A political bombshell exploded in the early morning hours of Monday, February 7.
Jane Harman, an influential U.S. Congresswoman who only three months earlier had earned her ninth term representing District 36 in yet another landslide election victory, began the work week in Washington D.C. with the surprise announcement of her resignation. The powerful Democrat was leaving Congress to become the head of a political think-tank.
The word hit California before business hours had even begun. Almost nobody had seen this coming.
Such was the Congresswoman’s sway that her seat had long been considered high-nigh untouchable. Anti-war candidate Marcy Winograd had done relatively well coming within 20 points by attacking Harman from the left in the last two Democratic primary elections. Republicans rarely bothered putting up a candidate who was anything more than a sacrificial lamb for electoral slaughter.
One political aspirant was apparently less surprised than the rest.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn had recently attended the State of the Union with Harman, and she received a phone call from the Congresswoman that morning. Within hours, she announced her candidacy for the special election to fill Harman’s seat.
“This is a district I know well,” Hahn said in what did not appear to be a hastily prepared press release. “The two main economic engines on either side of the district — the port and the airport — have been two of my biggest focuses on the City Council, as I have worked hard to create jobs and economic opportunity for everyone.”
Hahn may have had a head start, but it didn’t take long for other candidates to enter the fray.
Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who served 14 years as a state assemblywoman and senator representing the South Bay, also quickly jumped in the race. Although she didn’t make a public announcement, she contacted state Democratic Party chair John Burton that same day to inform him of her intention to run for Harman’s seat.
Within days, Bowen formally announced and Winograd likewise signaled her intention to run. By the end of the week, Redondo Beach City Attorney Mike Webb – a Republican – announced his candidacy.
Republicans saw a rare opportunity. California had just made a fundamental change to its election process, switching to a so-called “jungle primary.” Instead of competing in separate party primaries, all candidates would compete in one “open” primary election. The dynamic seemed promising for Republicans, despite the fact that Democrats hold a 45 to 28.5 percent edge in registered party voters in the 36th District, which stretches north from San Pedro, through Torrance, the beach cities, Mar Vista, and part of Venice.
The notion was that Bowen and Hahn, and to a lesser degree Winograd, would split the Democratic vote in the May 17 primary and create an opening for a Republican to finish in the top two and then compete in a runoff election in July.
Webb clearly hoped that by quickly jumping in the race Republicans would rally around him. He had family roots in San Pedro, popularity in Redondo Beach, and the support (and statewide database) of powerful L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley.
But other local Republicans entered the field. Hermosa Beach Councilman Kit Bobko, Redondo Beach Mayor Mike Gin, and Rancho Palos Verdes businessman Craig Huey all joined the fray in the weeks after Harman’s resignation. By the time all was said and done, a field of 16 candidates was running for Congress: two more Democrats, teacher Loraine Goodwin and entrepreneur Daniel Adler; another Republican, businessman Stephen Eisele; Libertarian Steve Collett; Peace and Freedom Party candidate Maria Montano; and three candidates with no party preference, Katherine Pilot, Matthew Roozee, and Michael Chamness.
It is a race unlike any the South Bay has seen before. As Republican pollster Steven Kinney said in an interview this week, “This has kind of become a free for all.”
Further complicating matters are two more factors: whoever wins will have the least seniority in all of Congress and will hold the seat only months before having to gear up for a reelection campaign in what will quite possibly be a vastly reconfigured district. The state is in the process of its first major redistricting effort in two decades, and District 36 – with a strange contour that cuts out most of the more conservative Palos Verdes Peninsula – is expected to be one of the areas significantly altered.
John Parsons, a former two-term Redondo Beach councilman, noted that even Republicans with little chance at winning stand to gain name recognition for a 2012 race that is likely to be more favorably aligned for the GOP.
“I think that is probably, to some extent, a good enough reason to get into it, even if you don’t think you have much of a chance of winning,” Parsons said.
Most political observers don’t believe any of the Republicans have a chance to win in this election. An internal poll conducted by the Feldman Group and released by the Bowen campaign two weeks ago showed Hahn and Bowen tied with 20 percent of the vote each, Gin at 8 percent, and Winograd at 6 percent. The poll showed Bowen with a 40 to 36 percent lead in a potential runoff scenario.
A source within the Hahn campaign confirmed that their internal polls likewise show a close race between the two candidates and a huge gap between them and the rest of the field. As a result, both camps are largely “keeping their powder dry” and saving campaign resources to face off in a July 12 runoff election.
