In the 1939 movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Jimmy Stewart portrays an idealistic man from a Western state who is appointed to fill a U.S. Senate seat. Shocked to find the Capitol filled with corruption, Sen. Jefferson Smith takes to the Senate floor to stand up to the ugliness around him. It’s classic Stewart.
I thought of that corny old story after I read that Anaheim Democrat Lou Correa was elected to fill a congressional seat held for two decades by U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez. She gave it up to run for U.S. Senate, but was handily defeated by Attorney General Kamala Harris. Correa fills the 46th District vacancy after beating Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen by 60,000 votes.
Correa, who has served as county supervisor, Assembly member and state senator, has never been known as a crusader or orator. But he has always exuded an aw-shucks Stewart-like good nature that might be useful these days, after a particularly nasty national election. California, of course, tilted further left as the country took a hard right turn.
I’ve routinely disagreed with Correa’s politics, but his moderate-left approach has always seemed like a reasonable fit in a working-class district heavily populated by immigrants. His opponent this year was a Bernie Sanders supporter who attacked Correa for not being far enough to the left. I chuckle at the vote totals given that Correa has over the years specialized in nail-biters.
In 2014, Correa lost his race for county supervisor to Andrew Do by 43 votes. At one point, he was down by two votes out of more than 42,000 counted. In his first race for Assembly, he lost to Republican Jim Morrissey by 93 votes. In his race for state Senate in 2006, he was down on election night, but won by 1,392 votes. His mission seems to be proving that every vote counts.
“I’m standing in awe here,” he said in a phone call to me last week while he stood under the U.S. Capitol dome. His big issues are moderate-sounding ones. He talked about improving the cost efficiency of government services and something high on President-elect Donald Trump’s agenda: rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.
But Correa could find himself in an interesting spot, given his long-term support for liberal immigration policies, including driver’s licenses for undocumented workers. “I will do everything I can to make sure he’s successful,” Correa said of Trump. “But I’m going to fight against his immigration policies.”
Correa is proud that he authored a measure in the Legislature that gave citizenship posthumously to a 21-year-old undocumented Marine. He talked about legal U.S. residents who “served in the U.S. military, came back, did stupid stuff and got deported.” Many of them are living in Tijuana, even though the United States has always been their home. He wants to address that problem, which could put him on a collision course with Trump.
He is passionate about immigration issues, but I’ve never seen him take a divisive approach toward the issue, which could help in the Capitol environment. After he won his race for supervisor in 2004, he was often introduced as the county’s new Latino supervisor. Correa liked to remind everyone that he was the supervisor for everyone in the district. I once met with him at a diner in Santa Ana where he was holding court, and people from every walk of life and ethnicity stopped by to talk to him.
Many Republicans agree with my assessment — it’s tough not to like Correa, even when strong criticism is warranted. Shortly after he entered the Assembly, for instance, he was the principal co-author of Senate Bill 400, which began a 15-year wave of dramatic and unsustainable retroactive pension-benefit boosts for state and local government employees.
The bill was rushed through without full oversight, encouraged by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and backed by most legislative Republicans and Democrats. There are many people to blame. Those were different times, as markets were soaring and CalPERS’ funds were flush with cash. But his name is on it, and it’s done more damage to the fiscal health of this state than any single measure I can recall.
I zinged him about it in our interview, and he was as unflappable as ever. “Looking forward, lesson learned. You have to look at pension issues through the lens that the market goes up and down,” he said. “I’m going to know better this time.” Orange County residents should certainly hope so.
Still, it’s unlikely the new Congress will begin its work by proposing new benefits for government employees. The likely challenges will come with the issues Trump focused on in the election, with immigration topping the list. Not many people can live up to the fictional Jefferson Smith, but Correa will have plenty of opportunity to make impassioned floor speeches.
Image by BrianPIrwin