By Ken Stone
Updated at 9:55 p.m. Oct. 4, 2016
With her parents looking on, Republican challenger Denise Gitsham made her pitch for Congress — while dodging hardballs on who should be president.
The only child of Grace and Calvin Gitsham told a campaign event Monday night in Poway: “Come November (after the election), we will never remember who lost” between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Facing an audience of 40, including local GOP school board and council candidates, Gitsham, 39, sat with a Poway City Council quorum of backers — Mayor Steve Vaus in his cowboy hat and Councilmen John Mullin and Barry Leonard.
She urged the audience not to be distracted by the White House race, but focus instead on “the issues we really care about.”
For her, the top three are national security, a prosperous economy and, “personally important to me,” education — as the lawyer daughter of two teachers.
She hammered Democrat Scott Peters, the 52nd District two-term incumbent, as someone who voted three times for an Iranian nuclear deal that put “$150 billion into the hands of our enemies.”
Disputing the idea that America’s only choices were diplomacy (carrot) and war (stick) with Iran, Gitsham said Peters gave “the largest state sponsor of terrorism” a “whole bag of carrots.”
She said Peters represents a Washington that “knows better than you do how to run your business and lives” and she vowed to “fight the big battles” — for lower taxes and fewer regulations. “I trust you and myself to make better decisions.”
Advertised as a Town Hall, the event’s first 33 minutes highlighted her career biography and politics. That left 25 minutes for a half-dozen audience questions — submitted on slips of paper.
The second question was unsigned: Who do you think I should vote for (in the presidential race)?
“I’m a Republican,” Gitsham said, “but party comes second. … I can’t control what’s at the top of my ticket.”
She said Peters would love to make the race about Donald Trump because the New York businessman “doesn’t poll very well in the district.”
“But the reality is I have to focus on my race — one of the top 10 most-competitive races in the nation,” she said of the 52nd, where Democrats (132,742) outnumber Republicans (123,912). Independents are third at 109,433. (She said her campaign has done two polls — finding her within 2 percentage points of Peters in one and 5 points ahead of the incumbent in another, with a third poll planned next week.)
“Donald Trump has become sort of a litmus test for the left — they think if you vote for Donald Trump you’re like a bad person,” she said at the modest Poway Community Park Auditorium.
The small-business owner said the “Democrat Party” is rolling out “Just Like Trump” ads against “all of the Republicans in swing districts like ours.”
“I’m not trying to evade the question,” she said as a Peters campaign worker she identified as “Ian” videotaped the event. (A Peters campaign spokeswoman said the videographer works for the California Democratic Party, and similar videotape efforts by the GOP target Peters.) “I’m just telling you: I refuse to be judged based on a litmus test. … I’m going to tell you what I’m all about, and why I’m saying the things I believe in. Hopefully, that will matter enough to you that you vote for me.”
Asked afterward how she could disregard the Trumpian elephant in the room, she told Times of San Diego: “I think that that’s what’s wrong with politics … the belief that there somehow needs to be one way that politics is done.”
She said that having to fully embrace any politician or any party “is exactly what the American voters are rejecting. They want people who are independent-minded, who think for themselves.”
She said she didn’t want the media to “reduce me to a sound bite” on Trump. “I want people to know exactly what I stand for based on my merits.”
“I’m passionate about our country. I’m not passionate about a single politician. Americans want leadership. They don’t want someone who buys hook, line and sinker into anything. And I don’t.
“For somebody to say you should be more passionate about your president than you should be about your mayor or your city council person — or the person that represents you in Washington — it’s not true,” she said in a city where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 44 percent to 27 percent.
Her parents — who say they’ve attended at least 20 of their daughter’s campaign events — were less conflicted on Trump.
“I’m a very diehard Republican,” said mother Grace, a Taiwanese immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 1979 — seven years after meeting one-time Canadian national Calvin (who grew up in New Jersey and was naturalized in 1956 as he served in the U.S. Air Force).
“I would like to vote for my party,” Grace said. “It beats Hillary.”
She conceded Trump has made “good points and bad points. But I think he’ll be better than Hillary.”
Asked whether she would probably vote for Trump, Gitsham’s mother said: “Yes” despite “negatives I don’t really care for.”
She wasn’t sure how Denise would vote, but: “We’re all Republicans. … We’ll see in a month.”
Calvin Gitsham, who turns 80 in February, said he had “worked a lot” for President George W. Bush — and attended both inaugurations. (Denise served in his administration.)
“But Jeb, he just fell off the scale,” the father said. “I don’t know what to think (about the current nominee). I go along with Denise — when the election’s over, the other person is not going to be heard of anymore.”
Mom and dad had different reactions to Denise deciding to run for Congress.
Calvin Gitsham said he was “bedazzled.” And he took credit for teaching Denise: “It’s nice to be smart. But it’s smart to be nice. I raised her that way.”
Grace Gitsham — whom her daughter likened to the hard-driving matriarch in the book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” — said she originally opposed Denise entering the race.
“I said no,” Grace said. “I said: Well, you need to go find a wonderful husband and get married first. I want to be Grandma.”
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