Who Is Harley Rouda? California Democrat Challenging Dana Rohrabacher - Rolling Stone
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Are Dana Rohrabacher’s Days Numbered?

Chatting with Harley Rouda, the Democrat who wants to topple “Putin’s favorite congressman”

UNITED STATES - MAY 20: Harley Rouda, Democrat running for California's 48th Congressional district seat in Congress, listens to speakers during his campaign rally in Laguna Beach, Calif., on Sunday, May 20, 2018. California is holding its primary election on June 5, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Harley Rouda, Democrat running for California's 48th Congressional district seat in Congress, listens to speakers during his campaign rally in Laguna Beach, California, on Sunday, May 20th, 2018.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

There are three things to know about Dana Rohrabacher.

1) He thinks home-sellers should be able to discriminate against gay people.

2) He once blamed climate change on dinosaur flatulence.

3) House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was caught in 2016 saying: “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump. Swear to God.”

Somehow, this 71-year-old beacon of bigotry and ignorance is not from a Deep Red state — he’s the 15-term incumbent from California’s 48th district, a coastal, Orange County seat.

You know the district’s anchor city, Laguna Beach, from the eponymous MTV show. But the town is not all hot bods and Lamborghinis; I found an underbelly to this ritzy enclave when I visited this summer. Just down the hill from a seaside tchotchke shop called Russian Traditions, I meet Derrick Michael Reid waving a man-sized American flag and a hand-lettered “TRUMP” sign to a mix of heckling and approving honks from passersby.

Reid, 64 and dressed in all black, stands out here to own the libs.

“I love triggering the sociopaths that infest our society,” he tells Rolling Stone. A libertarian, Reid gives the president props: “Trump is draining the deep state. Clapper and Brennan and Rice and Lynch and Comey — they’ll throw ‘em all in jail eventually.” When asked about Rohrabacher’s connections to the Kremlin, Reid says he’s not interested in listening to “totalitarian progressives make up a bunch of fruit loop stories about our president or even a congressman.” If there were “any collusion by Rohrabacher,” he says, “Mueller would have found it by now.”

The Democrat fighting to put this district back on a path to sanity is Harley Rouda. Rouda is a tall, strapping dude, 57-years-old, originally from Ohio, who made a fortune in real estate and technology. He prevailed in one of the tightest primaries in the state — with the joint backing of both the party and the grassroots group Indivisible.

We sat down at his campaign office in Newport, across from a high-end mall where the Tesla dealer sits across from Lululemon. Rouda may dress beachy rich, but he remains a cornball midwesterner at heart. “My goal today is the same goal as Dr. Hook’s goal, which is being on the cover of the Rolling Stone,” he says. Lots of people make this ice-breaker joke to Rolling Stone reporters, but Rouda takes it further. He’s got the song cued up on his iPhone, and he sets it playing as we begin our interview:

You’ve got a notorious opponent. How do you frame the contrast?
Dana Rohrabacher has extreme views that are inconsistent with the voters of the 48th district. My moderate positions are more consistent what they want to see an elected official.

Rohrabacher’s Russia connections are a national story. How does the issue play locally?
It’s playing bigger everyday. It’s important to talk about health care, and gun violence, and the declining middle class, and women’s rights. But we have seen concern about the assault on our republic and the institutions that are the foundation of our democracy. And that’s consistent across the political spectrum. Rohrabacher’s long-term affinity for Russia certainly doesn’t do anybody any good around here.

How does a politician from Orange County end up in kahoots with the Kremlin?
It’s a great question. Rohrabacher does brag about the time when he arm-wrestled Putin — and lost. So maybe that was the beginning of their bromance. It sounds like a really bad joke. I arm-wrestled Putin and lost and we’ve been buddies ever since.

Rohrabacher was on record saying Alexander Torshin — the alleged handler of accused Russian agent Maria Butina — was conservatives’ “favorite Russian.”
He’s made over a dozen trip to Russia. And the hits just keep coming out, as we saw with Maria Butina, who had numerous contacts with Rohrabacher. We know that Manafort made campaign contributions to Rohrabacher’s campaign. At best, it’s stupidity; at worst, it’s nefarious. If you use the spy trade vernacular: you’re either a spy; you’re an asset; or you’re a useful idiot. And where Rohrabacher falls on that spectrum, time will tell, and the Mueller investigation will help us understand.

UNITED STATES - JUNE 26: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., is seen after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on June 26, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., is seen after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on June 26, 2018. Photo credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Is backlash to Rohrabacher and the GOP here limited to Russia?
It’s only one of the tipping points. The separation of families at the border was another. I hear Republicans saying this is not my image of the country. This is not the “shining hill” that Ronald Reagan talked about when I joined the Republican Party.

What was your motivation to enter the race?
Trump’s election was a watershed event. But wasn’t just about Donald Trump. I was frustrated about both parties putting party first. Talking about personalities instead of issues. Being unwilling to reach across the aisle and put the work of the country first.

The DCCC backed you to help you win a crowded primary. Why you?
From day one, this was a grassroots effort. We won every debate hands down. Virtually any metric you want to use we were ahead — except one of the candidates had gotten the California Democratic Party’s endorsement. The D-triple-C realized that we were the most viable candidate to beat Rohrabacher, and they got behind us at the very end. This is the only campaign in the country that had the endorsement of Indivisible and was also supported by the D-triple-C on Red to Blue; the only campaign that had the national grassroots support and the establishment.

What’s your secret? What are you talking about that engages both progressives and the party?
Americans want common sense for common ground. I think I’m a moderate. I do talk about open Medicare-for-all. I want to open up a public option. It’s a buy-in. It’s just an option. Second: Reinstate the individual mandate. Third: Take off the shackles to allow Medicare to negotiate pharma prices. Those are three moves we can make without inadvertently disrupting our economy. But the inability to pay medical bills is the leading cause of bankruptcy and the leading cause of homelessness in the United States. We can do better.

What local issues motivate voters?
Housing affordability. Infrastructure. Quality jobs. And homelessness and sober homes. In this district, you have extremely affluent individuals on the coast. But we have pockets of poverty going east — and a serious homeless issue. And overpopulation: housing two or three families in single apartments or single-family homes. The problems are worse than we tend to think.

Where are you on the state gas tax hike?
It is an issue. I’m disappointed that the Trump administration and Dana Rohrabacher and the Republican party — after what seems like 50 straight weeks of “infrastructure week” — have failed to address their obligations to provide infrastructure projects. It’s leaving states like California having to figure out solutions on their own because the federal government, under Republican control, has failed.

How does Rohrabacher hit you?
The usual playbook from the Republican Party, that I support open borders — patently untrue — and that I’m tied to the hip of Nancy Pelosi, and that’s untrue as well.

Would you support her for leadership?
I have no idea. My first goal is to defeat Dana Rohrabacher. If I’m successful in that, I’ll do appropriate due diligence as to who I believe should be the leader of the speaker.


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