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Assemblymember Tom Lackey (Photo: Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

2020 General Election Preview: 36th Assembly District

California Globe takes an inside look into the 36th Assembly District race

By Evan Symon, October 30, 2020 7:36 am

Located in a catty-corner of the Counties of Los Angeles, Kern, and San Bernardino, the 36th Assembly District is the end of Los Angeles and the beginning of farms and ag lands.

Once mostly Republican, 20 years of migration north from Los Angeles has brought a major Democratic presence in this district, especially in cities like Lancaster.  While there are still spots of red here, most notably around Edwards Air Force Base, it has become steadily blue. Ten years ago the area was evenly Democratic and Republican. Now registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in the district by 7%.

The 36th district is suburban and rural, meaning that there are a lot of issues on the table here. While some, like environmental issues and renewable energy, may find bipartisan agreement due to the area, other issues are going to be a bit more split by party. And that’s where the dividing lines will be.

Republicans and Democrats have been playing tug of war with this district since  the lines were redrawn in 2012. In 2012, Democrat Steve Fox won the seat, with now Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) coming third in the Primary. However, Fox only won by about 100 votes, marking the district as the Democrats’ most vulnerable. Republicans, angered by losing such a close race, went all out in 2014, with Lackey striking back against Fox and winning by over 60%.

After another win by Lackey over Fox in 2016 they faced each other yet again in 2018, with Lackey barely holding on by 5,000 votes. We’ll give you a wild guess at who the Democrats have running this year.

Lackey’s number of wins is surprising, as Democrats have been growing in numbers, and that major races here have gone Democrat in recent years. Newsom won here by a few percentage points in 2018 and Clinton topped Trump here by 6 points in 2016. But Lackey still prevails.

This year, Fox hopes to get the spot back and win one of the few remaining red districts in LA County.

Tom Lackey – Incumbent Assemblyman Tom Lackey is hoping to beat Fox yet again in the 36th. A graduate of Utah State University, Lackey was initially a special education teacher before becoming a member of the California Highway Patrol for 28 years. After his time in the CHP, Lackey moved on to politics, scoring his first major win as a trustee on the Palmdale Elementary School Board in the early 2000’s. He followed this up by being elected to the Palmdale City Council in 2005. After his initial Assembly defeat to Fox in 2012, Lackey was elected in 2014 after an extremely expensive race, and has held the seat since.

Since being elected, Lackey has had a focus on drug and law enforcement related bills, helping lead the way on drugged driving legislation. Overall, Lackey has shown himself to be the benchmark for moderate Republicans in the Assembly. He has a soft spot for education, with California’s teacher unions giving an average 50% rating, which is pretty high for a member of the GOP. Law enforcement and business groups love him too. Labor unions also give him decent scores. Democrats have had a hard time against him precisely because he isn’t hardline. And because he has co-authored half of his bills with Democrats.

This year Lackey is straddling the center even more, going after many transplant middle-class voters by going after middle-class affordability in the state. He’s also pushing the economy by enticing businesses to come to the district to help the area recover from the COVID-19 economic drop from earlier this year. However, his background as a police officer, and his still ardent support for law enforcement, may hurt him in the wake of the  George Floyd protests and riots from the summer. The issue was bread and butter for him in the past, and he even refused to vote for bills limiting police use of force, which may turn some of those transplants back towards voting for Fox.

Lackey has several unions on his side, including firefighters, and has attracted many business and taxpayer organizations, like the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. A lot of state and local lawmakers are also endorsing him.

All in all, Lackey is banking on his moderate views and experience to pull through in 2020.

Former Assemblyman Steve Fox. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Steve Fox – Running yet again for the Democrats is former Assemblyman Steve Fox. A former teacher and lawyer, Fox won the seat in 2012 after switching his party affiliation from Republican and serving a stint as a board member at the Antelope Valley Hospital. However, in 2014 he faced a huge scandal less than 2 months before the election. Two former employees brought forth sexual harassment charges against Fox. This sunk him that year, losing by a huge margin to Lackey in what should have been a close race. And it keeps haunting him.

The Assembly had to pay out his victims in settlements until 2017, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Somehow, despite the #metoo era, Fox survived and kept running. But with those harassments lingering over him, he kept losing. Fox never admitted to any wrong doing and said that the allegations were smears. But the Democrats have had enough of him by this point. They’re not even endorsing him this year.

Fox, who has been using his last name for all the puns it’s worth (i.e. mentioning ‘that’s what the fox says’ on his website) is running on traditional Democratic views and few regional issues here and there. He’s going strong on education, and wants to bring a University to his district (Sen. Scott Wilk is already working on this). Fox is also pushing for sheltering the homeless, propping up small businesses, and is going strong against violent crime, with one of his first acts if elected promising authoring a bill saying that victims would never have to pay any money to the perpetrator who performed the crime against them.

As for endorsements, Fox only has a handful of local leaders pulling for him. State level lawmakers and above don’t really want to touch him and the party, as mentioned earlier, doesn’t want to back him.

The Democrats really wanted Jonathon Ervin over Fox in the Primary, but Fox won due to a quick influx of money, and his old guard pillar of support standing firm.

What does this mean?

If Ervin had gotten the nod, the Dems would have likely won here, as an ex-military person of color is sort of the perfect candidate in the 36th. But instead, Fox won the primary, getting 17% of the vote.

Lackey’s 53% of the vote gave him an early favorite status, and he hasn’t really let go. Despite COVID-19, the economic downturn, gigantic calls for police accountability and social justice, and a Trump backlash going against Lackey and the GOP, he’s still out ahead here due to being a moderate and not having multiple sexual harassment suits against him.

A lot of Democrats can’t bring themselves to vote for Fox because of his past. And while the Democrats would grudgingly accept Fox’s victory, many wouldn’t like it.

Lackey will likely get another narrow victory here, especially if unregistered conservatives come out in numbers. Perhaps if the Democrats supported him, Fox might have edged out in terms of votes, but his past is just too much and is still very much remembered in the district. If the GOP wins, they are really going to need to evaluate 2022 here, while the Democrats will put out a huge search for anyone but Fox. If Fox wins, then both parties will only tell themselves that it’s two years until redistricting.

Evan Symon
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