When Alyssa Napuri was growing up in Orange County, Calif., in the early 2000s, she never imagined that an LGBTQ person would hold a senior leadership position in a political campaign in that conservative stronghold. But that’s what Napuri, now an out and proud lesbian, is doing in a much-changed O.C. as the 2020 election approaches, and she’s doing it in a key race.
Napuri has been named campaign manager for Harley Rouda, an LGBTQ-supportive Democrat who in 2018 defeated longtime U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a deeply homophobic Republican, in California’s 48th Congressional District. Orange County, nestled between Los Angeles and San Diego, had long been a hotbed of far-right politics, as exemplified by such members of Congress as Rohrabacher, Bob Dornan, and the late William Dannemeyer. In recent years, the county has become far less conservative, and now all six members of its congressional delegation are Democrats, four of whom flipped seats just last year.
Napuri was part of that blue wave. During the 2018 cycle, she worked with the California Democratic Party as an organizer for three targeted congressional districts in Orange County, the 39th, the 45th, and Rouda’s 48th, then became field director for the 48th as the general election approached. In the latter position, she managed a fleet of volunteers that grew to 8,000 and knocked on an average of 98 doors per minute. Democrats prevailed in the other districts she worked in as well — Gil Cisneros in the 39th and Katie Porter in the 45th.
But as can be expected in politics, when one party wins a seat, the other wants to take it back. The 48th District is a priority for Republicans in 2020, and the party has a favored candidate, Michelle Park Steel, currently a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. She’s definitely a party insider, having been picked by Donald Trump to cochair the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and she’s married to Republican National Committee member Shawn Steel.
Napuri and Rouda are up for the challenge, however. “We’re going to keep true to our values and talk about the issues that matter to the district,” Napuri told The Advocate recently. Those include expanding educational opportunities, protecting the environment, reforming gun laws, assuring access to health care, and creating an economy that works for the many, not the few, as spelled out on Rouda’s campaign website.
They also include LGBTQ equality. Rouda’s first act in office was to sign on as a cosponsor of the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, and other aspects of life, nationwide. The House of Representatives has now passed the bill, but the Senate is unlikely to, and Trump has announced his opposition to it. Rouda’s action showed Napuri, though, that “there’s an advocate for our cause fighting for us,” she said.
Napuri, of course, is an advocate too. She’s been interested in politics for much of her life. She grew up in the 48th District, in the southern portion of Orange County. A descendant of Latin American immigrants, she was raised by a single mother, and she has a stepbrother who has diabetes — one of those preexisting conditions for which conservatives would like to limit health care coverage. All those factors set her up to be a political activist, as did her lesbian identity. She was in high school in 2008 when California voters approved Proposition 8, which revoked marriage equality in the state (until it was overturned in court), and she came out that year.
When she was ready to go to college, her mother mentioned that since Alyssa liked history, it wouldn’t be too much of a leap from that to political science, so poli sci became her major at Arizona State University. After graduating, she worked in Sacramento for a while, doing political consulting at Four Waters Media; she was involved in races ranging from school boards to the California Assembly. In 2017 she returned to Orange County, finding it ready to flip.
Rouda has lauded the job she did for his 2018 campaign and called her the right person to run the show for his reelection bid. “Alyssa Napuri was an integral part of building and supporting one of the most authentic and powerful volunteer efforts in the country last year — overseeing thousands of people who were dedicated to changing their community,” he said in a press release. “I’ve seen firsthand her ability to deliver under pressure and inspire our volunteers. I am beyond excited to have such a hardworking, passionate, effective advocate spearheading my campaign team.”
Given her passion for politics, does Napuri plan to become a candidate someday? She said she isn’t planning that far ahead, and she noted that her Advocate interview was taking place exactly a year out from the 2020 election, November 3. “Right now the only future I see is one year from today,” she said.