LOS ANGELES — Rep. Katie Hill, the freshman Democrat who resigned in October after apologizing for a sexual relationship with a campaign staffer, had a plan to ensure another progressive woman would take her job representing California’s swing 25th Congressional District.
Exposed in nude photos allegedly leaked by her estranged husband, Hill hoped her friend Christy Smith, a state assemblywoman whose district overlaps with much of the 25th, would enter the race for the seat, which had long been represented by conservative men.
But Cenk Uygur, the founder and longtime host of the popular progressive news network The Young Turks, had other ideas. Two weeks after Smith launched her campaign, Uygur, who does not live in the district, announced his own candidacy for the open seat. Uygur’s entrance into the race propelled an already high-profile special election into the national spotlight, culminating in a surprise endorsement from 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — followed by an immediate withdrawal of that endorsement.
Smith makes a lot of sense as Hill’s replacement. She grew up in the district and returned after a stint in Washington, D.C., as an education analyst in the Education Department during the Clinton administration. She started a nonprofit to provide technology equipment to local schools and later served on the school board. As the area became more racially and economically diverse, Smith saw an opening to flip Republican-held seats. She lost her first state Assembly bid in 2016 but defeated the GOP incumbent in 2018 — the same year Hill secured a surprising nine-point victory over the 25th’s Republican incumbent.
People saw Smith as “the mom of Democratic politics in the 25th District long before it was a place that people were paying attention to as a potential swing district,” Hill said. “There’s no one else that I could even think of that I would want to run for this.”
“There’s no one else that I could even think of that I would want to run for this.”
If voters were to send either Smith or Uygur to Congress, they would likely cast a lot of similar votes as members. The difference between the two candidates is strategic: Smith says she wants to reach across the aisle to find bipartisan compromise, while Uygur wants to “crush” Republicans.
Uygur pitches himself as a more progressive alternative to Smith, whom he describes as a “bland” establishment-backed candidate. His campaign platform centers around eradicating corporate money in politics, or as he puts it, ending the “bribery.” He has a massive, loyal following from his progressive news show, some of which has already translated into enthusiastic support in California’s 25th District, a sprawling expanse stretching from Simi Valley to Lake Los Angeles.
When Aubrey Roadhouse, a 28-year-old teacher who lives in Lancaster found out Uygur had entered the race, she “started shaking like a Chihuahua,” she said. “I was so excited. I could not believe that somebody who is such a strong progressive fighter for progressive issues was bringing the fight to my hometown.”
Roadhouse always votes Democrat, she said —but Uygur is the first candidate she’s been excited enough about to volunteer with the campaign.
To his fans, Uygur is a proven fighter who will buck the political establishment and fight for progressive priorities like a Green New Deal, “Medicare for all,” and higher wages. His critics see him as a self-aggrandizing carpetbagger with a history of making offensive comments who is endangering the fight to keep the district in Democratic control.
As soon as Uygur announced his candidacy, there was an immediate effort to push him out. Political operatives circulated old clips of Uygur making offensive comments about women, gay men and religious Jews and Muslims — including many remarks he has previously apologized for and disavowed. Los Angeles County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Gonzalez accused Uygur of peddling hate speech.
Hill called Uygur in hopes of convincing him to step aside. It didn’t work. She wasn’t surprised: If she had heeded the objections of people who told her there was already a Democrat in the race, she wouldn’t have made it to Congress. “The difference,” Hill said of the current race, is that “this was so clear to everybody in the community that [Smith] is the right successor.”
For weeks, Uygur’s only major endorsement was from Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a progressive California Democrat. On Thursday, Sanders — who has received consistent support from Uygur and The Young Turks — threw his weight behind the underdog candidate. The backlash was immediate. “Why Did Bernie Sanders Endorse The Extremely Gross Sexist Cenk Uygur,” Jezebel wondered.
California’s governor, 16 federal lawmakers (including Uygur’s own congressional representative), more than 40 state lawmakers, several unions, the state’s League of Conservation Voters, the LGBTQ group Equality California, the gun control group the Brady Campaign, and local chapters of the progressive group Indivisible have all endorsed Smith.
Logan Smith, a progressive organizer in the district who has volunteered for Sanders and worked on a previous Christy Smith (no relation) campaign, was “heartbroken” by the Sanders endorsement, he said in an interview. The day after Sanders announced his support, Uygur said he would not accept any endorsements, a move that cleared the way for Sanders to withdraw his backing shortly after.
Plenty of Uygur’s past comments are indisputably awful. He denied the existence of the Armenian genocide for years, eventually admitting he was wrong. In 2012, he mocked a female college cheerleader for being too muscular. He’d be worried about having sex with her, he said, because she might pull out a penis. In 2016, when members of the Harvard men’s soccer team made a Google doc ranking the appearance of freshmen members of the women’s team with observations like: “She looks like the kind of girl who both likes to dominate, and likes to be dominated,” Uygur downplayed the controversy. “That’s what guys talk about,” Uygur said at the time, adding that the Harvard men didn’t intend for their comments to become public.
