May 2012, Week 4


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Mon, 28 May 2012 21:26:42 -0400
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Torie Osborn's Insurgent Run 

Rumble in the Jungle (Primary) West of


MAY 28, 2012

In 2008, thousands of Obama volunteers got fired up
about electoral politics in a way they hadn't been
before. Four years later, some are now running for
office themselves. But few have made a bigger splash in
local Democratic circles than 61-year-old Torie Osborn,
a nationally-known advocate for gay and lesbian rights
and other progressive causes. Her insurgent campaign
for a California Assembly seat has roiled the waters of
Los Angeles-area liberalism and bucked the legislative
leadership in Sacramento, which is circling the wagons
around her main opponent.

If Santa Monica-based Osborn beats Assemblywoman Betsy
Butler in the newly-created 50th Assembly
district--either on June 5 or in a November general
election run-off--her victory over the party
establishment will be a Left Coast monument to what
might have been possible, in more places, if President
Obama (or the Democratic Party) had been serious about
grassroots movement building. "There could have been
100, or even 1,000 Torie Osborns, who came out of the
network of energized people trying to change American
politics in 2008," says California political consultant
Paul Kumar, an admirer of Osborn's "extraordinary
campaign organization" which has hosted more than 80
house parties.

Given Osborn's strong resume as a community organizer,
non-profit group leader, and influential advisor to
several Los Angeles mayors, it's a surprise to some
that her first bid for public office wasn't welcomed by
Assembly Speaker John Perez and other Democratic
legislators. After all, the current crop of salons in
Sacramento is not highly regarded by the public and
could use a little new blood.

As ex-state legislator Tom Hayden noted in The Nation
this month," voter approval of the
Democratic-controlled legislature slinks along between
nine and twenty percent...Despite 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."

A Movement History

Osborn got her won start in politics as a college
student in New England. She was a late-Sixties'
campaigner against the Vietnam War, an activist in the
women's movement, and an early leader of the socialist
New American Movement. In the mid-1970s, she became a
founding staff member of In These Times, the left-wing
monthly in Chicago. In the 1980s and 90s, she played
leadership roles in the National Organization for
Women, a pioneering Los Angeles clinic for HIV/AIDS
sufferers, and the national Gay and Lesbian Task Force
that mobilized hundreds of thousands of civil rights
marchers in Washington in 1993.

In Los Angeles, she directed the Liberty Hill
Foundation and served as a United Way official; in both
positions, she helped channel millions of dollars from
well-heeled Hollywooders into minority neighborhood
projects dealing with gang violence, low-income
housing, and environmental hazards. Her latest
political work has been training young organizers,
promoting voter registration, and helping California
Calls build a community-labor coalition capable of
ending "loopholes for giant corporate property owners
and the requirement of a two-thirds supermajority vote
by legislators to increase taxes."

Like many Democratic Party activists, San Francisco
lawyer and Beyond Chron blogger Paul Hogarth had hopes
that last year's redistricting would give California
Democrats "an historic opportunity to pick up seats in
November-- and win a two-thirds majority that would make
Republicans irrelevant." Instead, according to Hogarth,
"Speaker Perez has diverted resources from competitive
'swing districts' and is instead meddling in Democratic
primary fights in deep-blue seats" so he can
"consolidate control at the expense of everything
else." The likelihood of the Democrats gaining the
necessary two additional seats in both houses of the
legislature has decreased, as a result.

Safe Seat Shopping in Beverly Hills

The Butler vs. Osborn contest is a fine example of both
meddling and resource diversion, on behalf of a loyal
Perez follower. First elected to the assembly in 2010,
Butler is an ex-fundraiser for associations of trial
lawyers and environmentalists. She won office by
defeating a Tea Party Republican in the South Bay
communities of Torrance, Redondo Beach, Marina Del Rey
and El Segundo. However, redistricting left her with an
electorate composed of additional conservative voters
(even though the Democrats still have a slight
numerical edge among those registered overall). She
decided to duck out on a rematch with the GOP candidate
she beat last time-leaving that job to a weaker, less
well-known, and now under-funded Democrat. With full
backing from Perez (and 35 other Democratic
legislators), Butler abandoned her constituents (and
her longtime home in Marina del Ray). From her new
address in Beverly Hills, she announced a campaign for
"re-election" in the re-jiggered 50th district that
includes just 1.7 percent of the voters she now