The Hahn campaign suggested the poll results were damaging to Bowen.
“We’re stunned that Bowen would release a poll that shows 80 percent of the voters she represented for 14 years rejecting her,” Hahn spokesman Dave Jacobson told the website Politico, which obtained the internal poll from the Bowen campaign. “Obviously Bowen’s campaign is struggling to find something positive to say to potential donors after such a dismal fundraising effort. Janice Hahn has always known this would be a tough race, but right now it’s clear that she has the message, momentum and resources to win.”
According to Politico, the Bowen campaign released its results to counter the perception that Hahn had built a campaign juggernaut. Her quick burst out of the gates was startlingly effective. Hahn, the daughter of former L.A. Mayor Kenneth Hahn, is known for her aggressive campaigns. Many local elected officials received repeated calls from Hahn seeking endorsements in the days after Harman’s resignation, and in some cases that very morning. She subsequently won the lion’s share of endorsements from state and local elected officials as well as labor unions and is thus far outdistancing her rivals in fundraising (see sidebar).
But the fact that Bowen is running close with Hahn despite the Councilwoman’s edges in finances and endorsements also speaks to Bowen’s name recognition and the deep support she has still has after serving this area 14 years in both the state assembly and senate. Political columnist and former Redondo councilman Bob Pinzler – a Bowen supporter – suggested endorsements are often overrated. He said Bowen’s more understated style has a way of both winning campaigns and serving constituents effectively.
“I think she would be the kind of person who would be able to work her way through the morass of Congress to get stuff done,” Pinzler said. “Because that is the way she works. She is not necessarily interested in getting credit. She is interested in results.”
Longtime Democrat, union activist, and former Redondo councilman Kevin Sullivan – who has endorsed Hahn but is also friendly with Bowen – said Hahn has unique political gifts that likewise would translate well in Washington.
“Janice Hahn has the ability to be popular and have national recognition,” Sullivan said. “That is very unusual – most elected officials are either state or federal oriented, or they are people-oriented. Janice is people-oriented and she knows government. She is a fighter, and she wins her battles.”
At any rate, Sullivan contended the race will come down to Hahn and Bowen. He said Republicans blew their chance to compete by not unifying behind a single candidate.
“One candidate could sneak in the middle of the two, but they divided up the vote, so it’s not going to happen,” Sullivan said. “That is a political reality.”
Kinney said he has not conducted any polls, but he cautioned against counting any Republicans out in such an uncertain political environment. He noted that Winograd is still a wildcard for Democrats because her supporters, though perhaps fewer in number than her Democratic opponents, have been shown in previous polls to be more highly motivated to turn out. He also predicted a low turnout of roughly 18 percent.
“I don’t see a lot of movement out there,” Kinney said. “Obviously there is a lot of support in the Democratic community for Bowen and Hahn, but with such a big field nobody is going to get 50 percent. There is hope that a Republican can still make it into the runoff. I still think this race boils down to the last few days of the campaign. Anything can happen. I don’t think anybody has it necessarily won.”
Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Democrat: Democrat Debra Bowen, two-term California secretary of state and a former South Bay state senator and assemblywoman, touched on her experience serving the area, and asked “everyone in this district who has voted for me since 1992” to do it again during Monday night’s debate at Dave’s Garage in Torrance. The debate, in which 13 of the 16 36th Congressional District candidates participated, was sponsored by the League of Woman Voters.
Bowen pointed to the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award she won for “taking on our broken voting system” and fixing it, beginning with an extensive review that uncovered flaws in the state’s systems, and led to improving election security.
She touched on her co-authorship of Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, saying that climate change “could impact our water supply dramatically, for the worse.”
She said she was a young volunteer for the environmental group Heal the Bay, holds the sole endorsement of the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters, and started recycling programs and paperless efforts in her state agency.
“You will find we are more online than in-line,” she said.
Bowen said she wants to focus on job creation in and beyond aerospace and defense, “keeping our promise” to seniors who rely on services, and maintaining strong systems of public education and higher education.
She expressed strong opposition to GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan that would cut $750 billion from the Medicaid program for low-income Americans and presage cuts to Social Security.
Bowen said Social Security has cut senior poverty from 57 percent to 10 percent, while Medicaid and Medicare have improved the quality and longevity of people’s lives.
She also spoke of reducing U.S. military presence overseas.
“We need to bring our troops home from Afghanistan now, as soon as we can safely do so,” she said. “…We have domestic needs to take care of.”
