Pete Aguilar was supposed to be a Member of Congress by now, but a serious miscalculation delayed his arrival in Washington.
Aguilar is the 33 year-old mayor of Redlands, a city of almost 70,000 people in southern California’s Inland Empire, located east of Los Angeles. Viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party, Aguilar jumped into the race for the redrawn 31st Congressional District in January of 2012, but it didn’t turn out like anyone expected.
“If I had finished second, I would have been surprised. I finished third,” Aguilar recalled about his expectations heading into the primary last June. “It was disappointing.”
Aguilar went from general election frontrunner to primary loser. Under California’s new open primary system, all candidates ran together and the top two finishers, regardless of party, moved on to the general election.
Because the district is a majority minority — 44 percent of the voting age population is Hispanic, almost 12 percent black and nearly 8 percent Asian — and leans Democratic, as evidenced by Barack Obama’s 57 percent victory in 2008, the race looked primed for a Latino Democrat.
But Democrats appeared to take the primary for granted and weren’t as active as they could have been. Two Republicans, Rep. Gary Miller and state Sen. Bob Dutton, finished first and second, leaving Democrats without a candidate on the November ballot.
“It was just a math problem,” Aguilar said in an interview on Tuesday. “There were too many Democrats in the race.” Aguilar raised nearly half a million dollars, but received 22.6 percent, about 1,300 votes short of the second position with three other Democrats in the race.
Aguilar has not officially announced his intentions for 2014 but is widely expected to run again. On Wednesday, New York Rep. Steve Israel, who is in charge of helping Democrats regain the majority in the House, mentioned Aguilar as one of the party’s top recruits of the cycle.
“A lot can be fixed by changing the math,” Aguilar explained. In order to discourage other candidates, including Democrats, from running, the mayor understands the need to get into the race earlier, raise money and generate support. The path is already somewhat clearer for Aguilar, since Justin Kim, who finished fourth in the 2012 primary with 13.5 percent, won’t be running for Congress next year.
“We’re getting more and more comfortable with the idea of doing it,” said Aguilar, who will likely make an official decision in the spring or early summer.
When he announces, Aguilar will be Democrats’ best opportunity to takeover a Republican seat anywhere in the country. The 31st District is President Obama’s best performing district currently elected by a Republican and even some GOP strategists admit that Rep. Miller’s chances of winning another term would be slim since the circumstances of 2012 are unlikely to repeat themselves.
Aguilar and Democrats just can’t take victory for granted once again.