In the last election, two Assembly candidates did something that isn’t often accomplished in legislative elections, but is more likely following redistricting: They beat an incumbent.
From two of the most liberal, Anglo, affluent, coastal districts in the state, Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, and Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, were able to defeat incumbents, Betsy Butler and Mike Allen.
In both districts, Bloom, Levine and their consultants chalk it up to the fact that both contenders were well respected local elected officials in large cities facing opponents who were forced to run in a district where very few voters knew them.
“Maybe a commonality with the Bloom race and Levine race, is Marc comes from city government and working together, getting stuff done and had a better platform in the general election … A major theme was just a strong local choice, Levine was a guy that had been from the district all along and he got things done at the local level and bringing a fresh approach to Sacramento was a part of it,” said Leo Wallach, Levine’s consultant.
“Voters have a higher regard for city leaders than those at the state level. City leaders come to governing from a good place, solve the problem first approach, rather than be partisan,” Wallach added.
“It was more of a general message that Richard is a good responsible elected official. He’s not committed to special interests and he had good record to run on because the city of Santa Monica works very well,” said Renee Nahum, Bloom’s Field Consultant. “I don’t know why anyone underestimated Richard’s name id. He was elected in the City of Santa Monica three times. A lot of people didn’t give it that much weight, which it definitely did have a lot weight.”
In the 10th AD primary San Rafael City Councilman Levine was on the ballot with six other candidates, including four Democrats, and he was able to make it to the top two, defeating the sole Republican in the race. In the 50th AD primary Santa Monica Mayor Bloom faced three other candidates and the vote was basically divided four ways allowing him to squeak through to the general election. In the general election Bloom and Levine were outspent, but won nonetheless in close elections.
“People like to believe that money controls everything, but over and over again you see races or ballot measures where huge amounts of money are poured in and people don’t buy it,” said Bloom. “Voters are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. If you read campaign literature it really frequently seeks to appeal to the lowest common denominator and people pick up on that and respond to that.”
Election reforms: The Redistricting Commission and the Top-Two Primary
Although, Butler and Allen were incumbent members of the Legislature, they were not quite incumbent members of the districts they were running in. Like a number of Assembly members, Butler and Allen found the Citizen’s Redistricting Commission pulled their districts right out from under them. Allen’s district was split four ways, between Assemblymembers Yamada, Chesbro, Bonilla and Huffman. Of those four, the only one who was termed out was Huffman, so Allen ran in AD 10, where just 13 percent of voters from his old district resided.
“I really feel like my particular campaign we did everything possible to win it. It was a sort of thing that was not a surprise to me. I tried to explain to lot of people I thought it was going to be a very difficult race,” said Allen. “The disadvantage was I was portrayed as the carpetbagger, the outside guy who was beholden to special interests. A lot of people don’t even know what the Assembly and Senate do and the Legislature is not held in high regard by the voters. It’s the worst possible situation where you are the incumbent and you are not their incumbent.”
Butler faced the same conundrum as Allen. Her district was divided into three districts and instead of running in the competitive 66th AD where nearly two-thirds of voters from her former district live she decided to run in the open 50th AD, where just 1 percent of voters from her old district live. Butler felt it was a more natural choice for her liberal politics, than the South Bay where her positions are not as popular.
“Because my district was cut into three pieces, the Speaker asked that I not run against Steve Bradford. But I needed to move and because I had not won any of the cities of South Bay when I ran in 2010, the 50th was the most logical choice,” said Butler. “It’s one of things, when a district is changed every 10 years, sometimes people give credit to that person that is doing a good job. I don’t think the issues I held as priorities in the 53rd were too dissimilar to priorities in 50th. For me the 50th was where I was comfortable. I had a lot of support there and that is why I ran there.”
With the advent of the top-two primary Bloom and Levine made calculated decisions to reach out to Republican voters. Since neither Bloom nor Levine had a record in Sacramento, they used their local government experience to appeal to a set of voters that did not have a candidate in the race. Both Butler and Allen looked back at the race and felt outreach to Republicans could have been beneficial.
“I was just making sure voters knew they had a choice. We can take a lessons we learn on the local level and learn as a city councilmember and change the rigidity and dynamic in Sacramento and voters responded to that and I never changed my message depending on the audience.” said Assembly member Marc Levine. “It wasn’t an ideological campaign at all.”
Bases of support
Interestingly, Marin County has a history of kicking out incumbents of the same party, although each race is unique. In 1994, Kerry Mazzoni defeated Vivian Bronshvag in the Democratic primary for state Assembly and in 2008 Marc Leno defeated Carole Migden in the Democratic primary for state Senate.
“Marin prefers candidates to be home grown. I was just the guy that suddenly appears on their horizon from Sacramento and that was used to paint me as some sort of Sacramento insider,” said former Assembly Member Mike Allen. “I just think that every county and every area has its own culture and Marin is very proud of its history and tradition. Marin County is very strong in that way.”
Nonetheless, Allen was able to draw about 48 percent of the vote in Marin, far better than any Sonoma-based candidate has done, but Levine performed better with voters in southern Sonoma County.
