Audrey Denney has an unprecedented level of support for a Democrat in District 1, but is it enough to unseat her Republican rival?
As of mid-August, Democrat Audrey Denney’s energetic campaign to capture Republican Doug LaMalfa’s District 1 seat in Congress was going remarkably well.
She’d raised $450,000, more than LaMalfa’s previous opponents combined. And more money was flowing in every day, mostly in small denominations.
She’d also opened field offices in Chico, Redding and Grass Valley and staffed them with 10 paid employees. And she’d signed up some 2,500 volunteers, who were knocking on doors throughout the vast 11-county district.
Denney was on a roll—until the pain in her belly became too much to ignore.
It began, she says, with feelings of discomfort. At first she thought maybe it was because on the campaign trail she was making “bad food decisions,” as she put it during a recent interview in her cozy bungalow in downtown Chico.
Doctors thought the pain was caused by an ovarian cyst, but when they looked closer they found she had a tumor in her abdomen. A large one. Denney describes it as being “as big as a football.” (I’ve seen a photo. She’s not exaggerating.)
Doctors removed the tumor intact on Thursday, Aug. 23. Fortunately, it was benign, and subsequently Denney was given a clean bill of health. But it knocked her off the campaign trail for nearly three weeks, just as she was getting into full swing. Bad timing.
In that case, Denney decided, if she couldn’t go where the voters were, she’d invite them into her hospital room. A day after the surgery, her sister Robin shot a video from the foot of the recovery bed. Looking directly at the camera and wearing her “stunning designer [hospital] gown,” she said her recent experience with the health care system had reminded her that the system is broken.
She then launched into a sophisticated and often passionate critique of what she charged was LaMalfa’s failure to fight for good health care in his district.
In two counties in that district, she said, women can’t even deliver their babies in hospitals because our health care facilities are underfunded and understaffed. And too often people have to drive for hours to see a specialist.
“This leaves me with one question,” Denney continued. “What has our congressional representative, Doug LaMalfa, done to help fix our health care crisis? Nothing.”
Instead, she continued, “he has voted repeatedly to take away our health care, while also voting to cut taxes for himself and his wealthy donors.”
Since its posting on Denney’s campaign Facebook page, her hospital-bed video has been viewed more than 83,000 times and has attracted nearly 500 comments, almost all of them positive.
Meanwhile, Denney’s fundraising total has spiked to some $625,000, reports campaign manager Brian Solecki. This level of financial support for a Democrat running in the Republican-dominated 1st District is unprecedented.
Audrey Denney is a tall, slender woman with shoulder-length blond hair and bright blue-green eyes. At 34, she is the youngest of three daughters who grew up on the family farm in Paso Robles. Today, as adults, they are extremely close to one another.
The farm was also a ranch. In addition to growing wine grapes and hay, the Denneys raised Percheron horses and beef cattle. The bovines were Audrey’s responsibility, and under her management a herd that started with just seven heifers in time grew to 250 head.
She was active in 4-H and, especially, Future Farmers of America, serving as a state officer. She also was a member of a team of national beef ambassadors representing the beef industry around the country.
In most respects, hers was an idyllic childhood, but she wants people to know that her family, like all families, had its share of troubles. When Audrey was 11, her father was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. “I was really scared,” she said, but fortunately he survived.
Her parents divorced in 2005, after 35 years of marriage, and they lost the farm in the Great Recession. It was a “rough decade” for Denney’s father, a decorated Vietnam veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. He now is in recovery and healthy, she said.
Denney’s mother has since remarried and become an Episcopal priest, like her husband. She has also survived breast cancer. Denney’s sisters are also Episcopal priests, bringing the total of priests in the family to four.
It was only when she got to college, at Chico State, that Denney learned about family systems and how children develop coping skills and resilience in response to their parents’ troubles and shortcomings. It explained a lot about why she was so driven to have a positive impact in the world.
Last Thanksgiving day, Denney was driving to Chico with her sister Robin when they passed through Roseville.