During trips to Afghanistan and Iraq, she said troops have talked to her “about their third deployment, and their fourth deployment, and what happens with their families.”
She said federal government habits, including an intemperate funding of wars, contributed to current economic woes.
“The country did not have a budget deficit when Bill Clinton left office, we had a budget surplus,” Bowen said.
She said it would be “devastating” to California to eliminate a tax break for mortgage holders. Asked about “science-based sex education” including information about condoms, she said such information is important.
Hermosa Beach Councilman, attorney Kit Bobko, Republican: Republican Patrick “Kit” Bobko, a two-term Hermosa Beach councilman and partner in a law firm, touched on his service in the U.S. Air Force and called for cuts to tax rates and government spending, and a close look at entitlement programs during the League of Women Voters debate
“We have to cut spending,” he said. “…It’s the road to economic perdition.”
He said Bowen and Hahn, who sat to one side of Bobko on the dais, were “philosophically and physically to the left” of him, and urged liberal voters to “feel free to split the vote” between the two.
In the staggered questioning, some of the candidates were asked what they had done for the environment. Bobko answered with relish, pointing to his council votes to help property owners install wind turbine and solar energy equipment, and his leading role in a sweeping overhaul of Hermosa’s Pier Avenue, which has won national awards for cutting-edge features that prevent storm-water pollution from running into the ocean.
Asked about U.S. trade policy, especially “free trade” versus “fair trade,” Bobko said, “I believe in free trade.”
He said U.S. trade imbalances stem from having “the highest corporate tax rates in the industrialized world” at 35 percent, which leads corporations to “park” trillions of dollars outside the U.S.
“Capital will flow where it can best be used,” he said.
Bobko said he opposes raising the nation’s debt limit, a move that is supported by those who fear a U.S. debt default and opposed by those who want to instead cut spending. He likened the nation’s approach to debt to that of an individual.
“Every time your bills come due, you can’t just raise the amount you owe,” he said.
“We must stand firm” and cut into the deficit, Bobko said.
In response to a question about bringing troops home from overseas and stopping “unfunded wars,” Bobko touched on the events of the day before, when Osama Bin Laden was killed.
“I think it is important for all of us to know that Mr. Bin Laden was not struck down by a bolt from the blue,” he said.
Bobko praised “rough men willing to go overseas and protect our freedom” from “people in the world who want to do us harm.”
“National defense is the number one thing the government provides,” Bobko said.
Asked about schools teaching “science-based sex education” including information about condoms, Bobko said he does not view that as a federal issue. Ideally, he said, such issues should be addressed where people find their moral base, such as the home or church.
Entertainment businessman Daniel Adler, Democrat: Daniel Adler, an entrepreneur and film industry producer, positioned himself as a pragmatic Democrat in a heavily Democratic district, who can “build bridges and drive consensus” instead of contributing to congressional polarization.
“The reality is a Democrat is going to win this election…the question is, what kind of Democrat,” he said.
“We need someone who can get things done,” Adler said.
Turning to employment in the district, Adler said broader civilian applications can be found for some of the work of the aerospace industry, although military applications will continue to be important.
“I think there are tremendous opportunities to convert existing infrastructure into innovative new ideas,” Adler said.
On the economy, Adler said Congress will have to work together to make “painful cuts” in spending.
“We can’t just borrow from our children [by running up debt] or just borrow more from China,” he said.
He said “we can’t keep raising” the nation’s debt limit, a move that is opposed by lawmakers who want to instead cut spending, and supported by those who fear the U.S. will be forced to default on its bonds.
“We must live within our means,” he said.
On a question about the future of “Medicare for all,” Adler said “we must honor all our obligations” to seniors and work to hold down healthcare costs, including those related to billing.
More of the healthcare dollar should go to “actual healthcare and, even better, preventive care,” he said.
Adler opposed eliminating a tax deduction for mortgage holders as a way to reduce the deficit, saying it’s important to keep homeowners in their homes, paying their bills.
Responding to a question about schools teaching “science-based sex education” including information about condoms, Adler said it would help prevent disease and unwanted pregnancy. He said not all young people will abstain from sex.
“I believe information is power,” he said.
Realtor George Newberry: Republican George Newberry, a Realtor and retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, described himself as a pragmatist who can “work from the middle” to solve contentious issues. He said he wants to help right the economy.
“I’m running because I’m sick and tired of seeing us mortgage our kids’ future with this deficit,” he said.
