Rep. Negrete McLeod, backed by Bloomberg, seeks own path

Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Calif.) doesn’t know New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and doubts he won her a seat in Congress.

The freshman congresswoman brushes aside the assertion that Bloomberg’s super-PAC Independence USA — seen by some as an emerging and countervailing force to the National Rifle Association — propelled her to an upset victory over 14-year incumbent Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.).

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The political winds were shifting long before Bloomberg’s super-PAC flooded the Californian district with more than $3 million just days before last year’s election, she asserted.

“I believe that he helped me. Don’t get me wrong. My percentage would probably not have been that big,” she said of her 12-point victory. “But I truly believe that I would have won the election because the trajectory was going [my] way.”

Negrete McLeod’s victory came in a Democrat versus Democrat race, facilitated by California’s electoral system, which dictates that the top two vote getters in the primary move on to the general, regardless of party.

She described her campaign as a textbook grassroots effort, with hours of door-knocking and telephone calls. Her campaign war chest of $300,000 did not include a budget for television ads or internal polling. Her unscientific estimate is that the response to about three of every four calls the campaign made were in favor of her even before the outside money rolled in.

Negrete McLeod, who spent 12 years in the state legislature, entered the race as an underdog and raised only a third of the sum raised by her opponent. She was inspired to run when redistricting drew the boundaries of the 35th district around the area she has lived her entire life and represented for more than a decade.  

Bloomberg’s super-PAC focused on Negrete McLeod’s race shortly after forming last October. Its basic template was to try to help candidates who had track records on gun control, marriage equality or education reform.

An official with Bloomberg’s PAC said early polling of the race was “not fantastic” for Negrete McLeod but the organization saw it as one that could be turned with the right resources.

“The polling did turn,” the official said. “The polling was in a certain place. The dollars came, the support came, the sort of amplification of the message came, and the race turned out differently than what was polling earlier.”

Negrete McLeod was initially wary of reports that the PAC would spend money in the district, taking an “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach.

Shortly before the election, Independence USA ran ads hitting Baca on water pollution and distributed mailers targeting his pro-gun positions.

Baca had high grades with the NRA throughout his career and had won the organization’s endorsement in previous elections.

Negrete McLeod supports a ban on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and armor-piercing bullets. She also favors universal background checks.

Since being sworn in last month, she has been tapped to sit on the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task force. She said she will support the framework it released last week.

She had supported gun control in the state legislature but describes herself as more of a generalist when it comes to legislating.

Negrete McLeod said she has never met Bloomberg — a billionaire and prominent gun-control advocate — and said she likely would not because of how such an encounter might be perceived.

“If I ever meet him, I will thank him, [but] I don’t run in his circles,” she said. “Chino, [Calif.], and my district are very different than New York.”

She also supports campaign finance reform despite having benefitted from the largesse of the Bloomberg super-PAC — an odd balancing act in which many Democrats find themselves regarding the broader question of so-called “independent expenditures.”

Negrete McLeod holds a position similar to President Obama — that campaign finance needs to be reined in but, until then, candidates cannot give their opponents an advantage by disavowing outside groups.

“Would I like everything to be fair? Yeah,” she said. “But if it is fair, let’s do it all fairly [so] that there is no outside interests that come in and play against you.”

After a race that gained national attention, she is focused on her constituents rather then seeking to keep herself in the limelight. During her time in the state legislature, she developed a reputation as a no-frills legislator who got things done.

“I got a hell of a lot of bills signed in the legislature,” she said. “Probably more than anybody.”

Independence USA has not ruled out supporting her in future elections. And Baca has already announced his bid to retake the seat. He told The Hill he now favors an assault weapons ban and blasted the “deceptive” ads run against him by an “outsider from New York.”

Negrete McLeod sees the rematch as an opportunity.

“It is a free country,” she said.  “If somebody wants to run against you, it is free country. You have to make the case to the constituency — I am the better candidate.”