In 2018, Gil Cisneros launched his first-ever political campaign, targeting the tri-county 39th Congressional district and stumping on hot-button topics: healthcare, jobs, diverse representation.
Legislative veteran Young Kim, his opponent, remembers that the newcomer didn’t have a voting record to attack. So the former state assemblywoman ran a campaign focusing on her decades working as a top aide to Congressman Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), who had announced his retirement, opening up the seat at a time when the economy was flourishing.
On election night, Kim thought she had won. But days later, after a count of mail-in ballots, Cisneros claimed victory by 3.2 percentage points, just over 7,600 votes. Now both of the candidates are headed for a rematch in one of the hottest races in California.
And what a difference two years can make.
Cisneros, as incumbent, has an advantage. The former Navy supply officer, who won a $266 million-dollar jackpot that allowed him to take up philanthropy and politics, points to his advocacy for bills benefiting veterans and bipartisan recognition for helping business owners survive the pandemic by supporting paycheck protection programs.
Since mid-March, he and his staff have made accessibility a priority, he said, hosting 23 coronavirus-themed town halls “to make sure we’re out there daily, helping to solve citizens’ problems.”
Kim criticized his achievements, attacking him for constantly voting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“He went to Washington telling people he wanted to be a moderate conservative,” she said, “but he quickly became a part of the insiders. He’s not to be trusted.”
Kim said she’s known as a “longtime leader in the community, working across the aisle, no matter what position I’m in,” with the skills to shepherd the region through COVID-sparked hardships.
The 39th district spans southern Los Angeles County, including cities like Diamond Bar and Hacienda Heights, to San Bernardino County’s Chino Hills, to northern Orange County cities from Anaheim Hills to Buena Park. Voter registration is 28.7% independent, 32.9% Republican and 37% Democrat.
In this year’s March primary, Kim surpassed Cisneros by more than 2,000 votes, gaining 48.4% to his 46.8%. But she said she’s taking “nothing for granted — we are trying our best to show how we can offer real leadership, commonsense leadership.”
Although historically, Republicans have outnumbered Democrats, the district went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Democrats flipped the congressional seat in 2018.
Matthew Jarvis, an associate professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton who lives in the district, said that his Republican neighbors have Kim signs and his Democratic neighbors have Cisneros signs.
“But there hasn’t been a lot of polling” about the rematch “because honestly, I think everybody’s focused on the presidential election,” he continued. “It’s hard to break through when there’s the cacophony of lights and sounds of the bigger race.”
Jarvis said that winning a congressional race in California in 2020 “likely takes a ‘D’ after your name.”
“California has very, very low approval numbers for Donald Trump, and the bread and butter of every Democratic campaign — if they have a Republican opponent — is to tie that candidate to Trump.”
Cisneros has attempted to do that by noting that Kim backs Trump for a second term. Yet Kim has publicly criticized the president’s repeated use of the term “kung flu,” saying such words incite hate against Asian Americans.
Cisneros, 49, is married and the father of six-year-old twin boys. He lives in Yorba Linda and is the first in his family to graduate from college. After winning the lottery, he launched endowments to award scholarships to Latino students at George Washington University, his alma mater, and at USC. Making college affordable is central to his campaign, along with such issues as universal healthcare, support for abortion rights, LGBTQ rights and fighting gun violence.
One supporter, Cindy Calisher, 63, a Fullerton resident who worries about the future of healthcare as a breast cancer survivor, said she appreciates Cisneros’ transparency, sincerity and hard work on behalf of constituents. He impressed her by helping to speed up delivery of personal protective equipment during the pandemic.
Calisher volunteered for the Cisneros team in 2018 and continues to promote the congressman.
“When you win the lottery, he could just have bought a private island, took care of his family and had his fun and not decided to be a public servant,” she said. “But this is what he chose, and it’s not to turn things back to the dark ages where women couldn’t have the care they needed and make the choices they choose.”
Kim, 58, and her husband live in La Habra and are parents to four grown children. An immigrant from South Korea, she started a small business in the women’s apparel industry and cemented her visibility while working for Royce, leading his community outreach projects and juggling stints as a host on Korean-language radio.
In 2014, she made history as the first Korean American Republican woman to serve in the California Assembly, representing the 65th district and lobbying to protect victims of domestic violence. If elected, she would be the first Korean American woman in Congress.
Kim promises to find solutions to homelessness among veterans and youth and plans to focus on immigration reform, healthcare, and simplifying business regulations.
She said that her online fundraising campaign has more than 50,000 small donors. Her staff is supervising over 300 high school and college interns who stay in touch with potential voters via text messages and postcards.
Janice Lim, a campaign volunteer, described Kim as a candidate “who really cares.” Six years ago, she and fellow parents in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District were upset about the Common Core curriculum introduced in their schools, not being familiar with how math instruction was changing or how sex education included elements of transgender identities which she thought “was too permissive.”
“I worried about not having a chance to talk to my kids about these issues before the schools did,” Lim recalled.
She contacted then-Assemblywoman Kim, who advised her to share her concerns with school board members and try to find common ground.
“She genuinely listens and offers a plan of action,” Lim, 51, said.
Jarvis said that the Cisneros-Kim rematch, “by all indications, will be a closer contest” compared to some other Congressional races involving parts of Orange County. Cisneros is “largely running a positive name recognition campaign — it’s like an infomercial with the amber fields of grain and all-Americana graphics,” Jarvis continued.
“Will two years under his belt be enough to win? We’ll find out soon.”