Torie Osborn’s campaign  for a West Los Angeles assembly seat (50th District) is stirring excitement and mobilizing grassroots volunteers like nothing else so far this year in dreary California, where budget deficits keep deepening and politics decays despite a Democratic governor and legislative majority.
Osborn, a leader of the LGBT community since the AIDS epidemic, the former executive of the nonprofit Liberty Hill Foundation, which supports community-based organizing across Los Angeles, has motivated a solid core of young volunteers, appeared at eighty house parties, raised over $750,000 from 2,200 campaign contributors (many who gave $100 or less) and won eleven endorsements from local Democratic clubs across a district including Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades and Malibu. Recently, inspired by her experience in the 2008 Obama campaign, Osborn has been organizing boot camps where young activists become trained organizers.
(Full disclosure: I represented the district from 1982 through 2000 and support Osborn. I was asked by The Nation to provide this commentary.)
Mike Bonin, chief of staff for LA councilman Bill Rosendahl, calls Osborn “the full Hillel,” someone who is driven by the rabbi’s three questions: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I only for myself, who am I? If not now, when? “Some people are inspired by a good workout or a sunset,” Bonin says, “but Torie seems to get a twinkle in her eye when she sees someone new growing into their own power.”
One would think this is Osborn’s moment. Almost twenty years ago, she led an embattled LGBT delegation in a White House meeting with Bill Clinton. Today, after decades of political struggle, Barack Obama supports same-sex marriage. With her record of turning apparently lost causes into mainstream successes, Osborn has a rare credibility when she now declares she will find a way to achieve progressive taxation and single-payer healthcare in a state mired in stalemate and dysfunction.
But Osborn is battling more than just her chief opponent, Assembly member Betsy Butler. She’s up against the Sacramento-based machine of Democratic Speaker John Perez, a progressive former labor organizer. Perez, who is gay himself, backs Butler, still serving her first Assembly term, who has moved into Osborn’s district from a seat that was reapportioned since Butler’s election in 2010. There is little overlap—estimated at less than 2 percent of voters—between Butler’s old seat, which stretched from Marina del Rey to the South Bay, and the district where she is running against Osborn. For Butler to call herself an incumbent confuses the difference between holding an office somewhere and actually representing voters in a specific district. Butler moved into the 50th District from her over twenty-year residency in Marina del Ray, mistakenly and briefly opened a campaign office outside the borders of the new district, and is now campaigning for “re-election” among voters she hasn’t represented—with the Speaker’s full resources behind her.
The open primary is on June 5, and the top two candidates will face off in November. By that time, well over $2 million may be spent on the race, money that could have been spend against Republicans.
A third Democratic candidate, the hard-working mayor of Santa Monica, Richard Bloom, trails far behind Butler and Osborn in fundraising. While Republicans are less than one-fifth the vote and are unlikely to land their candidate, Brad Torgan, on the general election ballot, they can play a role in November by targeting their votes to whichever Democrat they prefer as the lesser evil. As an example, Butler can court the Republican vote in November by brandishing the endorsement of the landlord’s association, which hurts her in the June primary.
The reason for all this expensive Democratic waste is the Speaker’s Machiavellian belief that an Assembly Speaker always must protect an incumbent member—even when a new incumbent is switching districts. That this law is less than absolute, however, is shown in Osborn’s endorsements from two former Assembly speakers: Representative Karen Bass, who shares Osborn’s experience in community-based organizing, and LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who once employed Osborn to promote public-private partnerships.
(I personally experienced a similar situation twenty years ago when then-Speaker Willie Brown “disappeared” my Assembly district in a reapportionment. Brown redistributed portions of my seat to loyal incumbents, since I was an independent and they were loyal to Brown’s machine. I won the primary anyway, but by a 1 percent margin.)
The Sacramento speaker’s powers are many and little known to the apathetic public, which is why Butler may have a chance. These powers include demanding big money from contributors who need his favor, influencing members of his caucus to support his candidate preferences and pressuring progressive groups like labor and environmentalists whose crucial legislative proposals often depend on his nod. He can manipulate the appointed state party delegates into endorsing his favored candidates. On occasion, he will “Speaker-ize” a bill or budget measure, which means he expects his members and allies to fall into line or face the consequences.
Speaker Perez did not reply to questions forwarded through his office, although a top representative granted a two-hour off-the-record discussion.
The Speaker is also known to deploy scores of legislative staff, willing or not, to hit the phones after-hours, pound on voters’ doors and flood a local district with fliers proclaiming that his candidates are the “Democratic choice” (or the environmental choice, or the firefighters choice, or lesbian choice, etc). Cut off from independent information on Sacramento inside baseball, the majority of Democratic voters are deeply influenced by these endorsements.
Former Assemblymember Jackie Goldberg, now an Osborn backer, happens to support these speaker’s powers as the only glue that holds an unruly caucus together. But, she says, progressive groups and legislators “are not gonna cross the speaker” on these issues. Goldberg, who endorsed Butler in 2010 in her old district, now sees the contest as between a “real game-changer” (Osborn) and a “good vote” but one loyal to the Speaker (Butler).
“Butler is running to represent Sacramento in this district, while Torie is running to represent this district in Sacramento,” says Mike Bonin, a Council staffer in LA. The Osborn campaign has real volunteers while Butler only enlists “voluntoids,” he dryly adds.
