Attorney Barbara Mulvaney prosecuted killers in Rwanda and promoted democracy for the U.S. State Department in Iraq before returning to Los Angeles and running for Congress.
She could hardly believe it when a local Democratic club barred her — and several other candidates of that party — from the dais at a recent campaign forum.
"I'm a very qualified candidate," Mulvaney said in an interview, taking issue with the club's decision to include only those who had raised at least $200,000 for their campaigns.
"My reaction was disappointment," Mulvaney said, that the campaign system is "focused more on fundraising than on issues."
She will get a crack at voters this weekend, as will 17 others on the June 3 primary election ballot to succeed retiring Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills). All have been invited to a forum sponsored by the Brentwood News on Sunday.
But the earlier snub reflected a hard reality about crowded races in sprawling districts: Candidates are quickly sorted by political experience, name familiarity, party affiliation and, yes, the ability to raise money — perhaps the most common yardstick in measuring the viability of a campaign. Mulvaney has reported raising slightly more than $10,000.
California's relatively new voting districts and switch to the "jungle" primary add to the election calculus. The predominantly white and affluent Westside district was redrawn in 2011 to meld parts of the South Bay with Waxman's Beverly Hills base. All candidates will appear on the same ballot, with the top two finishers advancing to November regardless of any party ties.
In this solidly Democratic district, most observers put three members of that party, along with a bestselling author who has no party affiliation, in the top tier of candidates.
The 10 Democrats on the ballot could splinter the vote enough to allow a well-funded Republican to take one of the two fall ballot spots. But there's a fourth Democrat who has pulled together an impressive campaign treasury and shouldn't be ruled out.
The leading Democrats are presumed to be former Los Angeles City Controller and Councilwoman Wendy Greuel; state Sen. Ted Lieu; and Matt Miller, a former journalist, radio talk show host and Clinton administration staffer. Each has raised more than half a million dollars, has some political experience and is at least somewhat familiar to voters.
Greuel's campaign for Los Angeles mayor last year boosted her name recognition, but it also left her bloodied, especially over controversial spending on her behalf by a city union. Her political base is mainly outside the district, in the San Fernando Valley, where she grew up and her parents ran a building-supply company.
She and her husband and son recently moved to Brentwood. She has some support in the district and is backed by Emily's List, which helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights.
Lieu hails from Torrance, in the southern, more politically moderate part of the district, where he served on the City Council before winning special elections to the state Assembly and Senate after the officeholders died. His family emigrated from Taiwan to Ohio when he was 3, and he recalls helping his parents sell gifts at flea markets as they pursued a piece of the American dream.
He said he joined the Air Force after college because he wanted to repay the country that provided his family a chance to succeed; he remains a member of the reserves.
Miller is making his first run for elected office. He has worked as a Washington Post columnist, written two policy books and is familiar to KCRW radio listeners as co-host of the public affairs show "Left, Right and Center." (He was the Center.)
The Pacific Palisades resident is trying to position himself as an informed outsider, a "proud but independent Democrat" with the experience to help break the political gridlock in Washington.
Spiritual teacher and bestselling author Marianne Williamson entered the race long before Waxman's surprise Jan. 30 announcement that he would retire this year after four decades in Congress. Williamson has campaigned almost nonstop for months, led in fundraising and built a core of volunteers, including some who say they were turned off by politics before meeting her.
A lifelong Democrat, Williamson has switched her registration to "no party preference," saying she believes both major parties share the blame for a "corrupt" system in which they are "deeply beholden to corporate interests in order to win elections."
She recently moved to Brentwood from just outside the district in West Hollywood.
"I think the top two will be among those four," said longtime Democratic strategist Garry South, who lives in the district but is not working for any of the candidates and has not endorsed any.
Businessman James A. Graf, a Democrat, said a poll he commissioned with some of the $1 million he lent his campaign showed good support for other candidates, especially Lieu and Greuel. Graf said he dropped out of the race based on his findings, but his decision came too late to remove his name from the ballot.
Defense attorney David Kanuth, a Democrat and first-time candidate from Venice, surprised observers by raising nearly $800,000 within weeks of entering the race. The money will help him reach voters but probably won't be enough to get him past better-known, more politically experienced candidates, South and others said.
Gang prosecutor Elan Carr of Westwood, the only one of three Republicans on the ballot with a substantial campaign fund, has a shot at the fall contest if enough of his party — and perhaps some unaligned voters — turn out for him. He has already started running cable TV ads, which do not mention his party affiliation but call for reforms and say Washington is "too much of a mess" to achieve them.
Waxman's 33rd Congressional District includes much of Los Angeles' Westside and Malibu and runs down the coast through the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Registration is nearly 44% Democratic and 27% Republican, with 18% of voters belonging to no party.
South thinks it's likely that two Democrats will end up on the November ballot, in large part because of Waxman's long tenure and his stature in Washington on such major policy issues as healthcare and the environment.
"Henry Waxman is the shadow that looms over this race," South said. "Those in this district who voted for him for years and who admired him — and there are many — are going to be looking for a candidate they think will be the most suitable replacement for him."