State Sen. Anthony Portantino says he has knocked on about 35,000 doors during his long career in politics.
That one-on-one connection with voters is still what inspires the unabashedly old-school Portantino, who is running to succeed Rep. Adam Schiff as congressman for California’s 30th District. Recent campaign finance reports showing him as the second-highest fundraiser among nearly a dozen candidates make it clear how well-positioned he is for the race.
The New Jersey native came to California to work in film but found his niche in politics, working his way up from a city council seat to the Assembly and then state Senate.
Portantino sat down with WEHOville to talk about his wins, his losses and how hard work has brought him to the front of the pack in this exclusive interview.
- He represents California’s 25th State Senate District, which includes Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, Sunland/Tujunga, Griffith Park and its adjacent Los Angeles neighborhoods, and many communities along the 210 Freeway.
- His spouse Ellen is a successful executive at NBC/Universal and they have lived in the congressional district since settling in their first apartment on Los Feliz Boulevard.
- He came to California from New Jersey to work in film and TV production.
ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL SO FAR
I think it’s going well. Yeah, you know, I enjoy public service and am passionate about getting things done.
And so far, people on the trail have been respecting my work ethic. I’m an old school guy that gets his work done. I love the community aspect. And you know, I always say I get lost on purpose. You find that you meet great people out there.
You learn from them, you get good ideas from them. You talk to them, you learn how to solve problems and bring people together. You know, that’s one of the things I enjoy the most about being a public servant.
ON HIS FIRST RUN FOR OFFICE
I never thought in a million years I’d ever be a politician.
That’s not what I set out to do in life. I came to California from New Jersey to be a filmmaker. I wanted to work to make movies. It was a passion of mine. So I came out here, moved to a tiny town with my wife and daughter where the city council and the school district didn’t get along. I thought that was kind of odd. In a town that’s built around public education, and you had your two leadership bodies of government not helping and working together with each other. So I was 38 years old. I said, you know what? The city council doesn’t have any perspective on young families. So I ran for office. I lost by two votes in that very first election. I had gone out and knocked on 3,000 doors and lost by two votes.
11 months later, I ran again and I ended up getting the highest number of votes history of the city. And people whose doors I knocked on started to come and ask me for help. Neighbors I met out there started to show up at my house. One man who came was embarrassed to ask anybody to help him. And so he asked me, tears in his eyes, to put a sticker on his license plate. Another man called me and said, ‘My wife is having major surgery, and you’re the most positive person I’ve ever met. Can you join our prayer circle and just think positive thoughts for her well-being?'”
ON RUNNING AFTER DEFEAT
Well, I think it showed that as a newcomer to follow, I ended up losing by two votes in the very first election, but then won by a huge margin when I ran again 11 months later. It just gave me a sense that I worked hard that first election, but now I work even harder. And you know, you put yourself out there, and I’ve probably knocked on 35,000 doors in my career on various campaigns, and you know, it just creates a sense of you want to connect, and you want to work hard, and you want to show the folks that you’re willing to put in the effort. So that’s what I’ve done ever since.
When I ran for the assembly, my city was four percent of the district, and people said you can’t run for office for the assembly coming from a city of four percent when you’re running against somebody from a city of 35 percent. And you know, lo and behold, I ended up beating that person by almost 20 points. When I ran for the Senate, people said, well, you can’t run for the Senate because you’ve been out of office for four years. You know, no one ever comes back. And you know, I just kept connecting to folks and showing my priorities and my record, and all in all, I ended up winning the Senate seat when there were other candidates who were looking at it that had far more resources than I did because I just worked hard. So I think those early lessons help you.
ON WORKING WITH THE GOP
I’m a proud, principled Democrat. I believe in the tenets of our party, and I lead with those principles, but I don’t believe in anger. Trump brought in anger, and I think this really hurt political discourse — the polarization that you see in Ron DeSantis and some others. We do better when focused on our priorities. I think you lead with your values and your principles, and you do it in a way where you can attract others to that position.
- He has been a leading advocate for the Entertainment Tax Credit to keep and expand film and TV production in California.
- He championed increased funding for special education and the K-12 Local Control Funding Formula.
- He created California’s umbilical cord blood collection program, pushed back school start time for middle and high schools, banned the open carry of handguns on Main Street, raised the purchase age of firearms to 21, and placed the suicide hotline number on student identification cards.
- He established a unique partnership between the University of California and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
ON MENTAL HEALTH
My brother was one of the pioneers of the gay civil rights movement in San Diego , and he purchased a newspaper called “The Gay Times.” He later changed the name to “The Gay and Lesbian Times” to market to the community as one community. When he passed away, he struggled with
mental health, which is one of the reasons why I do so much work in this area. After his suicide, I heard from so many people who had mental health issues in their family, and that’s why I’ve become a champion for behavioral health issues. It’s not just about me, it’s about the people I’ve met and the conversations I’ve had with friends and neighbors. I see everything through the lens of a dad, thinking about what will help my children and other people’s children.
