Sitting on an Encinitas park bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Francine Busby is midway through an explanation of how she plans to restore integrity to the halls of Congress when a passerby interrupts with an unexpected question.
"Aren't you the mayor or something?" the woman asks, a hint of disgust in her voice.
"No," says Busby, introducing herself. "I'm the one on your television set every night, and, no, I'm not dangerous."
While that last tidbit is offered as a rejoinder to the series of attack ads that have dominated local airwaves and the race for California's 50th Congressional District seat as of late, in those last three words to the passerby Busby managed to neatly summarize what's been widely perceived as her greatest weakness.
In recent weeks, commentators have labeled Busby a lackluster candidate whose most redeeming quality is having served as the Democrats' sacrificial lamb in the 2004 race against Randy "Duke" Cunningham-the former eight-term congressman-turned-convict who traded federal contracts for millions of dollars worth of bribes-and having been at the right place and right time when he resigned.
Judging from audience response, she fared better than her opponent, Republican Brian Bilbray, at a recent debate hosted by a local retirement community, but Busby isn't a particularly captivating persona on or off stage, and her answers to question often come across a little garbled.
"I do have a little bit of a feeling that if [Democrats] had a more charismatic, dynamic candidate, they would have had a better chance," said Carl Luna a professor of political science at Mesa College, who's keeping tabs on the race and has seen both candidates in action. "But she's there by default because she had the organization last time."
Voters will make the final assessment of Busby, but, in the meantime, there's plenty of indication that her candidacy is being taken seriously-including polls showing that the race is a dead heat and the millions of dollars the Republican and Democratic parties have spent on the election. Moreover, various pundits, politicos and the local and national media are tripping over themselves to declare Tuesday's vote a "bellwether" for the upcoming November mid-term election.
Pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a Washington, D.C.-based independent opinion research group, is one of the few experts rejecting the bellwether theory.
"No one race is a bellwether, no matter where it is. It's just one race," Kohut told CityBeat, adding that it's impossible to predict how the other 434 elections will be impacted. But Kohut's research has identified several factors that may shape the November elections. Earlier this year, he wrote in an analysis that "two heavyweight political trends are poised for a head-on collision" come November. Those trends-gerrymandered safe seats and an increasingly unfavorable public perception of President George W. Bush and the Republican Party-are both present in the 50th.
One need only look at a map of the 50th District for evidence of gerrymandering-the manipulation of district boundaries to benefit a political group. Loosely resembling a heart-shaped valentine, a crooked finger of land extends from the heart's southern tip in Clairemont Mesa westward into northern Pacific Beach and parts of La Jolla but manages to exclude liberal-leaning enclaves surrounding UCSD and the coast. The result is an island of territory belonging to the 53rd District, amidst the 50th. Those creative borders, drawn up in 2000 , are a factor that's made the 50th a safe seat for Republicans, who maintain a 14-point registration advantage over Democrats.
Consider that Democrats haven't managed to overcome a four-point registration disadvantage in a congressional race in nearly four decades and Busby might as well throw in the towel. Nationwide, Kohut said, similar gerrymandering has decreased the number of competitive seats-which tends to fluctuate-"from a high of 111 in 1992 to a low of 32 in 2004." That gives Democrats-who need to pick up 16 seats to retake the house-less room to maneuver. Yet there's hope for Busby and the Democrats in the shortcomings of their opponents.
Bush's approval ratings continue to languish in the mid-30s as do those of congressional Republicans. The war in Iraq, record-high gas prices and unfolding corruption scandals involving the likes of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Cunningham aren't helping any.
In that context, Bilbray's past as a Republican congressman-turned-lobbyist only helps Busby and, if he's elected, provides easy fodder for late-night jokes about Cunningham's constituents voting to cut out the middleman.
Kohut says voter dissatisfaction with Bush and the Republican leadership "might "nationalize' the House elections," putting at least some previously safe seats in play.
He notes that the percentage of seats Democrats need to regain control of the House and the majority party's approval ratings are on par with those of 1994-when Republicans managed to retake the House for the first time in 40 years. "Whenever off-year elections become nationalized, they are primarily judgments about the performance of the party in power," Kohut wrote. "And here there is considerable good news for the Democrats: On their broad array of policy issues, they are better regarded than the GOP."
But there's one last factor-also in play in the 50th-that could stymie the Democrats come November. That's the Democrats themselves. Adrift since the 2000 presidential election, the Democrats, according to Kohut's analysis, suffer from a "failure of [their] leadership to distinguish itself.
"Despite a lack of confidence in the GOP's ability to handle most issues, the party is given an edge in [polls] for having stronger leaders and... for having better leaders," Kohut wrote.
Which brings us back to Busby on the park bench. Is this self-described "school mom," a former Republican and relative political novice, the new breed of leader who's going to spearhead a Democratic revolt in November?
Busby certainly thinks so, and she's not stopping there.
As Democrats prepare to roll out their "Innovation Agenda"-their version of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, which fueled the Republican coup in 1994-she's toeing their line but is largely focused on pushing a platform of ethics reform and talking about restoring "accountability," "checks and balances" and "oversight" to Congress.
She admits that's an easy topic in light of Cunningham's public disgrace, but she said she plans to use a surge in notoriety expected to accompany a win next week to effect change. At the risk of alienating incumbents in her own party, she said she'd visit congressional districts across the country and challenge Republican and Democrat candidates alike to sign on to her proposed ethics legislation, which would radically alter how representatives interact with lobbyists and ban anonymous earmarks, special funding slipped into bills for projects in lawmakers' home districts or on behalf of special interests.
"So, it's not just going to be me," she said. "What I think we are going to have is a freshman class in November coming in with a mandate for change. I wouldn't just be a standard bearer for the Democratic Party. I'm a standard bearer for an American grassroots revolt against this government."
Luna applauds her ambition but doubts whether it's realistic.
"There's limits to what Francine Busby brings to the game, and I think she's probably reached the max of what she can do," he said. "Between now and Tuesday, she shouldn't be talking about how she's going to be the new star of the party. She's not there yet, and... she's simply the junior, newbie, freshman congresswoman who's going to be assigned the most piss poor office in the entire congressional complex."
There are other signs that the hype surrounding Tuesday's vote may be getting to her head.
"When I get up in front of a room, I have a reputation as one of the most dynamic speakers in the party," she told CityBeat, adding that those who underestimate her do so "to their peril."
We'll find out soon enough whether she's really a threat or just doing her best to sound dangerous.