The Swing District In The Middle Of Wildfire Country

Progressive Audrey Denney hopes to oust conservative Rep. Doug LaMalfa as the climate crisis devastates their Northern California district.
A melted Trump campaign sign sits in front of a home in Butte County that was destroyed by the North Complex fire, which has burned over 260,000 acres and killed at least 14 people.
A melted Trump campaign sign sits in front of a home in Butte County that was destroyed by the North Complex fire, which has burned over 260,000 acres and killed at least 14 people.
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

SACRAMENTO, Calif. ― In November 2018, Audrey Denney lost to incumbent Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa by just under 10% of the vote. The Democrat didn’t have much time to wallow. Two days later, the Camp fire started in the northern California district she had hoped to represent, wiping out the Butte County towns of Paradise and Magalia. It was the deadliest wildfire in the state to date, and in its wake came a scourge of houselessness, financial insecurity and displacement.

This year, Denney is making another bid for the seat. And yet again, California’s 1st Congressional District is facing catastrophic fires. Its residents are still struggling to access health care and addiction treatment, two of Denney’s top priorities. And the coronavirus pandemic has killed nearly 200,000 people across the country and put millions out of work.

Denney, a 37-year-old agricultural educator, is hoping that her plans to deal with these issues will flip the seat, which has been held by LaMalfa since 2013. Like other Democratic women across the country, Denney decided to run after the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, and she knew it might take her more than one campaign cycle to beat LaMalfa.

She has thus far outraised him by nearly half a million dollars and has received a number of high-profile progressive endorsements. On Wednesday, Denney was endorsed by EMILY’s List, and she’s also got the nod from Planned Parenthood, Moms Demand Action, the California Democratic Party, SEIU California, and California senator and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris. A June poll released by her campaign showed Denney trailing by just 5 percentage points on the initial ballot question ― and in a dead heat with LaMalfa, at 47% each, when people were given more information about the candidates.

Denney sees the fires as evidence the district needs a change. To her, there are two traumas facing the community: the trauma of the actual damage being done now, but also the trauma of reliving the Camp fire. She argues LaMalfa has failed to take either issue seriously.

Last week, as the North Complex fire merged several outbreaks into the massive, smoky blaze that it is now, the Republican congressman posted a wildfire-related meme on his personal Facebook page asking if California could “please blow your #%&% candles out.” Soon after, he deleted it without apology. But not before Denney screen-grabbed it and posted it to her campaign’s Instagram account.

“I don’t know how the Congressman justifies making harmful and distasteful jokes like these while his constituents lose their homes, lives, businesses, and sense of security as wildfires rage in our region,” Denney wrote. “All I can really say is, I am so sorry that this is the kind of commentary we have come to expect from Rep. LaMalfa. You deserve so much better.”

Reducing Harm In The North Country

The 1st District encompasses much of Northern California’s most rural areas, stretching from just north of Sacramento up to the Oregon border and all the way east to the Nevada state line. The geography of the region has made it vulnerable to more than just dry heat and wildfires. There are only 11 hospitals in the district, and two of them don’t have maternity wards. One in five residents suffer from a physical disability (a rate two times higher than the rest of California).

Butte County, one of the most populated counties in the district, currently has the highest ACE score in the state. ACEs ― short for adverse childhood experiences ― are traumatic life events that occur in a person’s life up to the age of 17, include witnessing or experiencing violence, experiencing neglect, having an incarcerated parent, and living in a home with substance misuse. Children with high ACE scores are more likely to suffer from long-term health afflictions like depression, substance misuse and heart disease.

Addiction is a major problem in the region, and in Butte County alone, the rate of drug-induced deaths is roughly 2.5 times higher than for the state overall. Denney sees substance misuse as an increasingly real threat to the health of her would-be constituents. It’s also something that’s devastated her own tight-knit family.

“We’ve dealt with alcohol addiction issues for several generations on both sides of my family, and there is such a stigma around addiction,” Denney told HuffPost in the spring. “A lot of who I am and the way I operate in the world comes from ... growing up in a household with an addictive family system. It makes it very personal for me.”

She won’t bring up those stories, but if you ask, she’ll discuss them: her Vietnam veteran father’s post-traumatic stress disorder, his legal issues, the loss of their Central California family farm in the 2008 recession, her parents’ divorce and ― perhaps most painfully ― a long family tradition of substance misuse.

