Karen Ocamb

Race for CA's 50th Assembly District Is Getting Gritty

Filed By Karen Ocamb | November 29, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Betsy Butler, California Assembly, redistricting, Richard Bloom, Sheila Kuehl, Torie Osborn, ugly races

A version of this story is featured in Frontiers In LA magazine.

Last summer's bipartisan Citizens Redistricting Commission plan to correct the crazy gerrymandered political boundaries in California created massive headaches for legislators seeking re-election. In the redrawn 50th Assembly District that stretches from Malibu through the Westside to West Hollywood, the race pits progressive Assemblymember Betsy Butler against challengers Torie Osborn, a longtime lesbian activist and nonprofit executive, and Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom. West Hollywood Historical Preservation Commissioner and incoming Log Cabin Republicans/LA President Brad Torgan is also running.

Assemblymember Betsy Butler with gay Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (Photo courtesy Butler's re-election campaign)

Last August, Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, who now supports Osborn, described the difficulty the race presents.

"I had endorsed both of them before they were thrown together," Garcetti told Frontiers in August, hoping then that "they can resolve this" so "two amazing women" wouldn't be "turned against each other" and money could be spent on other races.

"I have no question in my mind Torie would be the most extraordinary legislator--maybe a future Speaker--and could probably hit the ground running with as much experience as any freshman has ever had," Garcetti said. "But Betsy has been a friend to this [LGBT] community and a friend of progressivism in the state. So I'm one of those voices to say, 'Ladies, can we figure this out so we don't have to choose between you?'"

But Garcetti added, "People are free to do whatever they want. It's going to be ugly."

And ugly it has become.

Ugly as in nitty-gritty vicious ugly, where friends and allies are being forced to become friend or foe. Hard feelings are framing the race even before the hard issues facing California have been debated. But the race raises hard questions, too, about insider versus outsider and how the 'game' of politics is played.

Gay LA City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, 50th AD candidate Torie Osborn, LA City Council President Eric Garcetti (Photo by Osborn supporter Marta Evry)

The San Francisco Chronicle called the 50th AD race "mud-flinging in Malibu" in a story about the eruption over Equality California's endorsement of Butler without giving Osborn the courtesy of an interview. Osborn was furious.

Butler is "a straight carpetbagger who has never lived in the district," Osborn told the Chronicle. "She's not the incumbent in this district. There is no incumbent in this district. … This is precisely why people are frustrated with this insider, incumbency-protection racket in Sacramento."

But EQCA's Rebekah Orr explained that it was the group's longtime policy to automatically endorse incumbents who are 100 percent for full equality, unless there are extraordinary circumstances. It tells lawmakers that the LGBT lobbying group has their back if they take a tough vote. To not follow the policy would damage EQCA's credibility, Orr said.

Butler said she was "honored" by the endorsement and would continue to fight for equality as she has for more than 20 years.

But because Butler sits on the EQCA board--having raised tens of thousands of dollars for EQCA, their endorsed candidates and the 'No on Prop. 8' campaign--the endorsement was considered an inside deal by Osborn supporters.

"The organization that says it leads LGBT equality in California just endorsed her straight opponent without even interviewing Torie. Sounds crazy, right? Unfortunately, it's worse than that. The candidate they endorsed is an insider from their own board who was elected last November in a different district. And now she's moving into Torie's district because, without a serious Republican opponent, our district seemed like an easier place to keep her job," wrote Courage Campaign founder Rick Jacobs in a fundraising email. "I don't know about you, but I'm sick of insider deals made in secret that determine who is supposed to 'represent' me. … Torie is in this to win with us, not because insiders think she's 'entitled.'"

But since EQCA is not the Victory Fund, pledged to endorse LGBT candidates first and foremost, some of Butler's supporters called into question whether Osborn's outsider campaign was in effect pitting her against openly gay Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, who urged Butler to move into the 50th AD, a small portion which she currently represents, in order to help him achieve a super-majority in the Assembly.

