August 8, 2022

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Much like incumbent House Rep. Lou Correa, Mike Ortega is a Latino Democrat from Anaheim...

Much like incumbent House Rep. Lou Correa, Mike Ortega is a Latino Democrat from Anaheim who’s running next year for the 46th District seat. But there’s little risk of confusing the two Congressional candidates.
Last year, Ortega, 35, supported Bernie Sanders for president. Correa, 63, endorsed Joe Biden.
Ortega embraces the Socialist label, having joined the movement as a teenager as he protested unsafe conditions at his school and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Correa is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats who support a “strong national defense” and “appealing to the mainstream values of the American public.”
Even in policy areas where the pair overlap, such as supporting citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Ortega goes further: He wants to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Just as Republicans are dealing with intraparty fights between right wingers and moderates, Democrats increasingly are seeing younger, progressive candidates challenge moderate incumbents in presumed safe blue seats.
Progressives insist the party establishment hasn’t pushed hard enough for sweeping changes such as Medicare for All. (Polling since 2017 shows Medicare for All is supported by 52% to 59% of all Americans.) Centrist Democrats argue they must work across party lines to get anything accomplished, pushing instead for smaller expansions to Medicare coverage.
So, can Ortega follow in the footsteps of the likes of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who in 2018 ran to the left of Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley and won, despite a significant gap in funding and experience?
Ortega faces a similar battle. Correa has strong local name recognition, won with 68.8% of the vote in 2020, and at the end of the last quarter had $1.5 million in his campaign account. By comparison, Ortega’s war chest is $8,279.
But Ortega’s grassroots campaign has drawn attention from former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson and the online news program The Young Turks. A nod from the likes of Sanders or financial backing from the Justice Democrats — a political action committee that helped elect Ocasio-Cortez and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, among others — could mean momentum heading into 2022.
When asked about facing a challenge from the left, Correa largely brushed it off, dismissing Ortega as a recent transplant to CA-46.
“I’m not about theory or ideology, I am about fixing problems on Main Street,” Correa said, touting his record on issues such as immigration reform.
Dan Schnur, politics professor at USC, said Correa’s “political strength” has kept away serious competitors for several cycles. But he also offered a warning.
“The one thing that could make (Correa) somewhat vulnerable here is if he doesn’t take this challenge seriously.”
Activist roots run deep
Republicans use the term “socialist” as a pejorative for all Democrats because it isn’t a broadly popular label.
Last year, Gallup found 39% of Americans have a positive view of socialism, versus 57% who view it negatively. But the same polling found younger voters were roughly split on the idea of socialism, and that people of all parties and ages offered a variety of descriptions of the term.
Ortega has worn the label as a badge of honor since high school.
The youngest of eight children, Ortega was born in Chicago but grew up in a rough neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. Ortega was the only kid from his elementary school to be accepted into a local science and math magnet high school. But when he got there, he found the building in disrepair, with upper floors condemned and lower floors prone to flooding. Ortega and other students started a newspaper and organized walkouts over the school’s conditions. That work landed Ortega’s classmate, Anthony Diaz, a feature role (and Ortega some quick appearances) on a 2004 episode of MTV’s docuseries “True Life.”
When asked about Ortega’s congressional run, Diaz, who cofounded the Newark Water Coalition and is running to be mayor of Newark, said Ortega got him involved in activism.
“He has a history of doing good in his community,” Diaz said.
“He’s someone I go to for counsel on various topics because I appreciate the way he thinks… Mike has an ability to see the picture at large and knows the tangible steps to get to that larger vision.”
After high school, Ortega worked in a Newark garment factory, making ballerina tutus and helping to organize a union. In 2005, at 19, he ran for public office as a Socialist Workers candidate, finishing last in the race for New Jersey’s 28th Assembly District seat.
Since Ortega spoke Spanish, the Socialist party urged him to move to Los Angeles and help organize protests against federal immigration policy in 2006. He lived in South Central L.A., splitting his time between activism and his day job butchering hogs for Farmer John’s. It was backbreaking work, but Ortega said he could barely make ends meet. So he enrolled at Los Angeles City College and then USC to study astronautical engineering, earning his degree in 2013. 