Indeed, it’s her connection to an issue that so plagues the district that has won her support among the electorate ― and her understanding that this issue is inextricably intertwined with climate change, displacement and homelessness, poverty, mental health, race, and health care access.

The Camp fire exacerbated these preexisting problems. The Feather River Hospital in Paradise was damaged to the point of closing down, and most of the district is designated as a medically underserved area by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration.

“We’re the size of the state of South Carolina, and yet folks have to drive hours and hours for basic care,” Denney said. “There’s two counties where women can’t even deliver babies ... and along with that, the care that they can and do get is too expensive.”

Because of the inconvenience and financial burden of obtaining medical care, she said her would-be constituents also generally avoid preventative care altogether, leading to declines in both physical and mental health.

Denney’s solution is a popular one among progressive lawmakers, and if she wins the election this November, she’ll join a growing group of congressional representatives pushing for “Medicare for All.” “Working toward a Medicare for All system where every single person has coverage is the best way to shore up rural hospitals,” she said.

Denney has also vocally supported harm reduction efforts that have been proven to prevent infectious disease and increase the safe disposal of needles. In some parts of the 1st District, like Shasta and Sierra counties, syringe exchanges have been successful. But elsewhere, in the college town of Chico, the Northern Valley Harm Reduction Coalition was recently forced to shutter its syringe exchange program after drawing controversy in the community.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who has represented California's 1st District since 2013, made a joke about the wildfires that are destroying his constituents' homes last week.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who has represented California's 1st District since 2013, made a joke about the wildfires that are destroying his constituents' homes last week.
Bill Clark via Getty Images

“I feel this on so many issues right now,” Denney said. “We’re politicizing so many things that should be data-driven.”

And for Denney, that data-based approach to harm reduction should apply to the environment, too. She supports a Green New Deal and includes wildfire prevention and forest health in her platform. Denney’s environmental stances have earned her endorsements from the Sunrise Movement, the Sierra Club, the California League of Conservation Voters and a smattering of local Northern California unions.

But not everyone on the left is thrilled with Denney’s campaign. Last year, the vice chair of a local Democratic Socialists of America branch wrote that the Sunrise Movement should revoke its endorsement of her campaign after she endorsed two candidates for the California state legislature who don’t support a Green New Deal. Denney is “a candidate who simply lacks a moral center when it comes to the ongoing climate crisis,” wrote Anthony Haddad. “Are we to take her seriously?”

Will Rural California Ever Swing Blue?

In his four terms in Congress, LaMalfa has voted consistently, traditionally Republican. He supports fully repealing the Affordable Care Act, has voted to chip away at abortion access since gaining public office, and has voted in support of banning Dreamers from serving in the military. More recently, he chided California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) for his coronavirus-related shutdowns, and he has shown support for President Donald Trump by denying claims that the president is racist and calling this year’s impeachment proceedings “revenge” after Democrats “never recovered from their loss in 2016.”

Is the region ― where voters swung for Trump by a 20-point margin four years ago, where “Recall Newsom” signs and signature collection booths are commonplace, and where support for a small-government separatist movement continues to grow despite its white supremacist undercurrents ― ready for a young Democratic woman to lead them into the next decade?

It may well depend on wildfire season.

With less than 50 days to go until Election Day, the number of people killed by the North Complex fire continues to rise. The quality of the air seems indefinitely stuck somewhere between “Hazardous” and “Unhealthy.” LaMalfa’s stance on ― or rather, his denial of ― the climate crisis may be his undoing.

If they held a debate or town hall gathering, Denney would likely call out LaMalfa’s lack of attention to the climate crisis. But he hasn’t shown up for one. Last week, the two were finally set to face off at the Nevada County Association of Realtors Forum on Sept. 9. LaMalfa canceled the day before.

In the meantime, Denney is continuing to campaign and urge her would-be constituents to take care of themselves.

“Today is not a day to hide your fears and anxieties that may be reactivated due to the smoke and ash in the sky,” Denney wrote on her campaign social media last week. “Today is a day to reach out for support and share that experience, whether to a loved one or to a support hotline.”

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