Generally people considering a run for elected office talk to their party leadership--in this case, the Speaker, says longtime political activist Diane Abbitt, an early Butler supporter who co-chaired MECLA, the first gay PAC, and helped develop the EQCA PAC endorsement policy. "I think it makes political sense in terms of being able to use the money that's available in races wisely. It isn't about the personal as it is about the political strategy. There are only so many dollars available."

Assemblymember Betsy Butler with gay West Hollywood Mayor John Duran and gay Councilmember John D'Amico and gay Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Prang (Photo courtesy Butler's campaign)

West Hollywood Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Prang agrees. He dropped out of the race to not run against an incumbent, and endorsed Butler. "As a Democrat, I am appalled by the wholesale destruction of the safety net for Californians and the gutting of education, the environment, health care and other critical programs that serve basic public needs," Prang told Frontiers. "We need to try and secure a two-thirds majority so that we can balance the budget and protect those programs from Republican obstructionism, which has been having a devastating impact on our state."

Prang, who founded the LGBT Caucus of the League of California Cities, notes that LGBTs have been elected in places like South Gate, Montebello, Lynwood, Rosemead and Monrovia. "These are geographic areas where the real pioneering efforts in LGBT elections are taking place and where they are most essential to our movement."

Butler--a strong environmentalist and consumer advocate who Prang said "has always been a well-known leader in Westside progressive issues"--is also endorsed by West Hollywood Mayor John Duran and Councilmember John D'Amico. Councilmember John Heilman has not yet endorsed, and Councilmember Abbe Land said she's staying out of the race.

"Betsy has been one of my closest friends for 20 years," said Duran, one of the nation’s few openly HIV-positive elected officials. "She has been a fierce ally for the LGBT community, as evidenced by the fact that the entire LGBT Caucus, including Speaker Pérez, has endorsed her. Betsy is a life-long friend who has been in the trenches with gay people fighting for decades. Just because she has a non-homosexual orientation doesn't make her less qualified. She is my friend. And I will always stand with her and support her."

"I have great admiration for incumbent Assemblymember Betsy Butler, whom I endorsed for her re-election," State Sen. Mark Leno told Frontiers, adding that he's never dual-endorsed a candidate.

Openly gay L.A. City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, on the other hand, supports Osborn.

"I have worked closely with Betsy Butler as an assemblymember and me as a councilmember since she's been in the Assembly," Rosendahl told Frontiers. "She's an outstanding representative and we have been involved in several issues and projects where I've seen definite leadership from her. I think Betsy is terrific. However, I am supporting enthusiastically Torie Osborn. My relationship with Torie goes back to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s when she was there when my partner and others were dying. And as an open lesbian, she's been an inspiration and a role model for many people over the years. My loyalty to her is strong and very personal. I'm sad to see two great people running against each other. So it's a very, very tough decision for me. Do I go with a partner in the Legislature that I'm working with? Or do I go with the loyalty of somebody I've worked closely with on many issues--dealing with homeless issues when she worked for the mayor, dealing with that incredible Liberty Hill foundation over the years where she put seed money into projects--loyalty matters to me. But at the same time, it's with a heavy heart because Betsy's been a great partner for us."

50h AD candidate Torie Osborn with gay former State Sen. Sheila Kuehl and former West Hollywood City Councilmember Lindsey Horvath (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Osborn's longtime friend former State Sen. Sheila Kuehl says that Pérez was actually going along with Butler's request, since she was "afraid to run" in the southern part of her district.

"Big mistake," says Kuehl. "Moving an assemblymember from another district into a sure-Democratic district is just the opposite of doing anything to secure a two-thirds."

Mike Bonin, Rosendahl's openly gay deputy who is advising Osborn's campaign, agrees.

"There is another talking point circulating that Assemblywoman Butler is running in AD 50 to best serve the interests of the Democrats gathering a two-thirds majority. Huh??? AD 50 is a solid Democratic seat. The seat she is abandoning, AD 66, is a swing seat with a three-point Democratic edge and a well-funded Tea Party candidate," Bonin told Frontiers. "Most roadmaps to a two-thirds majority require keeping the 66th. Our best bet in holding the seat would have been with an incumbent, known in and previously elected by its residents."