“I wouldn’t have made a different decision because I had experience in the region. I had worked on a number of projects in Sonoma and Marin and to me it made the most sense, even knowing the history and the way the district was formed”, said Allen. “Being the Assistant Majority Leader I didn’t want to make it more difficult for my own party. I feel that was the most logical choice to make for the party and I knew it was going to be a difficult challenge.”
The campaign in the 50th turned out to be a quite a doozy. Butler moved into the district to face Torie Osborn, a lesbian activist who had the strong endorsement of Sheila Kuehl but no elective experience, and the mayor of Santa Monica, Richard Bloom. Bloom had served on the Santa Monica City Council for more than a decade and his ballot designation proved to be one of his strongest assets. Bloom won his hometown of Santa Monica, which is about a quarter of the voting population, but Butler also performed well there garnering 47 percent of the vote, which kept the race tight.
“More people had voted for Richard than had voted for Betsy in the past. What I saw in our polling and other polling after the huge amount of money in the primary, Butler did not boost her name recognition. It was not significantly superior to Richard’s even though she had spent quite a bit more. She and Torie Osborne went after each other during the primary and it benefitted Richard,” said Ross Bates, Bloom’s consultant.
“I had the strongest base in the district; I had been very publicly active for many years. I had stronger ties throughout the district than any of the candidates,” said Bloom. “I felt from the get go that was my great strength. I think that ultimately propelled me to victory.”
In Sacramento power-brokers and political pundits across the state didn’t take Bloom’s candidacy too seriously. “Everyone thought it was me and Torie definitely. When I went out walking that’s not what I got at all. Tories name did not come up that much when I was walking. Betsy or somebody else is what I heard,” said Butler. “You have to be out in the district to know what’s going on in the district and on the ground walking and Sacramento isn’t always right.”
“The thing about the pundits, they are kind of talking among themselves. It’s a relatively small group of people that are having those opinions and discussing those opinions. They aren’t the voters. Voters are people that live in the community and there are two things, they either knew me oh, ‘Bloom he’s doing a half decent job, I’ll vote for him’,” said Bloom. “If voters didn’t know me and many of them didn’t, as you moved away from Santa Monica, you knew my city and my ballot designation was Mayor of Santa Monica. If you didn’t know me there was high likelihood you didn’t know Betsy Butler or Torie Osborne.”
Bloom, who is Jewish, likely benefited from his background running in the Assembly district with the largest Jewish population in the state. It is interesting to note for the last few decades the only non-Jew to represent Beverly Hills and large portions of West Los Angeles in the Assembly is former Gov. Gray Davis.
“I have strong historical ties to the Jewish community here. My father and mother were very well respected members of a congregation in Beverly Hills. I had these preexisting ties that I never really used politically before, but did in this race. We calculated in the race 25 percent of the voters were Jewish,” said Bloom. “The bottom line is it just wasn’t superficial. I really believe in politics, there are constituencies you reach out to. Had I just been Jewish and run as a Jewish candidate that would have fallen flat too, but because I come a relatively well known Jewish family and I have been involved in the Jewish community my candidacy resonated strong there.”
Part of Butler’s calculated move to the 50th AD was an attempt to benefit from her years of support and involvement with the gay community. Butler had been involved with the gay community for over 20 years and had served on the Equality California Board for six. The 50th AD is home to West Hollywood and a significant gay population, although the whole gay community stretches from West Hollywood, east to Echo Park and is split between numerous Assembly Districts. In the end Butler was able to win in West Hollywood and Hollywood, but she lost most every other community in the rest of the district. Bloom admits, “Some of the qualities I had in the Jewish community she had in the LGBT community.”
Levine and Bloom were able to raise significant amounts of money in their districts, but could not compete with the amount of money that Allen and Butler brought in from Sacramento. Business and farm interests did contribute to both Levine and Bloom, in a successful effort to beat incumbents that were too liberal and pro-labor for their liking. Nothing from Levine’s or Bloom’s background proves they are not loyal liberal elected officials, representing districts that that are the birthplaces of the careers of Barbara Boxer and Sheila Kuehl.
Election Day: Too close to call
As Election Day approached no campaign knew what was going to happen and the closeness of the election results proved that. “We had heard rumors Marc was hanging in there in the tracking polling, but we had been so heavily outspent that we were somewhat pessimistic heading into election night so it made it pretty sweet in that sense,” said Wallach. “It seemed like we might not get there because we were heavily outspent and Marc was hit pretty hard.”
“We pretty much ran out of gas a couple weeks before election day, but I heard about polling that was two weeks out that I was ahead by 10 or 11 points, so with us not getting significant literature on the street and Betsy pouring in a huge amount of money she started to make up ground and a lot of it was hit pieces attacking me,” said Bloom. “The Saturday before the election we got 10 or 12 or 14 hit pieces on Bloom or positive on Butler and there was no mail from me.”
“My internal polling always showed we had a pathway to victory, but it was difficult to look at the massive spending on behalf my opponent and believe we could win,” said Levine. “In the end respecting the voter paid off. The will of the voters was on our side.”
Nik Bonovich, a political journalist who has written extensively for The Target Book, is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.