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Republican Rep. Ken Calvert's district now includes queer friendly Palm Springs

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to a hotly contested congressional race in Southern California. It's pitting an incumbent Republican with an anti-LGBTQ voting record against a gay former federal prosecutor who helped build cases against January 6 rioters. From member station KQED, Scott Shafer reports.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: For the last decade, Palm Springs, with its large LGBTQ population, has been represented in Congress by Democrat Raul Ruiz, an emergency room doctor. But redistricting has changed all that, leaving Democrats like Sal Ladestro unhappy.

SAL LADESTRO: I was really flummoxed when they redistricted because I thought Raul Ruiz was a great congressman for the entire region.

SHAFER: Sitting in the grassy backyard of a popular Palm Springs coffee shop, Ladestro, who lives in nearby Rancho Mirage, is dismayed that Republican Ken Calvert would represent him in Washington if he's reelected.

LADESTRO: He's really Trump-y, and he's got some really extreme views.

SHAFER: For decades, Calvert's anti-tax, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ positions were a good fit for his constituents. But the new 41st Congressional District is different. It sprawls from Calvert's hometown of Corona, 80 miles east to Palm Desert. Among the Democrats in this new district is former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.

BARBARA BOXER: Ken Calvert's a phony.

SHAFER: Never one to mince words, Boxer says many voters here won't forget Calvert's anti-gay history, like voting against the Matthew Shepard hate crimes bill and opposing gays serving openly in the military. And she says voters won't be fooled by Calvert's recent switch, a vote in support of marriage equality.

BOXER: He changed his vote on gay marriage because he got Palm Springs in his district.

KEN CALVERT: It's not a free ride to take one position or another.

SHAFER: That's Ken Calvert, who notes that his new district still has 70% of the same constituents, many of whom are very conservative. The 69-year-old Republican says he's genuinely evolved on same-sex marriage, just like former President Barack Obama did.

CALVERT: I have looked at what's happened across the nation, over a million marriages, gay marriages around this country, that we're not going to unwind that. So there's no reason to create anxiety within that community.

SHAFER: Calvert's opponent in this race is former federal prosecutor Will Rollins, who, at age 37, is many things Calvert is not - young, gay, pro-abortion rights and staunchly anti-Trump.

WILL ROLLINS: Let me start by saying happy Sunday to everybody.

(LAUGHTER)

ROLLINS: Has everyone had a mimosa yet?

(LAUGHTER)

SHAFER: At a recent fundraising brunch at a home in Palm Springs, Rollins emphasized the contrast between himself and his opponent.

ROLLINS: I mean, this is a guy who voted 14 months ago against the Equality Act, which is just designed to prevent employers from firing people for being gay.

SHAFER: That pitch may work with voters here in Palm Springs, but Rollins thinks ultimately the race will turn on another issue - abortion.

ROLLINS: Women and men who care about their sisters, their daughters, their moms, because there's only one party right now that's standing up for the reproductive freedom of women and keeping the government out of our bedrooms.

SHAFER: But voters might be more focused on something other than abortion or queer rights, especially with gas prices topping $6 a gallon here - the economy. On a recent Saturday morning in working class Corona, 20 or so people gathered in an IHOP parking lot to fawn over classic cars.

CHRISTOPHER CARLUCCI: This is a 2016 Mustang convertible.

SHAFER: That's Christopher Carlucci, who lives here in Riverside County, and cares more about inflation and crime than same-sex marriage. He grew up in a traditional Catholic family. But now he says his attitude is live and let live.

CARLUCCI: I have a few relatives that are, so to say, living with men that are men themselves, and I'm fine with it. I don't care.

SHAFER: Elections are determined by turnout. And on that score, voters like Dave Hissen could give Republicans heartburn. He's disgusted by what happened on January 6.

DAVE HISSEN: Dreadful. And I must tell you, I'm a Republican - dreadful, embarrassing, humiliating.

SHAFER: Republican Calvert voted against certifying the election results. Hisen says because of today's extreme partisanship, he's not even going to vote.

HISSEN: At my age and in my tax bracket, I choose not to get involved because I really don't care. My happiness is a lot more important than watching a bunch of kids fighting each other.

SHAFER: Democrats are hoping attitudes like that among GOP voters, along with an energized base among liberals, will propel Wil Rollins to victory over Calvert, something they'll need if they're to keep control of the House. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in Palm Springs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Shafer
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