Newberry said Obama “is going the wrong way raising taxes. We need to lower taxes, and close loopholes for big corporations.”
“The top 1 percent of income earners in California pays half the income tax, and that’s a fact,” he said.
He said high taxes drove Nissan, Arco and other businesses out of California, and high taxes nationwide can drive companies out of the U.S.
“Taxing the rich is not the way to go,” Newberry said.
Newberry favors eliminating the federal Department of Education which, he said, has a $4.8 billion budget for the upcoming year. Instead, he said, Congress should establish testing requirements for schools, and the results would be evaluated by a think tank within the National Institutes of Health.
“I would get rid of the Department of Education and its overhead,” he said.
Asked about raising the nation’s debt limit – which is opposed by lawmakers who want to instead cut spending, and supported by those who fear a U.S. bond default – Newberry focused on spending.
“I want to look at it as ‘how do we balance the budget,’ not ‘do we raise the debt ceiling,’” he said, calling for lower corporate tax rates and reduced government redundancy.
Newberry strongly opposed ending a tax deduction for mortgage holders as a deficit-reduction measure, saying such a move would discourage home buying.
“If you want to see this country go over the cliff, eliminate that,” he said.
Asked about Israel and Palestine, Newberry endorsed a two-state solution, but said the handling of Jerusalem remains a thorny problem. He also said instability in neighboring Lebanon should be addressed.
“If we could solve the Lebanon problem that would help in solving the Palestine problem,” he said.
Responding to a question about schools teaching “science-based sex education” including information about condoms, Newberry said such education is important because youthful abstinence will not be universal.
“Our grandparents did not abstain, our parents did not abstain…” he began, drawing the largest and longest laughter of the evening, drowning out the rest of the sentence.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, Democrat: At Monday’s forum, three-term Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn discussed her experience working in the area while repeatedly pushing for clean energy alternatives and bringing U.S. troops home from the Middle East.
“I believe it’s time we brought the money we are spending on wars abroad back home,” Hahn said. “I plan to fight for investments in clean, alternative energy…to reduce our dependency on foreign oil and all oil…I will be a champion for small businesses,” the Democrat said.
Hahn said that, if elected, she would work to provide low-interest loans and tax credits to employers who create new jobs and promoted America Fast Forward, a program that provides bonds for local jobs initiatives. She also highlighted the provision of universal health coverage and the protection of school funding as top priorities.
When asked how she would deal with rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, Hahn said she would invest in clean, alternative energies and pointed to Measure R as a way to fund such technologies. In order to rebuild, Hahn called for “frontloading” funds for the next decade to “put 160,000 people to work, ease congestion, improve highways and extend the Green line to the airport.”
Hahn was open, but cautious, to GOP Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposal of $750 billion Medicaid cuts for low-income Americans and said that Americans should keep a focus on preventative health care.
“Seniors are very concerned about the proposed budget that pretty much dismantles Medicaid,” Hahn said. “Let’s not get back to a place where people had to choose between health care and prescription drugs and paying their mortgages.”
Hahn said she is opposed to off-shore oil drilling and the issuance of new drilling permits.
“I would like to see us get off our dependence on foreign oil and all oil,” said Hahn, who called for a national policy for renewable energy, similar to California’s Global Warming Solutions Act. “There’s no level playing field for companies with clean, green technologies.”
Hahn said that the government should raise the national debt ceiling.
“It’s a real opportunity for us to have accountability and reform,” said Hahn, “But the real track is creating more jobs and…investing in clean energy and green technologies. I’d like to see us become the new green Silicon Valley of California.
Hahn said she is opposed to the elimination of mortgage interest rate reductions.
“We want people to buy homes,” she said. “We know that with home ownership, benefits come to the neighborhood.”
Hahn is supportive of science-based sexual education in schools for teens.
“It would be great if everyone had an open, loving home where parents talk to their kids about sex…but there are too many babies having babies,” she said.
Business owner Craig Huey, Republican: Small business owner Craig Huey positioned himself as the antithesis of a career politician, twice jumping down from his panel seat during the forum to engage the audience.
“How many of you think the economy is in trouble?” Huey asked during his opening statement. “We’re in an economic crisis…My whole goal is to create jobs and economic sanity,” the Republican said.
When asked how he proposes to balance the federal budget and lower the national deficit, Huey said dramatic cuts are necessary.
“We cannot continue to spend more than we take in,” he said.
Huey said one of the first things he wants to do is lower taxes and “get the economy moving again.”
