On a Sunday afternoon in March, the living room of Manhattan Beach residents Lisa Power and Mike Benson looked like a who’s who of recognizable politicians. City officials and school board members roamed in clusters, mingling with State Controller John Chiang and recent Assembly Speaker-elect Toni Atkins.
But the man of the hour was Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, who is running for re-election this November.
“My opponent, who I understand doesn’t live too far away from here, is a gentleman who has never held any elected office, never ran for any office,” Muratsuchi told his supporters. “But the one thing he is good at is raising a lot of money.”
This June, Muratsuchi will face off against Republican candidate David Hadley, an investment banker and Manhattan Beach family man, in the primary race for his Assembly District 66 seat.
Both have already raked in big bucks. As of March 17, Muratsuchi, heavily backed by a number of unions, interest groups and Assembly district campaigns, reported $136,000 in recent contributions and $622,000 cash on hand, while Hadley reported $76,000 in new contributions and $301,000 on hand. Most of Hadley’s donations come from individuals in and outside the South Bay.
District 66 is one of three California Assembly races pundits predict could go to Democrats or Republicans this year. District 36 of the Antelope Valley and District 65 of north Orange County are also swing districts defended by Democrat incumbents.
While incumbent Muratsuchi is a favorite, a number of unpredictable factors can tilt the scale – such as voter turnout, political climate and whether it’s a presidential or off-year election, said Scott Lay, a political blogger who runs AroundTheCapitol.com.
“In the last couple of weeks, David Hadley’s candidacy has moved into strong competition for that seat,” Lay said. “There’s an overall national political dynamic against Democrats. … It could nudge a few percent in the direction of Republicans or non-incumbents, which would include Mr. Hadley.”
This November, Republicans – who hold 25 Assembly seats against the Democrats’ 55 – must gain two seats to diffuse the Democrats’ supermajority power. While holding a supermajority in both chambers gives Democrats the power to approve tax increases, override gubernatorial vetoes and pass emergency legislation without Republican votes, a supermajority in the Assembly alone doesn’t confer any special powers; it is seen largely as a symbolic victory, said Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based political consultant.
“The Senate is much more conscious of the power of supermajority than the Assembly side,” Hoffenblum said. “On the Assembly side, they’re going to want to hold onto as many seats as they can; a supermajority in Assembly is more of an indictment on the Republicans’ weakness.”
Republican candidate David Hadley believes his party has grown stronger in District 66 since last term’s primaries in June 2012, a showdown between Muratsuchi – then a Torrance Unified School District board member and first-time Democratic candidate – and Republicans Craig Huey, a businessman, and Nathan Mintz, an aerospace engineer.
When Huey bested Mintz by 18 points and advanced to the general election that November, he had to loan himself $100,000 to compete in the general election. Muratsuchi beat his opponent, with the help of a $45,000 loan to himself, earning 55 percent of the votes.
“Huey and Mintz spent all their money shooting at each other,” Hadley said. “Huey’s campaign was in debt the day after the primary ended.”
A contested primary was precisely what he thought his party should avoid in 2014. As chairman of the Assembly District 66 Republican Central Committee, he formed the South Bay 100, a group with goals to raise political contributions, register Republican voters, and most importantly, “reconnect the party to the community,” he said.
“The Republican party has obviously not done well in California for a long time,” he said. “… We weren’t communicating with people. We weren’t talking with people at all.”
Membership in the South Bay 100 has grown to 176 people, including about a dozen South Bay elected officials. Contributions have increased as well: The group raised $107,000 in 2013, which Hadley believes is more than the other 79 districts’ Republican central committees combined.
With this strong base of support, Hadley and the committee set out to find the best candidate to take on the race in 2014. For seven months, he met with potential candidates, many of them elected officials. Gardena Mayor Paul Tanaka, who at the time was about to announce his candidacy for the Los Angeles County Sheriff race, declined, but asked Hadley why he wouldn’t run.
“Here was a young man who has made it in business, was educated, was down to earth, a family person, very engaging and outgoing,” Tanaka recalled. “And it was the furthest thing from his mind.”
By August, none of the others the committee pursued had worked out. Actor Ned Vaughn entered the race and dropped out two months later. So with fresh endorsements from Tanaka, Torrance Mayor Frank Scotto and former Redondo Beach Mayor Mike Gin, Hadley committed to running.
