Jason Mills, a 31-year-old former punk band bass player, managed his first election campaign this fall and rocked California’s political establishment, handing Democrats a supermajority in the Assembly.
Yet Mills isn’t bragging. He modestly and repeatedly assigns credit for Fullerton Mayor Sharon Quirk-Silva’s upset of Republican incumbent Chris Norby in the 65th Assembly District to dozens of volunteers.
They went, he said, where no Orange County campaign in that district had gone before: to the front doors of Korean, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern and Latino voters.
And, Mills said, his strategy still wouldn't have worked without Quirk-Silva's persistent efforts to develop support in the northwest Orange County district, which comprises Fullerton, Buena Park, La Palma, Cypress, Stanton and west Anaheim.
Nick Anas, executive director of the Orange County Democratic Party, said Mills had help from the statewide party toward the end of the campaign, but it was Mills who devised the strategy to pull off a stunning victory in a race both parties considered a slam-dunk for Republicans.
Thanks to the Quirk-Silva victory, Democrats hold their first supermajority since the late 1800s in the 80-member Assembly. They also control both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, which means they can pass major legislation without worrying about Republican votes.
“He [Mills] did a fantastic job,” said Anas. “He has a bright future in the Democratic Party.”
Mills joined the Quirk-Silva campaign in mid-July. Five years ago, he had moved to Anaheim — just one street outside Quirk-Silva’s district — from Washington state. A history major at Ashford University, he played bass with a punk rock band that toured for a few years but ultimately disbanded.
At one point, Mills had a job with a computer software company but was laid off in 2010. This year he began working on a masters in political management from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and also began volunteering for political campaigns, starting with Orange County Clerk-Recorder Tom Daly’s successful campaign in the 69th Assembly District.
But Mills said he never actually ran a campaign until July, when he asked Quirk-Silva if she needed help. He was hired to do field work, but within a few weeks he was promoted to campaign manager.
“I think I just filled a need,” he said.
In the June primary election, Quirk-Silva finished second behind Norby, a former Fullerton city councilman and member of the Board of Supervisors. The margin was a seemingly insurmountable 18 percentage points.
Norby’s 59 percent of the vote compared with Quirk-Silva’s 41 percent would lead most people to “conclude it’s an electoral drubbing,” said Mills.
The district is about evenly split between Republicans and Democrats with a large bloc that belongs to no political party. That normally means it’s a Republican district, because Republicans tend to turn out in greater percentages than Democrats, and because in Orange County, voters who don’t belong to political parties tend to vote Republican.
But, Mills said, the turnout in June was very low overall, just 18 percent, and he counted on a much higher turnout in November for the presidential election.
"Instead of looking at it as an 18-point loss, I looked at it as something that only needed a nine point gain," he said. "I just needed to find nine points somewhere.”
Mills did another unusual analysis. Instead of automatically looking at the demographics, he first checked the way all precincts voted and focused on those where Quirk-Silva won 41 to 50 percent of the vote.
“I knew if we could close the gap on the nine percent and hold onto precincts she won in the primary, we would win the general election,” he said.
Using that criteria, he picked 89 precincts, “and that’s where I deployed our resources.”
Mills won’t know until the final statement of vote is official — probably next week — exactly how those 89 precincts voted.
But the target precincts were primarily in west Anaheim, Buena Park and Stanton, areas where residents said they never before had candidates or volunteers knock on their doors and asking for their votes.
“We had volunteers who spoke Korean, Chinese, Arabic and Spanish,” said Mills. “We were able to approach a lot of people with their native language.”
And, he said, “We heard it over and over: ‘Nobody’s ever come to my door.’ Or called. It’s really nice to engage someone on an election for the first time.”
Working quietly to keep from energizing the Republicans, Mills said the campaign volunteers consisted of mainly seniors and younger voters.
They paid special attention to voters who belonged to no political party and worked hard to get Latino voters to the polls, said Mills. The campaign itself, he said, used “a really soft sell,” simply presenting the basics about Quirk-Silva: elementary school teacher at the school she attended as a child, mayor of Fullerton.
Quirk-Silva already was well known in Fullerton and worked hard to meet voters in the rest of the district, which was created by a special citizens redistricting committee in 2011. Previously, politicians set district boundaries and drew lines that favored incumbents.
Mills said he originally hoped Quirk-Silva would win by a few hundred votes Nov. 6. But Norby has conceded and the count as of Tuesday night showed Quirk-Silva with a victory of more than 5,000 votes.
“They [Quirk-Silva, Mills and other workers] ran a very, very smart campaign,” said Anas.
What’s next for Mills? His grad school classes resume in January, and he goes off the Quirk-Silva campaign payroll at the end of December.
“I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen after that,” he said.