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."
"In order to provide [military] efficiency," counters James Ziegler, 25, "don't you have to spend a little bit of money to make sure that the management is doing their job? Build our efficiency back up to a level that's acceptable. But, of course, what is that level? We really don't know. But get the efficiency up a little bit and then keep the money down to the level it was at before."
Jennifer Bennett, 27, questions the Bush administration's missile-defense program, which VanDeWeghe favors and Davis does not. "I thought I had read that those systems are really inaccurate right now," she says. But Ziegler, at first, defends them, saying, "We weren't very accurate in the first Gulf War at all. We were hitting maybe 30, 40 percent of the targets. Now we're hitting, like, 95 percent of the targets. In ten years, that's how much our technology has risen, like what can happen with missile defense." Then Ziegler surprises with his conclusion. "Anyone else in the world, they're not having that much of a jump in technology. So I don't think we even need to have this missile-defense program."
VanDeWeghe's platform has also proposed putting troops on the border as part of the war on terrorism, something that Davis opposes. "I think it would probably be a waste of money to send troops down there," says Duran. "What is it that the Border Patrol right now isn't doing that troops can do better?" All four of the students say that, in any such program, distinguishing between immigration control and keeping terrorists out of the country would be difficult but important.
On the economy, Duran thinks that "keeping taxes at the level they're at right now is important, because you start charging less taxes, and you won't have the money that you need. You still need to build roads and stuff like that. If you don't have the money, how are you going to keep doing the things you need to do every day?"
Duran's sentiments echo Susan Davis's contention that too many tax cuts will cause the deficit to grow to levels that will hurt the economy and provoke politicians to tap Social Security funds to pay bills. The war on terrorism is expensive, says Davis, but she favors spending money on many domestic programs, including restoring funding to the National Endowment for the Arts. VanDeWeghe chafes at the idea of spending money on the arts at a time when foreign enemies have demonstrated a willingness and ability to attack the U.S.
"There are a lot of other high priorities," says Bennett. "This city has a lot of other art programs. There are always tons of art projects going on, tons of people putting money into projects, and it may not be necessary to put all this money into a big National Endowment."
But Bennett's idea of higher priorities runs in the domestic social direction. "There are so many problems here at home," she says. "Education, pollution, environment, mental stuff. We have a breakdown in families, and all we're doing is Band-Aid programs for kids in day care."
Loesch takes exception to the idea that art is a low priority, whether we're in a time of war or not. "Art is very important. Look at this architecture here," he says, pointing to a classroom building. "This is a work of art. Everything that we encounter each day has an artistic aspect. And if [VanDeWeghe] is a businessman, he should know that presentation is one of the most important things. You can't run a society, or a business even, without having good presentation. And artists bring that in."
Loesch is more favorable toward a VanDeWeghe proposal that allows people to invest some of their Social Security funds in the stock market. On the one hand, he views playing the stock market as gambling, but "if you better educate people, probably [allowing them to invest in the market] would be a good idea."
Davis is opposed to the Social Security investments, according to statements reflecting her sensitivity to recent market fluctuations. Bennett appreciates the point. "There aren't enough people educated on the stock market to wisely invest money in there," she says. "There would be a high proportion of people that would probably lose it."
Bennett and Ziegler also side with Davis on abortion rights. Says Bennett, "In a diverse population, regardless of where you stand on the issue, you have to allow people to have abortions if they want them." Says Ziegler, "Personally, I'm pro-life; politically, I'm pro-choice. Nobody's right to choose should be taken away from them. That's a God-given right."
The idea of school vouchers for parents who want to send their children to private school draws strong reaction from the City College students. VanDeWeghe advocates private schools as one option in educating children who otherwise face a "broken" public school system. Duran understands. "The reason why a lot of people are turning to private schools," he says, "is because they do so much better than public schools."
And Bennett adds, "The voucher program is just a Band-Aid. Fix the public schools, then you won't need the voucher system. And if you do want to send your kids to private school, that's your obligation. I don't think that we should have to pay for that." Bennett agrees with Davis, who has argued that, since the public school system educates 90 percent of American children, all available tax dollars should go into it.
On the environment, Davis's website states she has the approval of organizations like the California League of Conservation Voters. But VanDeWeghe faults her for doing nothing about the cleanup of Mission Bay and the rest of the San Diego coast, where he says dirty water caused over 200 beach closures last year. He promises to solve the problem if elected.
Duran applies the issue to his own neighborhood. "A lot of kids have lung problems because of the pollution of the boats and the big machinery that are out by Barrio Logan. We should take into consideration that other areas don't have that problem."