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Mike Ortega is challenging incumbent and fellow Democrat Rep. Lou Correa for the 46th District seat in 2022.
(Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

Mike Ortega is challenging incumbent and fellow Democrat Rep. Lou Correa for the 46th District seat in 2022.
(Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

Mike Ortega is challenging incumbent and fellow Democrat Rep. Lou Correa for the 46th District seat in 2022.
(Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

After graduation, Ortega worked for Boeing. He then transitioned to biomedical engineering and now works as a quality engineer for heart valves at Edwards Lifesciences in Irvine.
Ortega said his career has allowed he and his wife and their newborn son to buy a home in Anaheim last year, to get access to health care, set aside money for retirement and enjoy some creature comforts.
That path, he noted, is often viewed as the American Dream. But he said he’s also seen a darker side, with friends he grew up with falling to drugs and crime and his own brother becoming incarcerated. At one point, when he was putting himself through college, Ortega said he lived in his car.
That’s why, he says, he’s continued to work as an activist, starting chapters of the Young Socialists and of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. Now that his career is established, Ortega feels the time is right to run for office in his home district.
Can a Socialist win in O.C.?
The 46th District — which currently includes most of Santa Ana and Anaheim plus part of Orange — is the most solidly blue district contained in Orange County. Half the population is Latino, with another 15% Asian American, according to Political Data Inc. Nearly 50% of voters in CA-46 are registered as Democrats, 24% as independents and 22% as Republicans. And while California’s Citizen Redistricting Commission is still in the process of redrawing district boundaries, CA-46 isn’t expected to change much, with protections for its heavily Latino voting bloc likely to remain.
Still, Schnur wouldn’t bet on Ortega pulling off an upset in the CA-46 race.
“There are any number of places in Los Angeles and the Bay Area where a very progressive Democrat can probably win without much problem. This isn’t one of those districts.”
He said there’s no question that the Democratic Party is moving to the left. “But one of the biggest emerging splits from the party is between voters of color, who tend to be somewhat more centrist, and a white progressive voting bloc.” So, ironically, Schnur said a Socialist candidate might fare better in a district with more white progressives.
But Ortega said that while the “red scare” may still carry weight for Latinos in places like Miami, with large populations of Cuban and Venezualan Americans, Ortega argues those same dynamics aren’t in play for Latinos in CA-46, who are more likely to come from Mexico and Central America.
He points to how well Sanders, who identifies as a Democratic Socialist, performed in the 46th District during the last two presidential primaries, winning 53.7% of the local vote in March 2020 to Biden’s 20%.
“People in this district don’t care about the label and name calling. But they listen to the actual content of the policy message,” Ortega said.
To Ortega, socialism means distrubuting political power and economic resources in a way that benefits the middle class. His platform includes support for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, national rent control, reducing the defense budget and raising the national minimum wage — all ideas that draw majority or near majority support among all voters.  He also supports amnesty for undocumented immigrants, raising taxes on capital gains and maintaining a cap on state and local tax or SALT deductions.
“All of these things extradinarliy popular,” Ortega argues.
While that may be true, Schnur said Ortega’s success will depend in part on where the national conversation goes over the next year.
“If the election were solely about single payer healthcare, you might see a fairly competitive race,” Schnur said. “But at this early stage, it looks like issues such as job creation and public safety are going to be even more important to voters. These are issues that play to the strength of a more centrist candidate like Correa.”
Adding to Ortega’s challenge is the fact that he’s pledged not to take any campaign funds from business interests. But he hopes that will work to his favor, since he can point to the fact that Correa accepts money each cycle from pharmaceutial companies, oil companies and real estate interests.
Correa’s contributions from big pharma in particular have drawn scrutiny. He was one of five centrist Democrats who pushed to adjust the Build Back Better budget bill in a way that would limit the number of drugs that would be subject to price negotiation with the government. Correa insisted that was needed to encourage industry innovation.
Rep. Lou Correa, center, meets with U.S. Border Patrol agents following a tour of migrant facilities at the southern border this spring. (Courtesy of Rep. Lou Correa)
“The pharmaceutical industry just invented the best Covid-19 vaccines in the world,” Correa said. “They are saving lives. I want them doing what they do best, inventing medicines that save lives.”
Ortega already is using that stance in his campaign against Correa.
He and his staff went through the Justice Democrats’ Movement School program, which trains progressive underdogs to run grassroots campaigns. After final district boundaries are set later this month, Ortega hopes to have news to share about support for his campaign.

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“I think we have a serious chance of winning this cycle,” Ortega said. “But if we don’t get it this time, we’ll build something and be back next cycle.”
Two other challengers have also filed to run against Correa in the June 7 primary.
Cecelia Truman, a Republican from Menifee who lost a 2020 bid for a seat on her city council, has raised $35 this cycle. And Democrat Jesus Ruvalcaba hasn’t reported any fundraising yet, having joined the race after the last filing period closed.
District boundaries will be set by the end of this month, with paperwork to run for office due by March 11.


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