California voter approval of the Democratic-controlled legislature slinks along between 9 and 20 percent in recent Los Angeles Times and Field polls, ominous numbers for someone running as an insider incumbent. Despite Democratic majorities in both houses and control of all statewide offices, the Democratic Party seems chronically unable to deliver the minimum that voters want from their government: results. College tuitions keep rising, and college doors keep closing. School funding keeps declining. Wetlands and redwoods keep disappearing. Billions spent on mass transit do not reduce congestion and air pollution. To a disillusioned majority, all the Sacramento fights appear to be about slowing the rate of California’s decline.
The situation is ripe for rejuvenation. But the Speaker so far is disinclined to retreat from his expensive intervention in the Osborn-Butler primary, where he sides with the political status quo against a new arrival.
The Speaker might reread Shakespeare or historian Barbara Tuchman, both of whom chronicled how unbending political ego can bring down the powerful. Seen as tragedy, the Democratic establishment is attacking the very kind of candidate who might revive voter belief in their party.
Osborn is not just another progressive candidate. As she jokes, she’s “a lesbian with an MBA”—and more. After years of fighting for LGBT rights and other causes, she threw her energy into the 2008 Obama campaign because of her belief in the necessity of organizing broader coalitions. At the time, the LGBT community was in a losing and confusing battle over Proposition 8, which overturned the legalization of same-sex marriages in the state. In the midst of that battle, Osborn helped to obtain Obama’s endorsement of the “no on 8” position, which would have boosted support for the LGBT stance among African-American and Latino voters. After the campaign against Prop 8 went down to bitter defeat, Osborn was critical of what she called the “insularity” of the LGBT leadership who ran the campaign and failed to use Obama’s statement. She has some scars as a result.
Butler’s political career, until 2010, consisted of professional fundraising, the modern way many young activists work their way up the ladder. Butler was the top fundraiser for the California trial lawyer’s association, known by political insiders as an “anchor tenant” of the state Democratic Party. During December 2008, the trial lawyers helped fund a $14,000 retreat for legislators in California’s wine country to internally discuss the Sacramento budget stalemate. Such insider retreats are considered in the Sacramento world to be important lubricants in bringing interest groups together, but they are the stuff that angers and alienates many voters.
To her credit, Butler did pass legislation last year to ban a dangerous hormone-disrupter (BPA) from baby bottles and plastic sippy cuts, a victory long sought by the California League of Conservation Voters, for whom Butler once raised funds. But then Butler filled district mailboxes with thousands of plastic baby-bottles, manufactured in cheap-labor Mexico, to trumpet her achievement. The stunt backfired with many voters, and Butler’s phone banking crews were instructed to tell callers to give the empty bottles to mothers or charities.
Butler’s plastic bottle mailing was the brainchild of her consultant, Richie Ross, a legendary Sacramento consultant known for his anything-goes, negative-campaign tactics. Ross is a longtime consultant for the United Farm Workers, who now back Butler for sponsoring a bill allowing workers to sue negligent employers who violate state regulations against heat prostration. The cause is a worthy one and might succeed. But the Sacramento-based culture of liberal favors and fundraising cannot mask the sharp decline of unionized farm workers in the fields since Ross began as a UFW volunteer decades ago. Only a revival of a progressive organizing culture can accomplish that.
While Butler exposes her liberal side today, she was a vocal cheerleader for the military-industrial companies as a representative for the 53rd District. Voters on the Westside won’t be hearing of her recent Assembly resolution extolling Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 at a capitol-lawn cockpit demonstration this spring. The F-35 is widely known as the most overpriced Pentagon boondoggle in recent memory.
But perhaps most interesting is Butler’s claim of successfully working “across the aisle” with Republicans, as proven in the passage of SB 161, a new law that allows trained volunteers, in the absence of registered nurses, to administer the anti-seizure medication Diastat to school children with epilepsy. The Republican bill was fiercely opposed by organized labor, including nurses and teachers. Butler says she provided the “key vote” enabling the bill to pass out of the education committee, although the recorded vote there was 6-3. Then, however, Butler chose not to vote when the bill came to the floor for final passage. When I asked her why, Butler said she voted to move it out of committee so there could be a “fuller discussion.” She gave no reason for not voting, except to respond that “it’s done all the time, didn’t you do it when you were here?” (I couldn’t recall if I did.)
When I probed Butler to explain her differences with Osborn, she stressed that “we have to make hard decisions up here,” and immediately dropped the comment that “I don’t know how Torie would vote” on issues like the Diastat bill. “The teachers and nurses have given her a lot of money,” Butler hinted, suggesting that Osborn would have caved to those liberal interest groups concerned about amateur applications of epilepsy medication. Or on the other hand, Butler could claim that her committee vote was a mere courtesy and her non-vote on the floor might soften or erase the memory of labor lobbyists. In what Jerry Brown calls the “pretzel palace” of Sacramento, who really knows?
“I am not an outsider,” Butler vehemently insisted to me. “I don’t feel like an outsider.” Then I asked her the basic question at the heart of the matter:
“Have you told the Speaker you will vote against him where your conscience and constituency demand it, even when he insists that he needs your vote?”
Butler carefully word-picked her way to finally answer that while there are times when she will vote differently from the speaker, “my priorities are greatly aligned with his and the speaker pro tem of the Senate.” Asked to provide an example where she might break from the Sacramento machine, she answered, “it’s hard to say how I will vote in any situation, I will have to get back to you and let you know.”
Let’s hope the voters in California’s 50th get a chance to press Butler on the matter before they vote.