man and woman.

Declaring that the first step toward legalizing homosexual marriage was acceptance of domestic partner benefits, Republican State Sen. Roy Ashburn asked the spirited audience if they know which of his colleagues had sponsored domestic partner benefits three times. “Jim Costa!,” said Ashburn, answering his own question. By naming his Democratic opponent for Congress in the 20th District (Central Valley), Ashburn had aroused the crowd to prolonged booing and fist-shaking. Had Costa been seated in City Hall that day, it is likely that the reaction from the rally outside would have made him reconsider his candidacy.

Fresno Mayor and rally organizer Alan Autry later deemed Ashburn’s remarks “inexcusable,” according to the Fresno Bee, because he felt they were partisan (Franklin’s remarks about the issue aside). But the legacy and the message of the rally were clear: With Democratic Rep. Cal Dooley retiring, the historically Democratic 20th District was very much up in the air, Costa was on the defensive, and the 50-year-old Ashburn was gaining ground.

The following day, Ashburn jetted to New York to address the Republican National Convention–one of only a handful of U.S. House hopefuls to have that opportunity. In September, a luncheon for Ashburn in the district featuring Vice President Dick Cheney brought in an overflow crowd of 900. That same month, more than 500 contributors cheered on one of Ashburn’s biggest boosters: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Newspaper photos the next day showed Schwarzenegger, Ashburn, and Autry arm-in-arm–the mayor obviously getting over his pique at the House candidate and, in all likelihood, sensing new momentum.

Something was happening in a district that Al Gore had carried by 11 percentage points over George W. Bush. Part of it had to do with the conservative Ashburn, who has represented large portions of the 20th in his 12 years as Kern County supervisor, and eight years as assemblyman and then senator. Vibrant, a “bleeding heart conservative” in the mold of Jack Kemp, and brimming with self-confidence, Ashburn has a record of attracting non-Republicans over to his banner.

And then there is the issue of Gray Davis. More than 67% of district voters voted last year to recall the Democratic governor and 65% voted to replace him with either Schwarzenegger or a fellow Republican, State Sen. Tom McClintock. Costa, notes Ashburn, “supported Davis on worker’s compensation claims until they bankrupted our unemployment insurance fund. He also backed Davis on the mandatory nurse staffing ratio, a huge expense to public hospitals, and he and Davis both supported the family leave act and a state minimum wage increase–all things that helped bring our state to its economic knees. And I’m proud to say I fought Gray Davis every step of the way and came out early and strong for Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

With an ability to energize volunteers and utilize key issues to mobilize voters, Roy Ashburn has always been a winner. In 20 years in elective office, he has faced the voters seven times and never lost an election. This year, he will either spoil that record–or, with the strong support of fellow conservatives, be U.S. representative from California’s 20th District.

(Ashburn Congress Committee, P.O. Box 11444, Bakersfield, Calif. 93389; 661-328-1998)