Despite Osborn's previously announced candidacy and
active support from a dozen local Democratic clubs,
Perez began twisting arms to secure hundreds of
thousands of dollars for Butler from statewide labor
and environmental PACs. Using appointed delegates, he
engineered state party convention backing for Butler in
February. Since last year, Perez and other legislators
have personally donated more to their carpet-bagging
colleague (about $88,000) than to any other Democratic
candidate for the assembly. Among the commercial
interests flocking to Butler's banner is the Apartment
Association of Greater Los Angeles, a landlords' group
that opposes rent control in West Hollywood, Santa
Monica, and other communities that still have it.

Meanwhile, back in the South Bay, the campaign of
Butler's would-be Democratic successor, Torrance School
Board member Al Muratsuchi, has been largely ignored by
Butler donors in the state legislature. Legislative
staffers from Sacramento, who could be aiding
Muratsuchi against two GOP primary foes, will instead
be working the phones, at Perez's direction, as GOTV
"volunteers" for Butler. Says Osborn supporter and LA
City Council staffer Mike Bonin: "Butler is running to
represent Sacramento in the 50th district, while Torie
is running to represent this district in Sacramento."
Bonin contrasts Osborn's enthusiastic young West LA
supporters with the Butler draftees from elsewhere that
he calls "voluntoids."

Claiming the Crown of Incumbency

Under California's new "jungle primary" system,
Democrats, Republicans, and independents run against
each other in the same preliminary field; the top two
finishers go on to a general election re-match in
November. In a safe liberal district like the new 50th,
that means that the competing Democratic campaigns of
Osborn and Butler (or of a third possible top-tier
finisher, Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom) will
continue to consume financial resources that could have
been used to unseat Republicans elsewhere. The several
million dollars raised, in total, by Osborn, Butler, or
groups supporting them will morph into even greater
spending during the five-months of general election
campaigning within the same electorate of 300,000 that
begins after June 5. (Osborn's money at least comes
from 2,200 individual contributors, many of whom gave
under $100.)

Among those backing Osborn are members of
Communications Workers of America Local 9003, headed by
T Santora. He reports that CWA's Southern California
Council broke with the California and Los Angeles labor
federations to endorse the "more home-grown"
candidate--after interviewing both and taking into
account Butler's pro-labor voting record. "Betsy's a
nice lady," Santora says. "But her claiming the crown
as the incumbent didn't work with our members--it just
rubbed people the wrong way. If Betsy wasn't in the
legislature, nobody would know who she was. And, since
she's been there, she's never reached out to us."

In contrast, past legislators from the area had strong
local ties to labor, tenants, consumers,
environmentalists, and healthcare reformers. Santa
Monica and its environs was the political base for
Hayden's post-New Left reincarnation as a California
assemblyman and, later, senator. When he was
term-limited out of office, Hayden passed the torch to
public interest lawyer Sheila Kuehl, who became
California's most effective legislative campaigner for
single-payer health care. Both Hayden and Kuehl
(Osborn's former partner) encouraged Osborn's run this
year. According to Kuehl, "Torie absolutely fits this
district. She's been a leader of one of the most
successful civil rights movements of our time. Then she
made the transition from LBGT campaigning to working on
issues related to poverty, homelessness, and income
inequality well ahead of Occupy."

Nevertheless, as Hayden noted in The Nation, "Perez'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

According to Hayden, who spent eighteen years in the
legislature, when "scores of legislative staff,
willingly or not, hit the phones after-hours, pound on
voters' doors and flood a local district with fliers
proclaiming that the Speaker's candidates are the
'Democratic choice' (or the 'environmental choice,' or
the 'firefighters choice,' or 'lesbian choice,' etc)....
the majority of Democratic voters are deeply influenced
by these endorsements."

Let's hope that, in the June 5 primary (and in November
as well), 50th Assembly district voters will be more
discerning about the choices before them. Because next
January, they can be represented by someone who's
already part of a cozy (if dysfunctional) incumbent
protection club in Sacramento. Or they can send a
Democratic Party crasher to the state capital who will
be a voice, not an echo, in the halls of government.

STEVE EARLY is a former national staff member of the
Communications Workers of America (CWA) who has been
active in labor causes since 1972. He is the author of
The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket Books, 2010).


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