Joe Baca never saw it coming, and neither did Gloria Negrete McLeod.
But as state Sen. Negrete McLeod replaces Baca in Congress, the dueling San Bernardino County Democrats witnessed first hand the beginnings of a change in gun politics, courtesy of billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
No doubt the strongest gun control advocate on Forbes' list of the fabulously rich, Bloomberg seized an opportunity to unseat Baca, a pro-gun Democrat, by spending $3.3 million on television and mail attacks. Given his estimated $25 billion fortune, $3.3 million is couch cushion change. But it was three times the sum Baca and Negrete McLeod raised between them. By homing in on a loyal National Rifle Association politician, Bloomberg altered a long-standing element of American politics.
Time was, a politician like Baca could cast pro-gun votes, receive NRA support and not worry about an attack from any moneyed interest that promoted gun control. No such group existed, at least not on the order of the NRA.
Until, that is, Bloomberg came along. He spent $8.1 million through his Independence USA political action committee in his first serious foray into the electoral politics of guns, and candidates he backed won in three of the six races where Independence USA played.
"It sends a message: you can lose your seat by voting against prudent gun legislation," said New York Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, the strategist who led Bloomberg's campaign. "Hopefully, members will think twice before taking these votes. They can't just vote the NRA's way and assume they won't hear about it."
The NRA spent more than $17 million on this year's campaigns. It failed in its top priority, unseating President Barack Obama, a $12 million effort, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The NRA didn't fare well in U.S. Senate races, either, spending six-figure sums in Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Maine, Missouri and Arizona, winning only in Arizona.
It skipped Baca's race, a telling omission. If any candidate warranted NRA support, Baca was that man. In his 20 years in Sacramento and in Washington, Baca rarely if ever wavered from National Rifle Association orthodoxy. There were times when he was the only Democrat who sided with the NRA.
"Joe was a very good friend of the NRA's," recalled Steve Helsley, the NRA's California lobbyist when Baca was in the Legislature.
Baca sought the NRA's endorsement this year, but said the NRA turned him down because he failed to join Republicans who voted to sanction Attorney General Eric Holder for the ATF's bollixed Fast and Furious gun investigation, and because he supported Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor as U.S. Supreme Court justice.
"Of course, I would have loved the NRA's support. I've always had their support in the past," Baca told me.
Bloomberg, meanwhile, was looking to make a statement.
His interests go beyond guns. He spent $500,000 to help elect fellow independent Sen. Angus King in Maine, and $500,000 on this year's failed California initiative to raise tobacco taxes. He created Independence USA PAC to help candidates who support education reform and marriage equality, but also to focus on "candidates who support – and oppose – efforts to crack down on illegal guns." That's where Baca came in.
The mayor paid for a poll in the Inland Empire district, researched Negrete McLeod's record, and concluded she could win, said Wolfson, a veteran of Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 presidential run. Once the attack began, Baca enlisted Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to get Bloomberg to stop, to no avail. His mind was made up.
"I'm still wondering why he got involved in a district that is 3,000 miles away that he has never set foot in," Baca said.
It's not that complicated. A congressman's vote affects Fontana as much as Brooklyn. Baca rubbed Bloomberg wrong by co-sponsoring HR 822, one of the NRA's fondest dreams. Backed by almost every House Republican and only a handful of Democrats, HR 822 would have infringed on states' rights by requiring that gun control states like New York and California honor concealed weapons permits issued by any other state, no matter how lax those states' standards might be.
Bloomberg-funded mailers cited HR 822, accusing Baca of voting to "allow dangerous criminals, including sex offenders, domestic abusers and suspected terrorists, to carry concealed weapons across state lines and into our community."
Baca called the attack lies. It was an exaggeration, perhaps. But by supporting the extremist HR 822, Baca sided against his own state's standards, and those of New York, and aligned himself with states that issue concealed weapons permits for the asking.
Negrete McLeod, the beneficiary of Bloomberg's $3.3 million campaign, has never met her patron. She tried calling to thank him after the election but got as far as Wolfson. They wouldn't have that much in common anyway. He is a Harvard-educated media mogul. She graduated from Chaffey Community College where she worked before entering politics.
Negrete McLeod won by 12 percentage points, but downplays the power of Bloomberg's money. "I'm sure it helped somewhat," she said. Often called "Grandma" in the Capitol, Negrete McLeod says she has a secret campaign weapon, her family – 10 children, 27 grandkids and 25 great-grandchildren. Their relationships create her very own social network.
"People have always underestimated me," she said from Washington where she was undergoing freshman orientation.
Negrete McLeod hardly is an anti-gunner. In her 12 years in the California Legislature, she often voted with the NRA. Former NRA lobbyist Helsley said she "very good on the gun issue." She said she generally defers on gun issues to her husband, a retired Los Angeles police lieutenant.
More recently, she aligned herself with gun control advocates, voting to require that people report stolen guns to law enforcement within 48 hours. Baca, toeing the NRA line, voted against a similar bill in 1997.
Despite such votes, the NRA was nowhere to be found when Baca needed help. By showing him the back of its hand, the organization, which has become rigidly Republican, made clear how that loyalty goes only so far for a Democrat who seeks its favor.
The new Congress won't be much different from the old one. Democrats who control the Senate will introduce gun-control legislation, which will stall in the House. House Republicans will try to expand the right to carry concealed weapons. That will stall in the Senate. There will be a difference, however. Politicians will think about Joe Baca, and wonder whether their vote might place them in Bloomberg's line of fire.