The political website Around the Capitol notes that in the new 66th AD, Al Muratsuchi, a Democratic member of the Torrance school board, is running against Republicans Nathan Mintz and businessman Craig Huey, a Tea Party favorite. The district is 38.5 percent Democratic, 35.4 percent Republican--and 24 percent Asian.

50th AD candidate Torie Osborn with Assemblymember Julia Brownley (Photo by Marta Evry)

As for the EQCA endorsement policy, Kuehl said she supports it in most cases. "But when the 'gay candidate' running is not just one of our own, but one of our historic leaders, I don't think this holds.

Is the black community supposed to stick with a white candidate if [Rev.] Jim Lawson or a local civil rights leader was in the race? We don't do enough to keep electing progressives, and the [LGBT] Caucus is always shrinking if we don't pay attention.

"Torie is definitely the un-Sacramento candidate, and that's important this year because there has been such an attitude of go-along and get-along, especially on the budget," Kuehl says. "Remember, I'm not the only one who thinks Torie is the right candidate, including Bill Rosendahl and Eric Garcetti, Antonio Villaraigosa, Jackie Goldberg, Tom Hayden--people who've been in Sacramento and know that you have to stand up to leadership sometimes and stick to your guns when education is bleeding and health care is fading. The race is important because this Westside district has always sent leaders up there who were not connected with the Sacramento establishment and let us loose to do the right thing."

"It is not important for candidates to adhere to the wishes of the leadership; it is important for the leadership to adhere to the wishes of the voters," Bonin said. "That's how democracy works. Sacramento needs to get out of the incumbent protection racket and focus on job creation, education and the environment.

This kind of maneuver shows why California is in crisis. Sacramento puts itself first, and not the interests of the people," Bonin said. "This district has one of the smartest, most engaged and most politically savvy constituencies in the state. They do not want a group of Sacramento pols to choose another Sacramento pol to be their representative. … Torie's insistence that the voters get to choose their own representatives does not constitute a challenge to anyone or anything other than a broken Sacramento culture of incumbency and political self-interest."

Eric Bauman, chair of the L.A. County Democratic Party (who has not yet endorsed) and a senior adviser to Speaker Pérez, described the race as "an embarrassment of riches." Butler is considered an incumbent "as defined by the California Elections Code" and the California Democratic Party, he said. Any other interpretation is "truly trying to spin the facts and blur distinctions."

Assemblymember Betsy Butler with LGBT Caucus member Assemblymember Ricardo Lara (Photo courtesy Butler's campaign)

Additionally, Bauman said, Speaker Pérez has "an obligation to exert leadership" for the Assembly Democratic Caucus. "His support of Betsy is absolutely consistent with that leadership role" and with "no disrespect to Torie or Sen. Kuehl, the Speaker believes that Betsy Butler has earned the support of our community."

Bauman adds: "It's laughable to me when my dear friend Sen. Kuehl talks about Betsy playing an 'insider's' game because, of course, Sheila is the ultimate insider. She served six years in the Assembly, eight years in the Senate--much of it in the leadership--so she certainly understands how the game is played. When you look at the list of people supporting Torie publicly, it's replete with insiders. Of course, so is Betsy's. So for us to make a moral high ground argument--to say that Betsy is somehow ineligible to run in this seat, or that people should not support her because she's not gay--is frankly preposterous!

"I have no doubt that if Torie is elected, she'll be an outstanding member of the Legislature. But I know for a fact that Betsy is an outstanding member of the Legislature. She has a 100 percent voting record on issues of concern to our community, and she has never waivered in speaking out in the strongest terms on behalf of LGBT people and people with AIDS and HIV. Our community long ago moved past always supporting only gay candidates. And we certainly have learned the importance of standing with our friends as we ask them to stand with us."

Delegates to the California Democratic Party will vote their endorsement in February.

(Crossposted at LGBT POV)

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