John Duran gets the question over and over in his against-the-odds bid to replace Zev Yaroslavsky on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. People he meets on the campaign trail ask, "Where did you come from?"
The quick answer is West Hollywood. Duran, 54, has served as both mayor and a council member in the city of 37,000 for 14 years.
But as he goes up against rivals who are better known and have bigger campaign chests, Duran's call to rethink jailing the mentally ill, modernize the county's systems and consider more private contracting of services is meant to appeal to a broader audience — the 2 million people who make up Yaroslavsky's 3rd District seat.
Well-spoken and thoughtful, Duran, a lifelong Democrat, is positioning himself as the most fiscally conservative and business-friendly choice of the major candidates, all Democrats, who will compete on the June 3 primary ballot.
Curtis Hacker, a Sherman Oaks architect, counts himself a convert. After watching Duran and his chief rivals, former state lawmaker Sheila Kuehl and former Santa Monica Councilman Bobby Shriver, answer questions at a recent business forum, he decided that Duran "just made more sense."
"Shriver's got the name and Kuehl's been around forever,'' Hacker said. "So Duran was a surprise. A pleasant surprise."
A criminal defense attorney and longtime activist in the LGBT community, Duran portrays Kuehl and Shriver as traditional liberals while he's "right of center" in the nonpartisan contest. So far, none of the five other candidates in the field has raised enough campaign money to gain much traction with voters.
In debates and forums, he talks about hiring private-sector social workers to ease foster care caseloads and shifting more of the county's $26-billion budget to cities and nonprofit groups because, he says, they spend more efficiently. Mentally ill offenders in jails should instead be receiving treatment so they would be less likely to reoffend, he says.
Nonprofit health providers should get a bigger cut of the county's healthcare dollars, he says, because the existing network of county-run hospitals and clinics is too "bloated and inefficient." And he flatly rejects the call by some to increase "general relief" welfare payments for the indigent. Welfare is meant to be a short-term aid, not a path to public dependence, he says. And though he supports raises for county workers who have gone years without one, he's against raising pension benefits.
"Zev's legacy is keeping the county in the black, unlike the city of Los Angeles,'' Duran said at recent debate in Hollywood. "That is something I have a record on, going back 14 years."
Duran says he's raised enough money — about $300,000 — to send out campaign mailers meant to familiarize voters with his name and message. He's also planning organized phone banks to help get out the vote. With less than six weeks before the primary, he's hoping to pull an upset.
"People are just starting to focus, and hearing about the differences between us,'' he said. "I'm a safe place for moderates, independents and Republicans to go to."
Steve Afriat, an Encino lobbyist and veteran observer of county politics, agrees.
As the only major candidate with Latino roots, Duran could pull District 3 voters from heavily Latino portions of the San Fernando Valley, Afriat said. He could also appeal to independents and Republicans who view Kuehl and Shriver as too liberal. That could give him just enough votes to squeak into the top two finishers in the June election, he said.
If no candidate captures 51%, the top two vote-getters will face each other in a November runoff.
"He's clearly a factor,'' Afriat said. "But Shriver and Kuehl are so much further ahead in fundraising, it's going to be harder for him to compete."
Raised in Santa Fe Springs by a school secretary mother and telephone-line installer father, Duran became the first in his family to graduate from college and the only one to earn a law degree. But his plan for a corporate law career took a sharp turn in the mid-1980s when dozens of his friends began to die of AIDS.
Duran, who is gay, refocused his skills on helping those affected by the emerging epidemic.
"I got radicalized very quickly,'' he said. "I saw government inaction and decided to do something about it."
He successfully sued Los Angeles County for denying medication to inmates infected with HIV. He got the courts to throw out marijuana charges against AIDS patients who were using it for palliative care. He was legal counsel for activist groups that pushed the U.S. government to more quickly approve life-extending HIV medications.
In more recent years, Duran created Equality California to fight Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure outlawing same-sex marriage. When gay marriage became legal, he officiated at some of the first same-sex weddings.
His wins were punctuated by deep personal losses. The AIDS crisis claimed 103 of his friends, he says. Then, in late 1994, Duran himself was diagnosed as HIV-positive. He sank into depression, drinking too much and preparing to die. By 1996, at 6 feet 1, he was down to 130 pounds.
But that year, something changed. Duran got his fight back, joined a 12-step program and stopped drinking. Life-extending HIV drugs that he had helped bring to market boosted him to better health. Now he's been sober for 17 years, he says, and for the last decade he's had no traceable level of the AIDS-causing virus in his bloodstream.
"I'm healthier than I've ever been,'' he said.
Running for the West Hollywood council in 2001 was the next step in reclaiming his life. Duran is proud of his record there, pointing out that the city has never laid off employees or slashed services, even during the recession.
As West Hollywood transformed from a largely blighted area to a corridor of trendy shops, restaurants and businesses, Duran often served as a swing vote for redevelopment, sometimes even when it was not politically popular.
In 2012, for instance, he was the sole vote in favor of Centrum Partners' proposal to put a three-story, mixed-use retail building at the site of the former Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. The project was condemned by neighbors and adjacent business owners.
But Duran voted in favor anyway. Some development is necessary, he says, to raise the taxes that allow for better services for West Hollywood residents.
Some of Duran's positions could hurt him with District 3 voters. He thinks the Metropolitan Transportation Authority should develop lines where density is highest, such as in the county's central basin. That could anger Valley residents and business owners who have been pushing for a transit link between Van Nuys and the Westside, possibly by tunneling through the Sepulveda Pass.
Duran says the tunnel project, estimated to be up to $20 billion, would be too costly. His support of private contractors, meanwhile, could put him in the sights of powerful labor groups who think any expansion in jobs should go to union workers.
Stuart Waldman, executive director of the Valley Industry & Commerce Assn., said Duran's biggest problem may be the perception that he is an underdog.
He made a good impression with business leaders at a recent forum in Van Nuys, Waldman said. But business is reluctant to endorse him because they don't think he can beat Shriver or Kuehl.
"If he made the runoff, quite a few might end up supporting him,'' Waldman said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times