Garcia: In Palm Springs, the political winds could be shifting 

Palm Springs — few California locales have undergone a greater demographic shift than this once-famed Hollywood hideaway, for decades a rock-solid Republican region that has quietly become home to thousands of liberal arrivistes.

But by the time the national congressional elections take shape this summer, we’ll know whether this vast political district is really being targeted by GOP and Democratic Party officials or if it’s just another rhetorical mirage.

Of all the so-called swing districts that have been outlined for this year’s midterm elections, this Riverside County resort area may provide the most-dynamic backdrop. Even just a few years back, it was seen as white, Republican and as predictable as a desert night.

Now, due to an influx of younger Hispanic families and particularly gay and lesbian couples, it’s being touted as a future liberal stronghold, as evidenced by the fact that President Barack Obama won 52 percent of the vote there in the 2008 election.

For the past eight terms, the 45th Congressional District has been represented by a Bono — first Sonny, Cher’s former sidekick, then Mary, his widow who succeeded him by winning the seat in a special election held after his sudden death during a skiing accident.

Mary Bono Mack, who’s considered a social moderate but who votes primarily along strict GOP lines — including an adamant stance against the recently approved health care reform bill — is seeking her seventh term, having won the previous six by easy double-digit margins.

But the demographic changes have spurred optimism among Democrats who no longer see the district as a Republican lock and are pinning their hopes on a challenge by Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet.

Pougnet represents the new face of Palm Springs. He’s openly gay and openly critical of Bono Mack for not holding more town hall meetings on health care reform. And he’s one of the backers of a petition demanding that Congress repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays and lesbians serving in the military.

The politics in Palm Springs still may not be reflective of the more-conservative bent of the Coachello Valley, but the influx of more than 200,000 people to the district definitely has altered the political landscape.

“A Democratic takeover of the district is not out of the question,” said Jack Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “But a lot of the congressional gains will be dependent on the economy.”

And nowhere is that more apparent than in Palm Springs, where the main drag along Palm Canyon Drive is a mirror image of Main Street USA. Nearly whole blocks of the shopping district are empty, and high-end restaurants and retail stores are cavernous eyesores. Even during one of the busiest events in the area, the recent BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, hotels were about half their usual capacity.

Pougnet has tried to make much of Bono Mack’s unyielding stance on the health care reform bill that she has resisted from the start. But while the impact of the bill’s passage may vary widely from district to district, its sway here in a land once populated by retirees is being viewed as relatively insignificant.

Here, the tipping point will be about job, jobs and more jobs. And as San Francisco knows from its dependence on tourism as its key industry, there’s no easy rebound during a time when people don’t have much money or much confidence that things will change soon.

“Right now, people are happy to have any work,” said Sofie Witt, who works at an area resort. “We all know so many friends who don’t. And it’s not like some big corporation is going to move here overnight.”

Bono Mack’s campaign has tried to link Pougnet directly to the downturn, but she also criticized the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package, a rather curious mix of positions. But holding onto the seat has been important enough for GOP officials that they placed her in the Patriot Program to help her raise money.

She currently holds about a 2-to-1 lead in fundraising over Pougnet, but even that margin is slimmer than it has ever been.

It’s one race and one place where the temperature is about to rise.

About The Author

Ken Garcia

Pin It

Speaking of Op Eds

Latest in Ken Garcia

© 2019 The San Francisco Examiner

Website powered by Foundation