When asked how she would deal with rebuilding the country’s infrastructure – in light of old power grids and sewers in the district – Huey criticized what he called “$200 billion of waste” reported in duplication in bureaucratic agencies.
“We need to get the economy under control and start making the right priorities,” he said.
Huey said he supports off-shore oil drilling and blames the California’s Global Warming Solutions Act for putting people out of work due to drilling moratoriums.
Huey was not supportive of raising the nation’s debt ceiling and warned that future generations will have a lower standard of living if the U.S. continues to borrow.
“I don’t borrow,” Huey said. “We need to fire career politicians [who are overspending].”
Huey is opposed to the elimination of mortgage interest rate reductions and said it would compound the recession and number of foreclosures.
He also called scientific-based sex education for teens in school “a shallow approach to a very complex issue.” He said the decision should be left up to schools and parents, not by the federal government.
Huey criticized former 36th District Congresswoman Jane Harman for resigning from her seat three months after her re-election, causing tax payers to fund another election.
“It’s ridiculous what she did,” he said.
Business owner Stephen Eisele, Republican: Stephen Eisele, an aerospace entrepreneur and businessman, wants to strike a balance between the public and private sectors and Monday night outlined his top priorities as jobs, economic growth and freedom to reinstate the entrepreneurial spirit.
“It’s about the entrepreneurial and talent in the district that we need to maintain,” the Republican said.
“I see that talent leaving every day to other states and countries. We need to find a way to keep them here,” he added.
Eisele, who strongly called for cuts in government entitlement spending, said that such a balance is necessary to balance the federal budget and lower the national deficit and that “if the private sector is successful, it will move money into government coffers.”
“But right now public programs are outweighing [the private sector] in spending,” he said.
When asked about the future of “Medicare for All,” Eisele said he supports affordable access to health care for all.
“I don’t necessarily think the government is the key to solving that,” he said. “We need to keep promises and make changes for the future so my generation and younger get benefits.”
He also called for tort reform and for allowing insurance companies to compete across state lines to bring down healthcare costs.
Eisele said that the government needs to take a “measured approach” to off-shore drilling since alternative energies can not yet replace oil.
“We can do both,” said Eisele, who said that drilling should continue in places where it is already occurring. “Right now, we’re just not there in efficiency.”
When asked about the elimination of mortgage interest rate reductions, Eisele pointed to the creation of jobs as the number one factor in boosting home-buying.
“If we ship them out of state, no one will be able to afford houses anyway,” Eisele said.
Eisele said he was supportive of science-based sex education for teens in public schools, but that abstinence should also be taught as part of the curriculum.
“It’s been an ongoing issue forever,” he said. “The family, the church and schools should have that role.”
Marcy Winograd, high school teacher, Democrat: Democrat Marcy Winograd represents the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. She twice challenged Jane Harman from the left, attacking her support for warrantless wiretapping and the invasion of Iraq in the 2006 election and last year mounting a campaign in which she called the former Congresswoman as “the best Republican in the Democratic Party.”
At Monday’s forum, Winograd positioned herself as one of the frontrunners, noting that she wouldn’t need as many votes as she’d won in either of her previous runs to win the race.
“If I got 18,000 votes the first time and 19,000 the next time, I don’t need all those votes to win this race,” she said. “[But] I need most of those votes.”
Winograd said that the time had come to transition from a war economy to a “job rich peacetime economy” and change the course of the country. She said the killing of Osama Bin Laden this week represented a turning point.
“We have an opportunity, as we close a chapter in American history, to move beyond revelry and celebration and establish the rule of law, to build a strong relationship with every country in the world, particularly the Arab countries, to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict so that we are truly secure.”
Winograd specifically called for change within the economy of District 36, to move away from military production and become a leader in environmental technologies, such as mass transit and solar power.
“We know we can employ twice as many people in mass transit as we can in weapons manufacturing…So it behooves us now to start that transition because we want to put all of America back to work,” she said.
Part of that transition, she said, also involves bringing our troops home and helping soldiers find their place in society. “We can be a superpower of peace,” Winograd said. “Let us be one.”
Winograd said the repeal of the Bush tax cuts was “long overdue” and expressed her support for a single payer system that goes beyond last year’s health reform.
“Americans have a right to health care,” she said. “Most industrialized countries in the world have universal access to health care.”
See a related story on Republican candidates Mike Webb and Mike Gin, the city attorney and mayor of Redondo Beach, respectively.