Former democratic state Sen. Denise Ducheny announced her run for Congress last month launching what many have speculated will be a major in-party rumble with her senatorial successor, Juan Vargas.
With Rep. Bob Filner now running for mayor of San Diego, the 51st congressional seat will be available for the first time since its creation in the early 1990s.
“This summer people drew new maps and the new maps drew every place I ever lived and worked in San Diego,” Ducheny said.
New district lines drawn by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission added Imperial Beach, currently part of the 53rd Congressional District, to the 51st district.
The southern coastal city is where Ducheny and her husband primarily reside, but when she first moved to San Diego after law school, the communities of Sherman Oaks and Logan Heights were her home.
Ducheny said she anticipates a tough fight against Vargas, based on his campaign against former state Assemblywoman Mary Salas for the 40th senate district seat last year.
California’s new primary system allows the two candidates with the most votes, regardless of political party, to move on to the November 2012 general election. The election could be a democratic dogfight to the bitter end.
“He announced for this before anybody knew where the lines were,” she said. “His home is still in Golden Hill the last time I looked, which is not in this district.”
Ducheny said Vargas, who unsuccessfully ran against Filner in the democratic primary three times, is jumping from one political seat to another and her former constituents are paying the price.
“Constituents that I care about, who I represented for eight years, are basically unrepresented while he’s running for congress,” Ducheny said. “Constituents in Coachella Valley have called me and they’re very concerned because they never see him, they’ve never seen him, they’re never going to see him because he’s running for congress and they would not be in his congressional district.”
If Ducheny wins, she will represent San Diego State’s Imperial Valley campuses in Calexico and Brawley.
The state of higher education funding has been at the top of her priority list since serving as a trustee on the San Diego Community College Board in the early 1990s.
In both houses of the California legislature, Ducheny was the first woman and Latina to chair the Budget and Fiscal Review Committee.
In the past 20 years, the state has severely diminished its financial commitment to the California State University and University of California systems in the face of state budget shortfalls. Students have faced double-digit tuition fee increases while student support services have decreased.
“I had to preside over a budget committee that actually put universities in those straits the last few years, which was just very painful for me,” Ducheny said. “There are a lot of things you can cut before you raise student fees. It’s always a tough balance between what the fee should be and what the access is that you deny if you don’t.”
But the state was $30 billion short and “it was one stroke of the pen when (former Gov.) Schwarzenegger walked in that knocked out $6 billion a year,” she said.
While in the state assembly, Ducheny authored the College Affordability Act which rolled back student fees at CSU, UC and community colleges for the first time in 13 years. She said it’s one of the pieces of legislation she is most proud of.
“Those days seem like a dim history passed,” Ducheny said.
Border and immigration issues
As a result of Ducheny’s involvement with the Border Legislative Conference, a group of lawmakers on both sides of the U.S. and Mexico border, she has built relationships with Mexican officials who she believes will help her represent the 51st district.
The district spans the entire 140-mile length of the California and Mexico border, and is a vital center of economic activity.
However, the economic dichotomy that exists between the two countries can also be a challenge.
Particularly near the California border area, there are stark economic disparities in wages. The minimum hourly wage in San Diego is roughly equivalent to the minimum daily wage in Baja California.
According to SDSU’s Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias, the U.S. border region is the poorest region of the country. At the same time, the northern border region of Mexico is among that nation’s most prosperous.
Ducheny said the U.S. economy would benefit from creating more crossings along the border. There are currently 42 crossings. Approximately 4.8 million freight trucks crossed the border in 2008 participating in $366 billion in trade between the two countries.
“Border issues are about moving cars faster,” Ducheny said. “And not waiting in line for two hours so that San Diego doesn’t get $6 billion in economic activity because nobody wants to sit in a two-hour line.”
Ducheny is currently working with Dr. Paul Ganster on the Three Californias Project, funded by the San Diego State University Research Foundation.
She said the border needs to be viewed as one economic region with health and environmental issues so intertwined they’re impossible to separate.
“If you don’t have healthy people on one side, you don’t have healthy people on the other side,” Ducheny said. “Diseases and tuberculosis — those things don’t care where the border is.”
She pointed to shared environmental issues involving water, such as the polluted New River in Calexico, and potential threats to the region’s air quality such as improperly disposed of used tire piles.
Although Ducheny says the national discussion about immigration has gotten offtrack in recent years, she plans to speak about the importance of the border region just as she did in Sacramento, if she is elected to congress.
“I see immigration as an economic plus. I know that’s not a common political view these days,” Ducheny said. “I think it’s wrong to retrench and act like you have to keep folks out. In truth, immigration has always helped this country move forward. It’s always been a plus in the growth area.”
Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Dream Act into law, granting conditional permanent residency to some undocumented students so they can access Cal Grants to help pay for their college education.
Now, Ducheny said she would like to see the federal version of the act become reality.
“I know what it means to have a position and some limited degree of megaphone to talk about issues,” she said. “Serving in Congress is the opportunity to try to become that voice for this region.”
But first she’ll have to convince voters that she is a better choice than Vargas.
“I would be very happy to see (Vargas) actually be our senator for the next eight years because we need somebody,” she said.