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.