Fullerton Mayor Sharon Quirk-Silva held onto her lead Wednesday over Republican Assemblyman Chris Norby in what appears to be a stunning upset in the 65th Assembly District that could give Democrats a surprise supermajority in the Assembly, their first in 120 years.
“We’re pretty confident it [the lead] is going to hold up,” said Steven Maviglio, state political spokesman for Assembly Democrats. “We think the fat lady has sung on this one.”
Quirk-Silva, an elementary school teacher, also stopped just short of declaring victory, saying “we’re optimistically cautious.” Later, her campaign emailed a statement to her supporters that began, “Looks like we did it!”
If final counts of ballots turned in Tuesday at polling places confirm a Quirk-Silva victory, Democrats would control two-thirds of the 80 Assembly seats. This means that Democrats would be able to pass major legislation, including tax proposals, without any Republican votes.
Democrats also expect to win a supermajority in the 40-member state Senate.
The last time Democrats held a supermajority in the Assembly was 1883, said Maviglio. Republicans did it 80 years ago, in 1933.
The latest count Wednesday had Quirk-Silva leading Norby by 1,043 votes, a gain of 39 votes over her election night total. But several thousand ballots turned in on Election Day have yet to be counted, she said. And the margin separating them is just one percent of the more than 103,000 votes tallied so far.
Asked whether Quirk-Silva's defeat of Norby was the key to achieving the coveted supermajority, Maviglio said, “Absolutely. This was the prize that made it happen.”
Going into this year’s election season, neither Republican nor Democratic leaders saw Norby’s northwest Orange County seat as particularly vulnerable.
When new 65th Assembly District boundaries were drawn last year, the registration of its 233,000 voters were equally divided along party lines with Democrats and Republicans each having 84,000 registrants and 55,000 belonging to no political party.
The district includes Fullerton, which is home base for both Norby and Quirk-Silva, as well as Buena Park, Stanton, Cypress, La Palma and most of west Anaheim.
Earlier this year, Republican leaders said Norby was a shoo-in for re-election. “He owns Fullerton,” said one insider, noting that Norby’s commanding 18 percentage point lead over Quirk-Silva in the June primary would translate to an easy victory in November, especially when considering that decline-to-state independent voters in Orange County are more likely to vote Republican.
But that complacency, both locally and among state GOP strategists, might have been what led to Tuesday’s surprise numbers.
Another factor, Maviglio said, is a "stealth campaign" that Democrats waged in the weeks leading up to the election after got the sense that Norby might be vulnerable.
Quirk-Silva attributed her apparent victory to a solid foundation of volunteers and fundraising.
“I kind of look at this as kind of a tortoise and hare race,” said Quirk-Silva. “This was a long-term effort, a lot of hard work, work the old-fashioned way.”
She said that even without the help from Democratic leaders in Sacramento, her campaign volunteers knocked on 25,000 doors throughout the district and made 20,000 telephone calls to voters.
Ultimately, state party officials added roughly $200,000 to the $300,000 she and her supporters had raised. She estimated the Republican Party contributed more than $150,000 to Norby’s campaign.
Neither Norby nor his district director, Bruce Whitaker, returned telephone calls about the race.
But other GOP leaders acknowledged that state party strategists, assuming Norby’s seat was safe, were caught off guard by the strength of Quirk-Silva’s campaign.
Norby was potentially vulnerable for several reasons. He didn’t have a huge campaign war chest, and his personal actions, like being discovered resting on the grass at the county building several years ago when he was a member of the Board of Supervisors, provided ammunition for attacks.
Also, unusually large voter turnouts can be expected in presidential election years.
Norby, a former Fullerton city councilman as well as county supervisor, won his Assembly seat in 2009.
“On paper, it [district voter registration] didn’t look very friendly for a Democrat,” said Maviglio, But, he said, Quirk-Silva was “a popular mayor,” and the district includes a potential bloc of young voters because of Cal State Fullerton and Fullerton Community College. Quirk-Silva had raised “a significant amount of money,” and everyone “worked very hard to make it happen,” Maviglio said.
Norby’s apparent loss created a separate problem for Whitaker, his district director. Whitaker is a member of the Fullerton City Council and was the top vote-getter in his re-election bid. But if Norby is out of a job in January, Whitaker is too.