Roseville is in Republican Rep. Tom McClintock’s 4th District. The sisters marveled that three highly competent women had stepped forward as candidates in the primary to determine who would advance to the November 2018 general election to face the conservative incumbent. (One of them, Jessica Morse, a national security strategist who lives in Pollack Pines, is advancing to the general election against incumbent McClintock.)
Clearly, they saw, the movement that was encouraging women all across the country to become involved in politics was having an impact in Northern California.
That’s when it occurred to Denney that, if those women could run for Congress, so could she. Her sister agreed, and for the next two hours, until they reached Chico, they excitedly discussed what it would take to defeat LaMalfa.
No sooner had the thought entered Denney’s mind, however, than she was beset by doubts. After all, she had no money and no political experience, while LaMalfa had been a politician since 2002, when he won his first term in the state Assembly. From there he went on to the state Senate and, in 2013, to Congress. He has never lost an election.
On the other hand, despite her relative youth, Denney could point to a wide-ranging set of experiences and skills that LaMalfa can’t equal. With the exception of his years at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, where he earned a bachelor’s in ag/business, the rice-farming congressman has lived all his life in Butte County.
According to her website bio, Denney spent a year in El Salvador working with rural youth on agricultural projects and another year in West Africa working for a nonprofit doing agricultural-education work. She also served as president of the board of Cristosal, an Episcopalian-rooted human-rights organization based in Central America.
She has a master’s degree in agricultural education from Chico State and taught there for six years. Currently she is in her third year as a senior learning designer at Vivayic, where she creates learning strategy and curriculum for worldwide agricultural companies and nonprofits.
By early December, Denney was all in.
That’s when she approached Brian Solecki, whom she knew from Bidwell Presbyterian Church, which she had long attended and where he was an associate pastor.
“I have this crazy idea,” she told him. “I want you to quit your job and run my campaign.”
He laughed. “You’re talking to the wrong person,” he said. “You need to talk with my wife.”
When he saw she was serious, he said: “You need to hire someone who knows what he’s doing.”
“No,” she replied, “I need someone who knows me.”
Solecki’s wife, Angie, was immediately supportive, as were his three teenage kids, who reminded him that he liked to talk the talk, but this was a chance to walk the walk.
As it’s turned out, Solecki has waged a masterful campaign. “He’s the best mobilizer of people I’ve ever known,” Denney said. Just as important, by choosing someone who shared her values instead of turning to a professional politico, she demonstrated her determination to wage a grassroots insurgency campaign. It would be funded by individual contributions, not by the corporate PAC funding on which Doug LaMalfa relies and is the source of much of the corruption that permeates Congress.
Before Denney could challenge LaMalfa, who was a lock to make it on the general election ballot, she had to survive the June 5 primary election. Again, three strong women—Denney, Auburn attorney Jessica Holcombe and Quincy environmental scientist Marty Walters—were among the six challengers vying to come in second in a top-two primary. Whoever did so would join LaMalfa on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Despite being the last of the three women to enter the race, Denney came in second with 18 percent of the vote. That was considerably less than LaMalfa’s 51.7 percent, but look at it this way: Together the three Democratic women garnered 41 percent of the vote, only a 10 percent difference.
About 25 percent of California voters are registered as “no party preference,” and the number is increasing every day. Solecki indicates that one of Denney’s campaign goals is to reach out to these voters. She figures they are disillusioned by mainstream party politics, Democratic and Republican alike. As a progressive Democrat, she believes she offers something lacking in their political lives.
She also wants to reach younger voters, who are similarly disillusioned by politics, and encourage them to register to vote. She’s young herself, she speaks their language and she’s honest and transparent, qualities millennials recognize and value, especially now in this time of wholesale dishonesty among our political leaders.
“We’re at a unique moment in time that makes this district winnable by a Democrat,” Solecki said. “It can happen.”
Bob Caldwell is a retired state employee who supports Denney’s run for Congress. He was among the hundreds of people who packed the Chico Women’s Club on Aug. 10 for a fundraiser that, in just two hours, raised $11,000.
