San Diego Sarah Wells and Elizabeth Moore got a lesson in the way an American election works by assisting this year in the California primaries at their Spring Valley polling place. Neither could vote at the time, since they had not yet turned 18. They have come of voting age in the meantime, however, and they look forward to casting ballots for the first time on November 5.
The efforts of Moore and Wells at the polling station were part of their homework for an advanced-placement class at Monte Vista High School called American Government and Economics. In the class, they had learned about the California Legislature's latest redistricting. On the day of the primaries, one of the things the two young women did was to direct voters to the right polling stations. In the process, they discovered that many citizens of Lemon Grove and La Mesa did not realize that the newly drawn 53rd District had taken their communities into its territory.
Bill VanDeWeghe (R), a former Army officer and local attorney specializing in business law, is challenging one-term incumbent Susan Davis (D) for the 53rd's seat in the House of Representatives. Moore and Wells have heard of Davis but not VanDeWeghe. In that respect, they are more informed than many of their first-time voting peers in the district.
In a small sampling outside the Starbucks in La Jolla's Costa Verde Center, three people who said they would vote for the first time on November 5 of this year did not know that they lived in the 53rd District and did not recognize the names of either VanDeWeghe or Davis. Another said he probably wouldn't vote because he hates politics. All four wished to remain anonymous. La Jolla is the northernmost community in the district, which stretches south along the coast to Imperial Beach and includes most of central, east, and southeast San Diego as well as Lemon Grove and Spring Valley.
At the opposite end of apathy about politics, the College Republicans of Point Loma Nazarene University have wholeheartedly endorsed VanDeWeghe for Congress. Matt Klemin and Janae Parker are members of the organization, and Klemin is its president. The two students are 21 years old and did vote once already, in the last national elections. They like the idea that, in Klemin's words, "VanDeWeghe stands behind the President in just about anything and everything he does." Speaking several days before Davis voted against the House bill authorizing Bush's use of force against Iraq, Klemin said, "Anybody who can be against what Bush is doing right now is just ludicrous." Parker adds that Davis "doesn't seem to be supportive of the current administration at all. In most of her points, even in attacking VanDeWeghe, she attacks the president as well. Not supporting the president right now is very dangerous. I think she completely disregards the threat of Iraq. She only says we shouldn't go in there unilaterally, but she doesn't address the dangers that are present."
One of the most important issues in the campaign to Klemin and Parker is that of abortion rights.
"Coming from a conservative background and a Christian paradigm," Klemin said, "I feel strongly that life, even before actual birth, is very important and ought to be protected. [Davis's] supporting what she calls choice, to me, is supporting the death of all those babies that could be born and come into the world."
In an interview, VanDeWeghe criticizes Davis for supporting a woman's right to abortion "anytime, anywhere, anyplace." He describes himself as pro-life, but he thinks President Bush has done the right thing in making abortion a back-burner issue. His supporter Klemin is furious, however, that "my congressman, from my district," voted against a bill that was passed in the House banning partial birth abortions. "She's not in favor of us going to war, and yet she's okay with killing kids. [Voting against that bill] is a good showing of her character."
At SDSU, Janell Payne, 24, has been taking a class this semester in political communications. She will vote in her first election on November 5. She doesn't know much about VanDeWeghe, except that he has never before run for political office. But coworkers at the restaurant where she works got her excited about Davis, with whom she agrees on a woman's right to choose. Reflecting on VanDeWeghe's desire to keep the abortion issue on the back burner, Payne says, "I understand why he thinks it's a good thing that [Bush] has done, because it gets it out of the way, and it's a nasty thing to talk about. But that's the problem. The issue is huge, and it's very hard for women, in particular, to put that on the back burner, because that's part of life, and it needs to be dealt with. I can't imagine ignoring it."
At City College downtown, candidate name recognition was not high, but a group of four students from an American government class, each living in the 53rd, were eager to hear about the campaign's issues. Challenger VanDeWeghe thinks that first among those issues must be ones involving military preparedness. He accuses Davis of being soft on defense, despite her membership on the House Armed Services Committee. Problems of equipment disrepair are so great, he says, that some American planes can't get off the ground, nor ships out of harbor, due to insufficient military spending.
But the City College students have a mixed response to VanDeWeghe's sense of military urgency. "We don't need the [military expenditures]," says 19-year-old Ryan Loesch. "What threat is San Diego under now? We already have the Marines here and the Navy to protect us. We're cool." On Iraq, however, Loesch says, "Definitely take out Sadaam." And guns in the cockpit, an advertising signature of VanDeWeghe, evokes an enthusiastic yes from Loesch, whose only qualification is that pilots need extensive training in how to use them effectively.
"Maybe some training would be necessary," says Rudy Duran, 18. "But you take a problem like 9/11 and you say, 'Oh no, we have to focus on security,' but security is tight. What methods can you take to avoid what happened? I mean, not very much. We are prepared for a terrorist attack."