We have a mental health and behavioral health crisis in this country, and there are many inequities. Some people have access to mental health professionals, but others don’t. We need to create a pipeline to get more people into behavioral health because if we create more policies that create more demand, we need a workforce that’s trained and available. That’s why I put the suicide hotline number on student IDs years ago, and it’s why we moved our high school start time back after 8:30 in California. When you start school later, test scores go up, and the frequency of suicidal thoughts comes down. It’s based on sleep chemistry and science. California is the first state in the country to make this change, and we’re going to have better student wellness on campus as we respect sleep science. So that’s what drives me, and I’m sorry if I got a little bit passionate about it.
ON KIDS AND THE PANDEMIC
I think it’s incumbent upon us as leaders to put in place policies to ensure that we don’t have a crisis that will have significant long-term structural consequences to our behavioral health and wellness. We have to understand that being home and not being with our peers for multiple years creates lasting trauma on our society. My mother used to say that kids lost the ability to just play, and the pandemic has certainly isolated young people from each other, and that is going to have a lasting effect.
The other thing that I’ve noticed is that this generation, my younger daughter and her peers, are far more nurturing and caring for one another than past generations. They really look out for each other. That’s an endearing quality about them, but it’s also indicative of their innate knowledge of how the world is affecting their fears, and how they know that they’re facing these challenges, so they’re stepping up to help each other.
That’s why I’ve created a curriculum for schools about behavioral health. We actually mandated that into the schools through my bills because we
want mental health to be part of overall health education. Because they have this desire to nurture each other, we should give them the tools and knowledge to do it effectively. We mandated that and changed education policy. When you were home sick with a cold, that was an approved absence, but if you were home sick because of depression or anxiety, that was not considered approved. Imagine being a 15-year-old who’s home because you’re anxious or depressed, wondering if your teacher is going to accommodate your behavioral health absence the same way they have to accommodate a physical health absence.
So we changed things. I changed things to make behavioral health treated the same as physical health. When I proposed the bill, I was sitting down with a major editorial board, and an editor asked if I was concerned that a parent would lie on the permission slip for their child’s behavioral health absence. The fact that they asked such a dumb question, that a parent wouldn’t lie over a cold, but would over depression, shows the stigma behind behavioral health and why we need this bill.
ON EFFORTS TO LIMIT SEX EDUCATION
It’s codifying ignorance and scare tactics in these red states. They’re demonizing kids and demonizing knowledge.
We have to stand up for one another, and again, I go back to my older brother who fought for civil rights and equality for his entire adult life. His struggles were so important. My brother and his partner were the first gay couple in California to gain custody of a child over the objection of the biological mother. They took in my niece as a toddler who was living on the streets with a drug-addicted mother. I used to ask where was this child better off, living in a dumpster? Obviously, the answer is my brother and his partner did a wonderful job with my niece.
We have to fight against this demonization of people and the codification of ignorance. It’s important to have knowledge and education about sexual health and other important topics, especially for our youth. We can’t allow red states to deny students access to crucial information and stigmatize those seeking to learn.
AI is fascinating in the sense that we put so much more resources into trying to create more code writers, and I think AI is overtaking that, and we have to be respectful of the power of AI. There are also going to be certain things that AI makes easier to happen. Government takes longer than technology, and I think we have to recognize that. We have to have greater dialogue with the Silicon Valley tech community because they’re moving faster than the government is capable of.
As someone who comes from the entertainment world but also understands the tech world, I believe in creating synergies between sound public policy and technology. We need to have those conversations now and not be reactive later. AI is moving so rapidly that we have to figure out what’s appropriate it’s not stopping for us, and we’re not going to catch up. Government doesn’t work that fast, but we need people who are smart enough to get the folks in the room and figure out what makes sense.
I’ve been having conversations with people in my district and throughout California, and I’ve learned that patience is key. We need to take our time and not be so reactive to the rapid changes that AI is bringing. We need to be proactive and ensure that our policies are aligned with the changes that are happening in the tech industry.
- Senator Portantino is an avid daily bike rider and a champion for active transportation.
- He worked collaboratively with local environmental activists on strong sustainability projects and delivered results.
- Anthony Portantino is the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a Select Committee to foster trade between California, Armenia, and Artsakh.
- He graduated from Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania where he met Ellen on the school’s library steps.
I’ve been to Armenia four times. I am proud to say that I am the only state or federal representative to have made the trip to Artsakh since the 44-day war. I was invited to help by the human rights Defender for Armenia, when he was visiting Glendale. . I have a strong passion for Armenia and have
been working to set up a trade desk in the capital city, as well as a tech incubator that could benefit both California and Armenia.
I believe that getting lost on purpose can lead to good ideas, and I am always looking for new ways to help my constituents. My district has more Armenians than anywhere else in the state or country, and I am honored to have received the endorsement of many Armenian elected officials and organizations, including the Armenian National Committee of America Western Region, Armenian Rights Council, the Painters District Council and the Pipefitters District Council.
I am optimistic about our future.
I want to make sure that people know that I am no better or different from the person who lives next door to you. As my widowed Italian mother used to say, ‘the day you think you’re important, you’re not’. That’s the approach that I take as a representative. Your struggles are my struggles, and the conversations that you have with your loved ones are the same conversations that my family has. So, how can I help?