His most toxic comments about women and their ability to sexually please him date back 20 years, when he self-identified as an edgy conservative. “Obviously, the genes of women are flawed,” he wrote in 1999. “They are poorly designed creatures who do not want to have sex nearly as often as needed for the human race to get along peaceably and fruitfully.” The Justice Democrats, the group that helped elect progressive superstars like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), cut ties with Uygur two years ago after The Wrap resurfaced the comments.
Unlike a lot of men who talk about women in terms of how bangable they are, Uygur is publicly remorseful about the people he has hurt. And he makes a convincing case that he’s evolved. “The people who are concerned about the old comments, they’re 100% right to be concerned,” he said. “It never stops being uncomfortable to look at that stuff.”
Political operatives have flooded reporters with examples of Uygur’s past transgressions. But some of the supposedly damning quotes are only offensive when taken out of context or viewed through the least generous interpretation of Uygur’s crass sense of humor. The New York Times, for example, initially failed to mention Uygur’s blatant sarcasm when he said, “No, of course not,” in response to former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke insisting he wasn’t a racist during a combative interview. (The Times issued a correction the following day.)
A Twitter user who goes by the name “M. Mendoza Ferrer” has led the effort to dig up examples of Uygur making offensive comments. On Sunday, Smith retweeted Ferrer’s clip of Uygur, in 2006, calling Jerusalem a “pain in the world’s ass” and joking that he would “bulldoze the entire thing” so that the world wouldn’t have to deal with the problems caused by multiple competing claims on holy ground.
The clip was “disqualifying,” Smith tweeted. “Being a sexist, homophobic, genocide denying racist is the opposite of a progressive,” she wrote.
Ferrer’s tweet — which Smith amplified — was a cherry-picked description of a longer Uygur argument that was a standard endorsement of a two-state solution based on Israel’s 1967 borders. Seconds after the bulldozing comment, Uygur said he wanted “a beautiful flourishing Israel that doesn’t take Palestinian land.”
“I believe that a progressive who does not believe in redemption is not a true progressive.”
Since starting The Young Turks almost 18 years ago, Uygur has been recorded for thousands of hours. People who have followed him for years say that his critics are not reckoning with his full record.
“If you look at The Young Turks, I think it is really it is one of the most intersectional progressive networks that exists,” said Brianna Wu, a congressional candidate in Massachusetts who met Uygur as a guest on TYT and who was a high-profile target of coordinated Gamergate harassment campaigns. “Anyone that’s followed his work can see how much he’s grown on feminist issues over the last 17 years.”
To some of Uygur’s supporters, the Democratic Party’s effort to shame him out of the race bolsters his anti-establishment credibility. “I believe that a progressive who does not believe in redemption is not a true progressive,” Roadhouse said.
Even if Uygur can get voters to forgive him for his past comments, he’ll still have to convince them that a guy who lives in West Los Angeles is a good fit for a more conservative district 30 miles away.
“My biggest concern is that until he got in the race, he couldn’t find that district on a map,” said Jon Cummings, the co-founder of Indivisible Conejo, a progressive group that has endorsed Smith. The 25th District is “not a great place to carpetbag into, and that is exactly what Cenk is doing.”
Christine Farabaugh, a 30-year-old teacher from Santa Clarita, isn’t worried that Uygur isn’t from the district. If voters want to know what he’s about, they can find endless YouTube videos of him talking about politics, she said. “They’ll see he’s honest, they’ll see the fire behind what he says, that he’s passionate.”
I met Smith for coffee at a Starbucks in Northridge in November. She declined to talk about Uygur, but it was clear she was frustrated by a man from out of town swooping into her neighborhood and declaring her an establishment insider.
During high school, Smith’s mother left an abusive marriage. Money was tight and it was sometimes a struggle to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. When she graduated, Smith couldn’t afford four years of university tuition so she enrolled at the local community college, where she negotiated a union contract for the school’s classified employees. When she transferred to UCLA, she nannied in the mornings, worked in the school’s admissions office after class, and worked a food service job at a retirement community on the weekends.
While pregnant with her first child, she developed severe eclampsia, which caused her to have seizures. Her daughter had to be delivered early to save her life. Because her daughter was born prematurely, she couldn’t go to daycare right away, so Smith stayed home to take care of her.
Smith’s mom retired from nursing at the age of 62 because of health problems. She went years without health care because she wasn’t old enough to qualify for Medicare. That meant she sometimes skipped treatments she couldn’t afford for her heart problem and diabetes. She died at 67.