He’d met Denney earlier at a forum sponsored by the Democratic Action Club of Chico (DACC). When he asked her a question about an issue, he said, “She plopped down and spent 15 minutes talking with me.”
Denney doesn’t say much about Donald Trump and the damage he is doing to the presidency and the nation, figuring that what people want to know from her is how she will serve her district.
But Caldwell was less reticent. “This is the most corrupt government since Harding and Teapot Dome,” he said.
More to the point, perhaps, he believes Denney will be far more accessible and connected to the district than LaMalfa. The biggest hurdle she faces, he added, will be turning conservative Shasta County, with its relatively large number of Trump voters in Redding, from red to blue.
One way to do that is to attract Republicans to vote for Denney.
Tom Roth, a family doctor in Chico, is in that key demographic.
Sitting with his wife, Julie, in the lawn area behind the Women’s Club, he told the CN&R he is a life-long Republican, but “would never vote for Donald Trump.” By the same token, he can’t support LaMalfa, since the congressman is in virtual lockstep with the president, voting with him nearly 97 percent of the time.
For her part, Julie Roth, who’s a retired lecturer at Chico State, is dismayed by the president’s assault on the environment and fears for the future of the national parks.
And then there’s Republicans for Audrey Denney for Congress, a group of 107 voters who believe, according to their Facebook page, “overall our district will be significantly better served with Audrey Denney as our representative than the incumbent Doug LaMalfa …. We believe … that Audrey Denney possesses very rare qualities and goals that go beyond party.”
Inside the Women’s Club, Denney had begun giving her stump speech, so the outdoor crowd was squeezing in to see and hear her. Space was tight, but nobody seemed to mind.
Denney is a vividly physical speaker. She moves around a lot, confidently using her hands and arms to illustrate her words, even acting out scenes as she describes them. She seems to enjoy speaking in front of groups—she’s an educator, after all—and more than once has said that she’s “wired” for running for office. She’s discovered that “[i]t’s what I was meant to do,” she said.
Her speeches usually begin with stories taken from her life. This time she described joining with her sister Robin to deliver truckloads of peanuts to a refugee camp in South Sudan.
The refugees “didn’t have anything” and their children, especially the boys, were always vulnerable to being kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army and fashioned into child soldiers.
Denney realized that any baby in the camp could end up a child soldier. Appalled at the injustice of this, she vowed then and there never to give up and always to fight for justice in its many forms, including by running for Congress.
“So how the heck are we going to do it?” she asked her audience. “I know with every fiber of my being that by next January I will be serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, and here are four reasons why that is so.”
First, she said, the electorate is in the mood for change. People are disgusted with Congress’ pay-and-play corruption and want it to end.
Second, her campaign has raised enough money to equalize the fight—more, even, than LaMalfa has raised. And none of it came from corporate PACs, so the voters will know she’s hasn’t been bought.
Third, her campaign has mobilized much more effectively than her predecessors’ ever did, having created a powerful cadre of volunteers, hired 10 paid staffers and opened three district offices. “Ours is the most professional Democratic campaign ever run for this office,” she said.
Fourth, and finally, “We’ve got momentum on our side.” If you look just at the voter registration numbers,” she said, “I shouldn’t be here. But look around this room….”
Word from the LaMalfa camp, as reported in various media, is that they’re not worried about Denney’s challenge. She may have outraised him in this election cycle, but his war chest, stuffed with carryover funds, is twice as large as hers.
But this race is not about money and policy as much as it is about character, says David Welch, a Chico nurse, union activist and Denney supporter. Speaking to a meeting of the DACC in early August, he insisted that “this is not a safe Republican district. The numbers don’t tell the story of the quality of the candidate. … What’s special here is not so much the policy, it’s the person.”
Denney has vowed that, if she loses, she’ll run again in 2020. Win or lose this year, Solecki said, the campaign will hold a victory party on Nov. 6.
“We figure that just by doing what we’ve done, we’ve had a victory,” he said. “We plan to celebrate.”