Coronavirus Takes Backseat to Campaigning for Dem Congressional Hopeful

Christy Smith campaign rally / Twitter screenshot
March 25, 2020

The California legislature's emergency management committee has failed to hold a single meeting on the coronavirus, but that has not stopped its Democratic chairwoman from touting her handling of the pandemic on the campaign trail.

California assemblywoman Christy Smith is seeking to serve the remainder of former representative Katie Hill's (D., Calif.) term following Hill's resignation amid sexual misconduct allegations. Though Smith has boasted of her ability to campaign "while working through this crisis for [her] community," her emergency management committee has yet to address the coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 40 people in California and led to a statewide shutdown.

Hill's resignation in November sent Democrats scrambling to hold on to California's hotly contested 25th Congressional District. The emergence of the coronavirus has further complicated those efforts, with Republicans accusing Smith of ignoring the committee that should be responding to the lethal virus.

Smith chairs California's Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management, which handles "disaster preparedness, emergency management, and homeland security issues." The committee held a hearing on February 11, more than two weeks after California's first confirmed coronavirus case and 10 days after President Donald Trump restricted travel from China. The meeting focused on wildfires rather than the pandemic.

Another committee hearing was scheduled for March 4. Though five California counties and one city had declared states of emergency to combat coronavirus at the time, the hearing's agenda did not mention the virus. The hearing was postponed as California governor Gavin Newsom (D.) confirmed the state's first coronavirus death and declared a state of emergency.

The committee held hearings on viral outbreaks before Smith took over as chair in 2018. A 2015 hearing discussed California's ability to respond to a widespread infectious disease amid the Ebola epidemic.

As Smith's emergency management committee failed to address the coronavirus, the Democrat continued to hold campaign events with prominent California liberals. Smith held a rally in early March featuring Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D., Calif.), and Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, as well as NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue.

Smith did not respond to a request for comment. She has previously issued statements assuring voters she is "focused on [her] work as this community's public servant." The California GOP accused the Democrat of prioritizing her congressional bid "at the expense of Californians who rely on her."

"Christy Smith is the chair of the committee on emergency management yet hasn't held one hearing on the coronavirus," Republican political director Bryan Watkins said. "While other state leaders are looking for ways to combat the coronavirus, Christy Smith remains focused only on campaigning."

The race to replace Hill has tightened in recent weeks, with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report moving it from "Likely Democrat" to "Lean Democrat" on Thursday. Cook said turnout concerns caused by the coronavirus have left Democrats "increasingly worried about their prospects" in the election, which is still scheduled for May 12 despite the viral outbreak. Newsom issued an executive order Friday saying the election shall "be held as an all-mail ballot election," though some polling places will remain open to assist voters.

Smith will face former Navy fighter pilot Mike Garcia in the May runoff after the pair finished first and second in their March special election primary. California's election system pits the two leading candidates against each other regardless of party in a general election, unless a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary. Smith received 36 percent of the vote and Garcia received 25, with former Republican representative Steve Knight earning 17 percent. No other candidate received more than 7 percent support.