Smith’s point is that she knows what it’s like to struggle. “So, when people say to me, you know, do you meet the litmus test of Medicare for All, I’m not going to label something and say that I buy into any one brand or plan, because ultimately, what happens in health care is going to be defined by who our presidential nominee is, and who we put in the White House next,” Smith said.
Smith has support from some of the local progressives in the area who know her through her work as a state lawmaker. Uygur “was not there when we were fighting,” Logan Smith, the organizer, said. “When our city council tried to join Donald Trump’s lawsuit in California over sanctuary cities, he wasn’t there. When we were fighting the largest open-air landfill in North America, in the highest concentration of undocumented and Spanish-speaking people in the community. He wasn’t there when we were protesting outside the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility,” Smith continued. “Christy was.”
As an assemblywoman, Smith has co-sponsored a Green New Deal, has a perfect voting record with the Sierra Club, introduced legislation to bring more accountability to charter schools, and voted in favor of bills to restrict prison cooperation with ICE and to protect sex workers. She has pledged not to take money from big oil, big tobacco, big pharma or the gun lobby — although she stopped short of joining Uygur in rejecting all corporate PAC money. Asked why, deputy campaign manager Kunal Atit said, “Christy does not believe in litmus tests.”
Smith prides herself on being a pragmatist who can compromise to get things done. She believes health care is a human right and supports a public option, she said, but doesn’t want to eliminate private insurance from those who want it. “On either side right now, having to pass unreasonable and unrelenting litmus tests is getting us a dysfunctional government,” she said. “People are just fed up with both sides.”
“She’s not as progressive as I am,” Logan Smith conceded, “but I don’t think that label works in this district. The assemblywoman wouldn’t be an obstacle to policies like Medicare for All, he said. “I think Christy is the exact kind of consensus- and bridge-builder that we need to achieve those progressive goals.”
The idea that Democrats can convince Republicans to vote with them on major issues is “the silliest thing I’ve ever heard,” Uygur said over breakfast earlier this month at a Jewish deli in Beverly Hills. “You can’t actually believe that unless you’re preposterously stupid,” he said. Uygur doesn’t want to work with Republicans; he wants to convince voters to kick them out of office and pass progressive legislation without them.
Look at the fight for a federally mandated $15 per hour minimum wage, Uygur said. Democrats passed the bill in the House but now it will go to the Senate, where Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), won’t take it up for a vote. “And then [Nancy] Pelosi and [Steny] Hoyer and all the leadership will go, ‘Oh well, we tried!’” Uygur said. “No you didn’t. Go rip his face off — politically.”
What Democratic leadership should do, Uygur said, is hold a press conference and list all of McConnell’s corporate donors who don’t want to pay their employees higher wages, to show that McConnell cares more about his donors’ profits than he does about workers. “Why can’t Pelosi and Hoyer say that? Because they take the same money from the same donors,” Uygur said.
He won’t apologize for carpetbagging. He would rather vote for someone whom he agrees with who will fight for him than someone he doesn’t entirely agree with who lives next door, he said — and he’s betting that once people meet him, they’ll feel the same way.
“The only issue is bribery because it affects every other issue,” Uygur said. “The rest is total bullshit, OK?”
Let’s say your kid gets cancer, Uygur said to me, suddenly a stand-in for a 25th District voter who has a child. If you are not lucky enough to have insurance, “we literally let your kid die, which is insanity,” he said. Even with insurance, “you’re almost certainly going to be bankrupt because of the copays, premiums and deductibles,” he continued. “Why? Because of the bribery. Because the health insurance companies bribed all your politicians.”
If my hypothetical child was lucky enough to survive cancer, Uygur continued, they would still be in danger of getting shot to death at school. “Why don’t we do anything about school shootings? Because the NRA bribed [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republicans to never do anything about it even though the rest of the country wants federal background checks.”
In an increasingly crowded special election race, Uygur and his fans are hoping that his populist message and tell-it-how-it-is demeanor will have bipartisan appeal in a purple district and convince skeptics that he’s sincere. In addition to Smith and Uygur, there are at least three other Democrats and four Republicans running, including former Rep. Steve Knight, former Navy combat pilot Mike Garcia, and former Trump aide George Papadopoulos, who served 12 days in prison for lying to the FBI.
In California’s so-called jungle primary, there is no guarantee that a Democrat will make it to the general election. Instead, the top two vote-getters in the primary advance to the general, regardless of their party affiliation. In a special election, if the top candidate gets more than 50% of the vote in the primary, they win outright.
“There is, in actuality, a need for each party to coalesce around one candidate so that there’s not the possibility that that party will be left out entirely,” Cummings, the Indivisible co-founder, said.
Uygur hates the suggestion that the party should choose a candidate.“This is obviously Hillary vs. Bernie 2.0,” he said. “The voters are going to decide, and the Democratic Party hates it.”