Progressive internet personality Cenk Uygur wants to take his trash-talking attitude to the halls of Congress, launching a bid for the California seat recently vacated by former Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA).
But activists in the district say Uygur will be dogged by the many inflammatory remarks he’s made in the past about women and minority groups—and they fear his controversial reputation could squander Democrats’ chances to retain a hotly contested district.
Uygur has become a hero for some progressive Democrats as a co-founder of The Young Turks, a left-wing video site. But voters in California’s 25th District may be less thrilled when they learn about many of Uygur’s past remarks, which include calling women genetically “flawed” because not enough women wanted to sleep with him.
“You should know that misogyny and sexism is not OK, especially if he was a grown adult when he said these things,” said John Casselberry Jr., a Democratic activist and planning commissioner in the district.
At least seven local or state Democratic groups, including the California National Organization for Women and the LGBT-focused Stonewall Democratic Club, have denounced Uygur’s past remarks, with some calling for him to drop out of the race.
“We unequivocally condemn Uygur, and believe he has demonstrated that he is unfit for public office,” California Women’s List, a PAC, said in a statement.
Uygur’s campaign initially didn’t respond to requests for comment. After The Daily Beast first ran this story, though, Uygur released a statement through his campaign saying his old remarks “do not reflect who I am today.”
“The announcement of my candidacy has again brought up remarks I made over the years that do not reflect who I am today or what I believe,” Uygur said in a statement. “Those comments were and are offensive and ignorant. I deeply regret making them and I apologize for the pain they have caused.”
In his statement, Uygur complained that the Democratic groups that criticized him “never reach out to me.”
“At the same time, none of the Democratic groups condemning me have ever reached out to me to see if I might be a different person now,” Uygur said. “They never gave me a chance. Curiously, these same Democratic operatives also blame me for critiquing President Obama from the left. So, I wonder if their concern is that I used to be conservative or if their real concern is that I am too progressive.”
Hill resigned in October, after the conservative blog RedState published nude photos of her and revelations about her relationships with staffers. Her resignation set up a scramble ahead of a March 3 special election for the seat, which Cook Political Report rates as “Lean Democratic.” Former Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA), whom Hill defeated for the seat in 2018, and California Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D), who has Hill’s endorsement, appear to be the leading candidates on either side.
Zakia Kator, a progressive activist and Afghan refugee who lives in the district, said Uygur and his Young Turks video network helped inspire her to get involved in politics and work to elect Hill and other Democrats in the purple district.
But when Kator found out last week that Uygur himself planned to run for the seat, she said her heart sank. Uygur’s campaign is headquartered in Newport Beach, California, far from the district.
Kator, who backs Smith, fears that Uygur could split the Democratic vote and prevent any Democrat from making it through the all-party primary into the two-candidate runoff.
“I’ve never once seen Cenk at anything,” Kator said. “He’s truly a carpetbagger. Nobody knows him, other than the people like me who actually listen to his show.”
Uygur’s opponents could draw on his two decades of controversial statements. In a 2000 blog post, for example, Uygur called women “flawed” while complaining about his sex life.
“It seems like there is a sea of tits here, and I am drinking in tiny droplets,” Uygur wrote, adding later in the post, “Obviously, the genes of women are flawed. They are poorly designed creatures who do not want to have sex nearly as often as needed for the human race to get along peaceably and fruitfully.”
In another post, Uygur laid out his rules for dating, which included third-date advice to women like: “If I haven’t felt your tits by then, things are not about to last much longer.” In a 2004 blog post, Young Turks co-founder David Koller described underage girls he and Uygur met as “whores in training.”
The blog posts have caused Uygur trouble before. In 2017, Justice Democrats, a progressive group Uygur co-founded, cut ties with him and Koller over the blog posts.
Uygur has apologized for his earlier writings, telling The Wrap that they were written when he was a “different guy.” But many of his other controversial remarks occurred more recently, and are captured on video in Young Turks broadcasts.
Several of the remarks are demeaning to women—a sensitive issue in the district after the nude photographs helped force Hill’s resignation. Uygur detractors, for example, have highlighted a 2012 Young Turks clip where Uygur and other Young Turks staffers discussed a mother-daughter porn duo. Uygur quizzed his co-hosts on whether they would have sex with both women at once, leaving aside concerns about incest.
Uygur said that he certainly would have sex with the mother and daughter together, if given the opportunity.
“If I was single, no question, I would do it,” Uygur said.
Uygur’s foes in the district have also highlighted past remarks about bisexual women. In 2012, for example, Uygur said he had never been attracted to Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon—until she came out as bisexual.
“When I found out she was bisexual I thought, ‘Cynthia Nixon,’” Uygur said, raising his voice in approval. “All of a sudden… ‘Cynthia Nixon.’”
In another broadcast on declining rates of sexual activity in Japan, Uygur said he would travel to Japan to take advantage of the opportunity if he were still single.
“Japan is butter, I’m hot knife,” Uygur said, waving his hand to illustrate the metaphorical knife. “I’d run through those girls!”
Uygur has also criticized orthodox Jews and religiously conservative Muslims, saying that they’re “wasting their lives” and teaching their children things that are “Looney Tunes.”
Uygur, a Turkish-American, has also been skeptical in the past of the Armenian genocide. While Uygur now acknowledges that it happened, his previous stance could be another stumbling block for him in the district, according to Casselberry.
“We have a significant Armenian population in Southern California, it’s one of our largest minorities,” said Casselberry, the president of the Simi Valley Democratic Club. “It’s really troubling that he didn’t consider that.”
Uygur opponents like Casselberry have also highlighted his criticism of Barack Obama, a favorite of many Democratic voters. During the 2012 presidential race, Uygur, a frequent critic of establishment Democrats, complained that Obama wasn’t liberal enough.
“He’s conservative in his bones, so I’ve got no love for Obama whatsoever,” Uygur said.
The open seat has appealed to other political personalities. Former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents as part of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, has declared for the seat as a Republican. Former Pizzagate conspiracy theorist and Gamergate promoter Mike Cernovich, who also lives outside the district, has suggested he might run for the seat but hasn’t registered as a candidate.
Democratic strategist Tyler Law said Democrats would have a better chance of retaining Hill’s seat by backing a moderate candidate with ties to the district.
“You need to have the right fit for the district,” Law, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee official, said. “It is more moderate-leaning.”
Smith and Knight didn’t respond to requests for comment on Uygur’s remarks sent to their campaigns. In a tweet last week responding to the prospect of a debate between Uygur and Cernovich, Smith urged them to stay in their own districts.
“Here’s an idea,” Smith tweeted. “How about all of you man spread in your own damn districts?!”
Uygur’s campaign could also suffer from his reputation as a carpetbagger from outside the district.
The new candidate struggled to answer basic questions about the district at a campaign meet-and-greet last Sunday, Kator said. The district had just been rocked by the Thursday shooting at Santa Clarita’s Saugus High School, which left two students and the gunman dead. But according to Kator, Uygur couldn’t name the place where the vigil for the murdered students was being held that night, or the names of the students who were killed.
“The reason Cenk will lose is that he’s not from our district, and he knows nothing about us,” Kator said.