The California Republican Party is in a sorry state. A Democrat who has served in Congress since 1997 in a D+20 district is running for reelection. A slam dunk? Maybe not.
If anyone can press Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) to the limit it may be Pablo Kleinman, an Argentinian Jewish immigrant who came to the United States at aged 13 and is now a high-tech entrepreneur and frequent presence on Univision. Sitting in a coffee shop near Dupont Circle, he rattles off the statistics for his district — 40 percent foreign born, 30 percent Hispanic. Asked to describe his political leanings he says, “I’m socially moderate and fiscally conservative.” He is soft-spoken and direct; with a close clipped beard and dark suit, he looks and sounds more like an international businessman than a Republican politician. And that may be the key to his success.
He’s under no illusions that the GOP is on the skids in California and has a problem nationwide with nonwhite voters. “A party is a reflection of its candidates,” he says. If there is to be a new kind of Republican for newer and younger Americans, Kleinman is the sort of candidate the party will need to attract. “If we can show we are coherent on issues, then we can be an appealing choice.”
Kleinman, who is a well-known figure in Spanish language media and founded two Spanish language policy publications, is more than coherent. One of his primary issues is school reform and school choice. When he came to the United States he spoke little English. “I was in an ESL class. I didn’t want to be there and managed to get out fast!” he says with a grin. His parents had settled in Westwood, a nice middle-class neighborhood but still within the Los Angeles Unified School District. “But there was this program that if you were a minority you could apply to get into Beverly Hills High School. So I got all the paper work and we went.” He joked that since his father is blond people at the information sessions were saying, “Hey — who’s that guy? Why is he here?” That experience made a lasting impression. “It shouldn’t depend on whether you are a member of a minority,” he says in explaining his devotion to charter schools and school choice. In Los Angeles, where private elementary school can run $40,000, the school choice issue may be a powerful one.
On the issues, he says, “I am a very rational person. Things have to make sense.” Obamacare doesn’t, from his vantage. He acknowledges that portability and protection for preexisting illnesses were real problems. However, he says, “The real problem is not access to health care; it’s the cost. The most important problem is there is no market solution [in Obamacare].” On immigration he says the Senate bill was flawed, in part because it lacked a guest worker program that is essential to stopping the influx of illegal immigrants. (In the 1950s and 1960s, the Bracero program was successful in doing just that.) He says there has to be a solution for people already here. Like House leaders he says, “What people want most is to come out of the shadows.” But he warns, “The Republicans would be wrong to permanently disenfranchise these people.” He continues, “Listen, in the Senate bill it was 10 years until you get a green card and then five more until you could be a citizen. We have 15 years to convince them they don’t need to be Democrats.”
In 2012 there was a brutal campaign between Sherman and Los Angeles political heavyweight Howard Berman. The candidates nearly came to blows at one point in a debate. Sherman won by spending millions, but is still heavily in debt with little cash on hand. Kleinman makes the case, “Berman was a highly respected figure. He was a workhorse. He was respected. Sherman has been there for 17 years. He has only offered three bills that have been passed. Two were for post offices and one was to get a lady whose husband died a green card.” Later in the interview he says with a touch of amazement, “He doesn’t do anything. He panders.”
On Israel, Kleinman says with Berman gone, Democratic congressman Henry Waxman’s retirement “will leave a void for pro-Israel groups in L.A.” He says dryly, “Sherman says he is pro-Israel. He attends a lot of bar mitzvahs. . . . Berman got the Iron Dome [defense system for Israel].” Kleinman finds it “worrisome that on an issue that used to be bipartisan” there are deep divisions on Israel. As for the Iran interim agreement he says, “I don’t understand why we are being weaker than the U.N. I don’t trust Iran.”
Like many challengers taking on a long-time incumbent, Kleinman says, “Even before Obamacare — there was no bipartisanship. It’s totally dysfunctional.” As a “start-up guy” himself, he says the high-tech industry is “an engine for jobs and development.” He adds, “Because I’m part of the start-up community, I understand what their needs are.”
No one thinks Kleinman will have an easy time of it. But there is precedent for competitive races in the area, provided the GOP candidate is not a right-wing extremist. In 2010 the GOP state attorney general candidate closed the gap to 2 points in the district, and in a special state Assembly election in a nearby congressional district, Republican Susan Shelly (lauded by local and Jewish press as a moderate) lost by only 329 votes in 2012.
If he even comes close in 2014, Kleinman can demonstrate that a new kind of Republican candidate with a more diverse background and agenda compatible with his constituents can be competitive anywhere. And since few expect him to win, he has running room to try out a message, use his new media expertise and blanket Spanish language media to reach voters who the GOP has never effectively courted. He and lots of other GOP candidates will need to do the same if they are to convince Californians that the party is not their fathers’ GOP.