Richard Bloom’s narrow victory in the 50th Assembly District was certainly a validation of the benefit of the recently adopted “top two” run off that allows that first and second primary finishers will be re-matched in the November general election regardless of partisan affiliation.
The “top two” concept was sponsored by good government advocates and was adopted by California voters over the vehement objections of the Democratic and Republican party establishments. Ideally it would force candidates in the general election to address the concerns of political moderates and force California’s skewered partisan politics toward the center.
In our progressive Westside assembly district it was a bit hard to detect exactly who was supposedly running toward the center as both Betsy Butler, the nominal “incumbent” and Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom were both unabashedly liberal. Previously we would simply automatically vote for whichever Democrat survived the primary as the other candidate would be a Republican who would not be aligned with the politics of the district. But the match up between two Democrats gave voters in the district an opportunity to get a closer look as to who was the candidate who had deeper roots in the district and may be more qualified to tackle the difficult challenges of governing this state.
Despite massive amounts of outside money pouring into Butler’s campaign at the instigation of Assembly Speaker John Perez, Bloom managed to emerge victorious, largely due to the fact that he had actual connections with the district. Given that Butler spent at least $1.5 million to Bloom’s $500,000, the Bloom win was clearly an upset and a repudiation of the Democratic party establishment.
The basic issue was that the Democratic party under John Perez unilaterally decided that the 50th, which is a veritable cash cow for progressive fundraising, should not be able to select its own representative, and that a weak but loyal back bencher, who had been representing the South Bay, would be our anointed as our representative. The fact that Butler was both a carpetbagger and was being imposed on the district by distant powers did not sit well with the locals.
Torie Osborn, the former executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Center and a policy maker for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaragiosa, certainly felt that the Speaker had no powers of appointment that she was bound to respect. Backed by influential former State Senator Sheila Kuehl, Osborn waged an aggressive campaign against Butler. Bloom began a below-the-radar effort to rally his base and connect with voters put off by the carpet bombing mailer campaigns inflicted on the district by Osborne and Butler.
The three progressive candidates in the primary divided feminists, environmentalists and the GLBT community. The most divisive split was in the West Hollywood gay and lesbian community.
West Hollywood council members John Duran and Jeff Prang immediately jumped into the fray, Duran claiming that Butler’s tenure on the Board of Equality California should make her our community’s standard bearer. Prang endorsed Butler, claiming that he was doing so at the bequest of openly gay Assembly Speaker John Perez. For many in West Hollywood’s GLBT community, the endorsements by our council members seemed like cynical power plays given that Osborn had a record of front line community activism going back 30 years. If Osborn herself was not a community icon, certainly her major backer, Sheila Kuehl was.
Other than serving on the EQCA board, Butler’s GLBT resume was a tad thin, to say the least. What stuck many in the gay community was the fact that John Duran, who had run for the state legislature three times, was not endorsing a qualified openly lesbian candidate. Indeed both Duran and Prang had raised money within the community stressing how important it was to have a gay “place at the table.” Prang’s claim that he himself had withdrawn from the race at the bequest of the gay assembly speaker in order to make way for a heterosexual woman was both odd and amusing. You would assume that if someone dedicated to empowerment of our community was withdrawing that he would at least endorse the other viable community candidate.
Many young activists where shocked that our gay male leaders were not too concerned about having a lesbian place at the table. What made it worse was that John Duran clearly made the race personal, as if Osborn’s very presence in the campaign was illegitimate and an affront to his sense of self importance. Duran seemed offended that, after he had endorsed Butler, Osborn would have temerity to remain in the race.
Duran and Prang also had other self-interested motivations for endorsing Butler. Under the newly expanded legislative term limits, Butler as a current member of the assembly could only serve two more terms, for a total of four years. If a new person were elected, they could serve a total of six, for a total period of 12 years. If Osborn won, an assembly seat might not open up for a West Hollywood council member until 2024.
The race took another odd turn when Butler announced the endorsement of the Apartment Owners Association of Los Angeles, historically the biggest foe of West Hollywood’s rent control protections. Both Prang and Duran defended Butler’s acceptance of the endorsement. This defense seemed like a betrayal of the basic interests of West Hollywood tenants. Clearly Butler had a tin year when it came to issues important to our community.
It all blew up at the West Hollywood/Beverly Hills Democratic Club endorsement meeting where Osborn emerged as victor. As she went to the podium to make her acceptance speech, suddenly John Duran started screaming “this is bullshit,” and then, most infamously, “we’re not all lesbians.” Duran’s misogynist tirade was captured by dozens of cell phones and soon went viral.
On primary night, it became apparent that Butler and Osborn were both wounded and for most of the evening Bloom, the underfunded and underestimated candidate was ahead. In the end only about two hundred votes separated Bloom from Butler, despite Butler having the Democratic Party endorsement and having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But the Osborn supporters did not go quietly into the night as the Butler camp had assumed. While the Osborn folks were down, they were not out.
When I appeared at the Stonewall Democratic Club’s endorsement meeting in October, I suspected that the room would be stacked with Butler supporters given that the club’s leadership seemed beholden to the party establishment. But when I spoke in favor of a Bloom endorsement, I was surprised by the level of enthusiastic applause.
Apparently the Osborn supporters had not forgotten Duran’s attack and were out to make their continued displeasure known. In the end Butler got the endorsement, but only by a mere two votes. The disgruntled Osborn supporters across the district found an outlet to express their frustration with the Democratic establishment by voting for Bloom.
So John Duran’s disrespectful comments about lesbians did have repercussions. While Duran wanted to insure that he would be a decisive influence on the race, it turned out to be true in ways that he never anticipated. The 1,700 vote margin of Bloom’s November victory could easily be attributed to the lesbian and gay voters who did not forget Duran’s misogynist tantrum.