Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

School teacher battles GOP county leader in high stakes Inland Empire congressional race

The candidates for the 41st Congressional District: John Tavaglione (above) and Mark Takano.
The candidates for the 41st Congressional District: John Tavaglione (above) and Mark Takano.
Courtesy Tavaglione for Congress 2012 & Steven Cuevas

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Two Riverside natives are competing to become the first representative of the newly drawn 41st Congressional District.  It covers a big part of the Inland Empire including Riverside and Moreno Valley. 

The Republican, John Tavaglione, is a veteran county leader who moonlights in a garage band. The Democrat, Mark Takano, is an openly gay, Asian American high school teacher.

Inside a classroom during a recent campaign visit to Riverside Community College, Takano tells a couple dozen students and would-be campaign volunteers what he’ll do if elected to Congress.  It’s a comfortable setting for the 52-year-old Democrat: Takano is a Riverside Community College trustee.

“I talk about the choice in this election being about common sense Riverside values and those values being things like aid to community colleges,” Takano says. “We have people here who will benefit from the Affordable Health Care Act.”

Takano is Japanese American, raised in Riverside, educated at Harvard and – unusual for a candidate in any Inland political race – openly gay.

 “Voters really don’t care, they don’t ask," he says. "It’s an example of how times have shifted.” 

But people did care when Takano ran for Congress against Republican incumbent Ken Calvert 20 years ago. Calvert circulated pink-colored brochures that asked if Takano would be “a congressman for Riverside – or San Francisco?” Calvert won, even though he’d recently been busted in Corona with a prostitute – a scandal the Takano campaign exploited with lurid campaign mailers of its own.

This campaign between Takano and Tavaglione has been tough, but clean.

 “And John, my opponent, is in a district where he’s gotta reach over and try to get Democrats to vote for him," Takano says. "I don’t think you [could] do that by running a homophobic campaign.”

Democrats outnumber Republicans by two percentage points in the district. But Tavaglione outpaced Takano in the June primary by 10 points.

At a debate at UC Riverside earlier this month, Tavaglione – a longtime Riverside County supervisor – portrayed himself as a bold, independent leader willing to buck his party. For example: He refuses to sign a pledge to never raise taxes.

“I’ve compromised in my marriage and in government,” he explains. “Five terms on the board of supervisors, I compromise every day with my colleagues and that’s what we need back in Washington, DC.” 

Tavaglione learned to harmonize in the mid-1960s, singing and plucking bass in a proto-punk teenage garage band called The Mustangs. The band still plays the occasional fundraiser and charity event, although not with nearly the snarl it did 40 years ago. But Tavaglione has plenty of snarl left over when he talks about the bipartisan bickering in Congress.

 “I sat around watching the debt ceiling debate and I was disgusted by my own party and the Democrats not being able to come together for the benefit of our country,” Tavaglione told the UCR debate audience. “And I looked at my grandchildren and thought: 'My God! What is in their future if we continue down this path of partisan gridlock in Washington, DC?'”

But Tavaglione did unleash a blizzard of partisan campaign mailers attacking his opponent’s record on the community college board, and suggesting that Takano turned a blind eye to allegations of sexual harassment against a professor.

Tavaglione is also running an anti-Takano TV ad bankrolled by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that exclaims: “Mark Takano and his allies in Washington want to raise taxes on small business in these uncertain times. New taxes would deliver a crushing blow to our fragile economy.”

Takano has tried to paint Tavaglione as a rigid conservative who would gut Medicare and public school spending while doling out tax breaks for millionaires. He’s produced blistering campaign ads, and he’s called in support from some those big allies in Washington – including Congressman Barney Frank and Bill Clinton.

The former president swept through Southern California last week to endorse Takano and four other Southland congressional candidates.

“Politicians make more speeches about public schools than any subject and a lot of them don’t know what they’re talking about,” Clinton said. “It would be nice to have someone there who has been in the classroom and performed and educated our young people.”

Takano and Tavaglione are about evenly matched in campaign fundraising, each taking in just over $1 million dollars. And they’re likely to be just as evenly matched in votes come Election Day.