Against the odds
In a crowded race for Congress, Joe Montes is a longshot to unseat Doug LaMalfa.
Joe Montes is everywhere right now. His campaign signs, calling on voters to “Stand and be counted,” seem to sprout from every other lawn, and his TV and radio commercials are in heavy rotation.
But the Army and California Air National Guard veteran, former administrative law judge and Chico-based businessman needs more than local exposure heading into the June 7 primary election if he’s going to take Doug LaMalfa’s seat and represent the vast, mostly rural 1st Congressional District. (It covers Butte, Lassen, Modoc, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou and Tehama counties, as well as portions of Glenn, Nevada and Placer counties.)
So Montes, a Republican, has been on the road seven days a week to participate in candidates forums, speaking engagements and TV spots throughout northeastern California. Along the way, he’s spreading his message of finding common ground with political and ideological opposites to pry free the U.S. Legislature’s gridlock.
“The message is that the establishment is broken,” he said during a recent interview. “There’s a reason for the very low approval ratings Congress has.”
Voters nationwide are fed up with obstructionist politics and the glacial pace of change, Montes said, and he hopes the political winds behind presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump will work in his favor. “You look at those two and they seem, at first glance, to have nothing in common,” he said. “But they’re both perceived to be outsiders from the D.C. mess. … I think they’re giving voice to why people have been agitated for a long time: Why aren’t we being represented?”
In the North State, there is a voting bloc in the highly influential farming community that does, in fact, prefer the status quo, Montes said. However, invitations to debates hosted by farming groups are encouraging.
“There’s a very real chance of me winning, though, of course, it will be very difficult because [LaMalfa] is the incumbent,” Montes said.
The top two vote-getters in the primary election will run against each other in the general election in November. It’s possible, then, that members of the same party will square off, but the results of the District 1 election in 2012, when Democrat Jim Reed drew 42.6 percent of votes suggest that’s unlikely. Reed is once again challenging LaMalfa’s seat and figures to receive significant support from Democratic voters.
Five of the seven candidates squared off at Chico State’s Harlen Adams Theatre during the League of Women Voters of Butte County’s congressional forum on May 3. Democratic candidate David Peterson couldn’t be contacted ahead of the forum, while LaMalfa declined the league’s invitation.
The candidates answered questions from the league, the press and the sparse audience (about 30 people in a 468-seat auditorium), providing glimpses of each candidate’s political and social leanings. Take Gregory Cheadle (R), who decries government overreach, big banks, the pharmaceutical industry and the criminal justice system. When prompted on the subject of climate change, he condemned the Obama family for flying on Air Force One.
“These are the people who are telling me to feel bad because I don’t drive a Prius? I don’t think so,” he said.
Jeff Gerlach, a longtime information technology analyst, emphasized cyber-security and disturbing trends in government surveillance. He says the two-party system is broken—he’s running as an independent—and likened partisanship to “a family feud.” Gary Allen Oxley (R), on the other hand, believes Democrats and Republicans are “working together really well” in Congress, but the problem is public transparency and densely written legislation most people can’t digest.
As the only Democrat, Reed said he’d work to upgrade the North State’s aging infrastructure to boost the economy and take action on climate change. He believes that Democrats and independents will turn out in droves to vote against Donald Trump in the presidential election and increase his chances.
From Montes’ viewpoint, a vote for Reed is a vote for LaMalfa. In the blood-red District 1, he believes it’s nearly impossible for Reed or any other democrat to take the election.
“If people vote for a Democrat, they should understand it’s just a principled vote,” he said. “One that makes you feel good, but it’s going to guarantee that LaMalfa is the winner.”
Montes needs every swing vote he can get, but liberals likely won’t identify with some of his stances on hot-button issues. Though he acknowledges humanity’s role in climate change and believes the North State should move away from fossil fuels and invest in solar, hydro-electric and nuclear energy, he takes a more traditionally conservative stance on issues like women’s reproductive rights—specifically, abortion.
During the forum on May 3, the CN&R asked the candidates whether they would support legislation to defund Planned Parenthood.
“I am a conservative and I am a pro-life advocate; I would not fund Planned Parenthood,” Montes responded. “It’s unconscionable for someone like me—my wife and I were never able to have children, although we wanted to—that babies are lost in that way. … I would do everything in my power to defund Planned Parenthood.”
The odds are long, but Montes’ sights are set on Washington, D.C.
“I intend to win,” he said.