Hadley, born and raised in a middle-class family of six siblings in Fullerton, graduated from Dartmouth College with bachelor’s degrees in economics and history. After earning his master’s in economic history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, he worked at a large investment banking firm in New York, where he and his wife Suzanne lived until their first child was born.
The Hadleys have been in Manhattan Beach for 18 years. Their first child is a freshman at the U.S. Military Academy, and they have two daughters at Mira Costa High School and one at Manhattan Beach Middle School.
“I’m in this because I want my kids to have the same opportunity I had to make my future in California,” he said. “But when I look at what’s going on in this state, I’m not optimistic that my kids will have that same opportunity.”
Many of his views align with common conservative views: He wants to protect Proposition 13, a cap on property tax, and says high taxes and a difficult regulatory climate are driving out middle-class jobs, people and businesses. Yet he is a Libertarian before anything else. He voted against Proposition 8 and thinks same-sex marriages should be recognized in states, yet he also believes in a business, individual or religious organization’s right to “follow their conscience in their activities.”
“I do believe in giving a lot of elbow room on the differences that don’t have to separate us,” Hadley explained.
He’s ready to take on hard work, he said, that’s not “glamorous, fun or politically sexy.”
“He didn’t come up the political system,” said Manhattan Beach Councilman Mark Burton, who has endorsed Hadley. “He’s coming with a fresh set of eyes. … He will stand up for the South Bay.”
Muratsuchi grew up on a military base in Okinawa, a small island in Japan; his father served in the U.S. Army. He completed his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, where he enrolled in the legal studies program. It was during this time, he said, that he was inspired to pursue a career in public service as an advocate for disadvantaged people and communities.
“One of the most important lessons I learned at Berkeley is that the point of understanding the world was to change it,” Muratsuchi said. “I feel strongly that I want the point of my life’s work to be about making the world a better place and not just about making money.”
After earning a law degree from UCLA, Muratsuchi worked as a prosecutor for the Santa Ana City Attorney’s Office and later as county prosecutor for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. For 11 years, he was a prosecutor and Deputy Attorney General with the California Department of Justice.
Since settling in Torrance in 1995, Muratsuchi has familiarized himself with the community by volunteering. He served on the board of directors for the League of Women Voters Torrance Area, became president of the Torrance Sister City Association and served on two city commissions prior to being elected to the Torrance school board in 2005. Although he didn’t have any children in the district at the time, he wanted to contribute to make local schools better.
When Muratsuchi found out that Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, a Democrat, wasn’t seeking re-election in the 66th District, he decided to run.
“It was at that point when I started thinking about how I might be able to make a greater impact in the state Assembly, especially as a school board member who survived the worst state budget cuts that California has seen in decades,” he said. “I wanted to fight to restore funding for our schools and our kids.”
He lived up to his promise the next year when he partnered with South Bay school advocates to fight Gov. Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula. Initially, the formula earmarked a lion’s share of the state education funds for public schools with students from low-income families, foster youth and English learners while overlooking suburban districts such as those in Torrance and the Beach Cities.
In the last two years, his scope has expanded beyond public education. He authored a bill streamlining the regulation of solar panel installation, which was signed into law. As chairman of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, he helped bring in $6 million in new funding to help California’s homeless and disabled veterans. Last year, the California chapter of Amvets National Service Foundation named him legislator of the year.
“He’s a moderate on all his opinions, and he’s proven himself,” said Redondo Beach Mayor Steve Aspel, one of Muratsuchi’s endorsers. “If he was a Republican, I would support him too.”
Jim Goodhart, a Palos Verdes Estates councilman, former school board member and a moderate Republican, said he’s been a supporter since the 2010 race. “We share a lot of the same values, and I have continued to be impressed,” Goodhart said. “I’d rather him continue.”
Despite Muratsuchi’s strong record, Hadley is optimistic about his bid and his ability to resonate with the people of South Bay. His team is registering record numbers of voters, he said.
“I’ve got almost 7 1/2 months to reach as many people as we can,” he said. “They don’t care that much about party; they want to vote for a person they know and trust. We’re just trying to make contact with people and find out what’s on their minds.”