Former Democratic Rep. Joe Baca fired back at congressional rival Pete Aguilar Wednesday, saying in an interview that he only got into the race for California's 31st Congressional District because local community leaders came to him in search of a viable candidate. Baca also distanced himself from past remarks supporting incumbent GOP Rep. Gary Miller.
"I was overwhelmingly asked by members of the community to run because they felt Pete Aguilar was not a viable candidate and because I had the experience," Baca said. "Community leaders and labor groups asked me to run because they felt Pete could not win. He had the opportunity, he was the only elected official to run [as a Democrat] in the last election, and it ended with two Republicans in the race."
Aguilar, the mayor of Redlands, Calif., ran for the seat in 2012, but he split the liberal vote in the district's all-party, top-two primary with several other Democrats. That allowed Miller and the other Republican running to advance to the general election in a seat where President Obama won 57 percent of the vote. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recruited Aguilar to seek the seat again, but Baca -- who lost his own intra-party race in the 35th District in 2012 -- decided to forgo a rematch with now-Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod and run against Miller this time around.
Democrats need to gain 17 seats to retake the House majority, and the 31st District is at the top of the party's target list for the 2014 midterm elections. But a crowded field -- four Democrats have now said they will run -- could once again jeopardize their chances. So too, some say, would Baca's general election support of Miller in 2012. Aguilar argues that Baca wouldn't be able to draw a strong contrast with the Republican.
Earlier this week, Aguilar ripped Baca for supporting Miller in his Republican-versus-Republican race last fall, highlighting a mail piece Miller's campaign distributed that included Baca's picture and glowing quotes from the Democrat, including an appeal to vote for the GOP incumbent.
Baca says his past support for Miller and the mail piece are immaterial. "When it came down to the two (Republicans), he was the better candidate of the two," Baca said, noting that he also had natural areas of disagreement with Miller -- like their votes on equal pay legislation -- that would come out in the campaign. Baca took issue with Aguilar's criticism, saying it was technically wrong to describe his support for Miller as an "endorsement."
However, Baca also backed away from the mailer. The former congressman said he did not give the pro-Miller quotes that appear on the piece. "That's not my quote, that's his quote," Baca said. "That's Gary."
Miller's 2012 campaign manager, Chris Marsh, wrote in an email that "the quote in the mailer was absolutely approved by Congressman Baca back in October when the piece ran" and noted that Baca hadn't raised any issues with the mailer until now.
Meanwhile, Baca and his supporters may fear that Aguilar would not be a viable candidate, but that feeling isn't unanimous by any means. The DCCC remains supportive of Aguilar, who was the first candidate to get in the race at the beginning of the month and was spoken of as a heralded recruit before then. DCCC chairman Steve Israel was a guest at an Aguilar fundraiser in Los Angeles at the beginning of April.
Baca said that he tried to call Israel while in Washington raising money and meeting with supporters earlier this week, but he didn't get through to the campaign committee chairman. Baca said he did gather endorsements from 27 members of Congress, though. "He's the sole individual that's the chair," Baca said of Israel, "but that doesn't mean every member supports Pete Aguilar. If that was the case I wouldn't run."