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Assemblyman Phillip Chen. (Photo: Wikipedia)

2020 March Primary Preview: 55th State Assembly District

California Globe takes an inside look into the 55th State Assembly District primary race

By Evan Symon, February 13, 2020 8:51 pm

The 55th State Assembly District:

Welcome to yet another battleground district in Orange County. Comprised of small chunks of Orange, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino counties, the district also includes Richard Nixon hometown Yorba Linda, Diamond Bar, and pretty much a pastiche of wealthier LA suburbs. White, Latino, and Asian residents also make up almost exactly one-third of the demographics of the district each, making it a surprisingly diverse district.

The 55th is still pretty Republican despite drops in GOP registered voters in recent years. Cox managed to get more votes than Governor Newsom here, breaking a trend of major races going to Democrats that had been going on for years. With Republican voters outnumbering Democrat voters by only a few thousand, both parties can’t just rely on trends to win here.

History of the 55th:

No Democrat has ever won the district. Going back to 2012, Republicans won 60% to 40% here with former Assemblyman Curt Hagman. Two years later current Senator Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar) 64% to 36%, but didn’t run again to focus on the state Senate race. That’s when Assemblyman Phillip Chen (R-Yorba Linda) stepped in. However, his totals have gone down with each election, both of which he ran against Democrat Gregg Fritchle. In 2016 it was 58% of the vote. In 2018 the blue wave kept shoring up giving Chen only 55% of the vote.

And this year is probably going to be tighter. More people are stepping out of LA into neighboring suburbs, and some surrounding districts are already blue. For Democrats this is a prime opportunity for more expansion into the OC. For Republicans, they want to hang on to their decades long hold on the county.

Phillip Chen:

Classic California Republican Assemblyman Phillip Chen is gunning for his third term in the 55th. A former Walnut Valley Unified School District Board Member, Chen first won election in the district in 2016, two years after losing in the Primary to eventual winner Ling Ling Chang.

Chen’s center-right views have proven popular in district, only voting fully with the party on tax issues, such as against the gas tax bill SB 1, on law enforcement bills, or on business matters, especially in regards to small businesses. His votes on homelessness bills often drew him away from mainline GOP voting trends and the same goes for schools. In 2020, all of these issues, plus a few others like health care, have been his platform

As an incumbent Republican in Orange County who rose from city government, Chen has a lot of support. It’s hard to find one city in the district that doesn’t have a handful of local mayors or lawmakers endorsing him, and his police and firefighter support numbers includes virtually every major group or figure on a state, county, and local level.

It will be a close race, but with support like this and the legislation to back it up, Assemblyman Chen is going to be a tough one to beat.

Andrew Rodriguez:

Walnut Mayor Andrew Rodriguez. (Andrew Rodriguez)

Walnut City Councilman and Mayor Andrew Rodriguez is the Democrats candidate in the 55th. Despite being in his 20’s, his holding of a fairly prestigious local office has made him one of the rising Democratic stars of SoCal. His keeping a balanced budget in Walnut may impress some borderline Republicans and his time as a campaign worker for Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) in his Senate bid gives him the much needed experience to match Chen’s several campaigns-worth of experience.

Rodriguez is pushing for increased public safety and educational issues. While Chen has public safety pretty much locked down in terms of support, Rodriguez’s education campaign seems to be working. Rodriguez is also addressing contemporary California issues like homelessness, the housing crisis, and low wages. If Chen is a classic California Republican, Rodriguez is running as a typical California Democrat.

Congressmen Gil Cisernos (D-CA) and Mike Levin (D-CA) are the two biggest names endorsing Rodriguez. Most trade unions, including the California Teachers Association and the California Labor Federation have backed him, as well as the party itself. And that’s not mention the few dozen state and local lawmakers backing him. Locally, anyone not endorsing Chen is endorsing Rodriguez.

With this much support, he’s a real contender to take on Chen.

What does this mean?

This is one of the most even districts out there, and it’s going to come down to those independent and undecided voters. Republicans always have a good history at that, especially in Orange County. Being an incumbent who hasn’t had many bad words against him also counts for something here.

Democrats really want to take Orange County, and in 2020, they might partially do that for Assembly and state Senate seats. Unlike many other districts, redistricting and ‘taking back a district’ aren’t priorities. It’s a simple want of  Democrats to take a historically Republican area and Republicans wanting to strengthen and possibly expand in Orange County.

Other contentious Orange County districts, like the 73rd, aside, this is going to be close. Primary votes have been historically good indicators, with very few California elections seeing a change of elected candidate between the primary and the general outside of split party races. The district is still just Republican enough that Chen should have the edge, but you can be sure that Democrats are going to keep a close eye on Rodriguez.

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