PALM SPRINGS – Approaching a midterm election season widely expected to favor Republicans to make gains in the Congress, national Democrats are attempting to preserve their narrow majorities on Capitol Hill.
Nestled in the Coachella Valley, they see California’s newly drawn 41st Congressional District and progressive Democratic candidate Will Rollins as one of their best shots at doing so.
Rollins, a first-time candidate for elected federal office, is aiming to unseat Republican incumbent Ken Calvert, who has represented the region in the U.S. House of Representatives for the last three decades.
A former federal prosecutor who focused on counterterrorism and counterintelligence cases in Southern California, Rollins has crafted a campaign platform centered around ousting government corruption and partisan rhetoric he sees as the roots of both harmful and destabilizing conspiracy theories, as well as supporting his opponent Calvert’s tenure in office.
“I think they really appreciate the contrast of somebody who has worked in law enforcement, has gone after corruption, who’s going to take it to somebody who is really about keeping himself in power and enriching himself more than serving the rest of us,” Rollins said.
That contrast, along with the heightened competitiveness of the race following 2020 Census redistricting, has driven the Democratic National Campaign Committee to place CA-41 on its Red to Blue program to provide Rollins with additional support to flip the seat.
While what he sees as Calvert’s affinity for corruption as harmful to constituents, Rollins is seeking to highlight such a reason for voters to consider a shift.
“I think people understand that that corruption affects their daily lives,” Rollins said. “Because if you are willing to put the interests of the gun lobby and the interests of the oil and gas lobby ahead of your own voters because that’s who lines your pockets, then you’re not going to deliver for communities.”
Following former President Trump’s defeat to Joe Biden in the 2020 election, Calvert voted to reject election college votes from multiple states when Congress met to certify Biden’s election on Jan. 6, 2021.
Having helped to prosecute members of the insurgent rioters who breached the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Rollins has also sought to combat conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 election and Trump’s “Big Lie” that the election was stolen, that he feels Calvert has promoted and that foreign adversaries could use to their advantage.
“We, as Americans, all have a responsibility to reject those efforts and to think about how we can strengthen our defenses and our democracy in the 21st century,” Rollins said.
But issues of corruption are not the only points of divergence between the two candidates.
Calvert had previously maintained support in what was a reliably conservative Republican district prior to redistricting in part by opposing LGBTQ rights. His record has included voting for legislation such as the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defined marriage as between one man and one woman at a federal level.
Calvert also voted against the Fiscal Year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which included an amendment that would repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays and lesbians serving in the military. The NDAA ultimately passed the House in a 229 to 186 vote.
In contrast, Rollins has been open about his identity as a gay man and has campaigned alongside his partner.
Having experienced a national atmosphere currently rife with federal and state legislative animus toward the greater American LGBTQ community, Rollins feels his identity has helped him to see what can be possible.
“I think the experience gives me and has given me the optimism to know that the country can change and that your family can change and that your friends can change all for the better,” Rollins said. “And seeing that progress gives me hope for our country’s future.”
Over the course of the campaign, he has criticized Calvert for his past voting history, including Calvert’s vote against the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act that added crimes committed because of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and disability expanding federal statutes.
“These kinds of votes are so inconsistent with what southern Californians want that I think folks have been excited to see somebody who’s able to beat Ken Calvert,” Rollins said.
As the political geography of Calvert’s district has been altered, the congressman has voted in ways that suggest a move toward more moderate stances. Just last month, Calvert was one of 47 House Republicans to vote in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act that would repeal the federal DOMA he once supported and codify same-sex marriage into federal law.
Calvert told the Los Angeles Times in a mid-July interview that his views on matters such as the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision Obergefell v. Hodges, which established the right to same-sex marriage, have evolved.
“It wasn’t always my position,” Calvert told the Times. “It’s a different country than it was 30 years ago.”
Calvert went on to assert his stance that he has harbored no negative feelings toward members of the community.
“I’ve never had any animosity to the gay community,” Calvert told the Times. “I come out of the restaurant business, for goodness’ sake. A lot of people who worked with me were gay.”
The balancing of the playing field regarding LGBTQ+ issues, in part responsible for Calvert’s evolving views or not, is something that Rollins sees as an opportunity.
“Having Democrats outnumber Republicans for the first time ever against Calvert since he was first elected in ’92 has been a huge opportunity for the party and, I think, part of the reason that I’ve been able to set so many fundraising records against this guy, too.”
The prospect of a Rollins success in flipping the seat has already garnered the former prosecutor financial and campaign support from prominent players in progressive California politics including former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) and outgoing San Francisco Democratic U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier.
According to campaign finance filings, this support gained Rollins almost $1.5 million by the end of June, with nearly $480,000 from the LGBTQ Victory Fund Equality PAC which has endorsed his candidacy.
“As anti-LGBTQ bills flood legislatures across the country, voters will have the opportunity to elect someone who has made it his life’s work to increase equity in his community and fight for justice and accountability,” Victory Fund President and CEO Annise Parker said in a statement. “As a federal prosecutor, Will tackled tough cases and won, including helping prosecute multiple insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. This grit is exactly what we need in Congress at a time of heightened attacks on democracy, LGBTQ rights and reproductive freedom.”
Even with increased fundraising, including having been the first challenger to outraise Calvert in a quarterly campaign finance disclosure filing, Rollins still faces a well-resourced incumbent with donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars from national conservative PACs aimed at restoring Republican control of the U.S. House in November.
Approaching the Fall midterm elections, Rollins remains stalwart in his belief that his staunch departure from 30 years of Calvert and his track record will encourage voters of California’s 41st District to believe in him.
“The election’s really not, in November, about Democrat versus Republican,” Rollins said. “In a lot of ways, it’s about integrity versus corruption, and I think that that message has really resonated with people especially because of my own background.”