On the biggest political stage of the election season in California, the 17 candidates competing to succeed Rep. Henry Waxman struggled to stand out Sunday at a forum that was long on issues and short on time.
Some common priorities emerged among those hoping to occupy the seat that Waxman, a Beverly Hills Democrat, is giving up after four decades: traffic woes and public transportation needs, ways to improve public education and a desire to get special-interest money out of politics — espoused even by some with the biggest war chests.
The two-hour forum, organized by the Brentwood News and held at University Synagogue, marked the first time all candidates appeared together — the largest field of any contest on the June 3 primary ballot. An 18th candidate dropped out after it was too late to remove his name from the ballot.
The event drew an audience of about 400 mostly polite, attentive listeners.
The only two candidates who have held elected office — former Los Angeles councilwoman and controller Wendy Greuel and state Sen. Ted Lieu of Torrance, both Democrats — said they had the experience and track records to get things done.
"I'm a fighter and a doer," Greuel said, listing such accomplishments as getting federal aid to victims of the 1994 Northridge earthquake when she worked in Washington and helping to tighten city campaign rules as a local official.
Lieu cited his tenure on the Torrance City Council and in both houses of the state Legislature as evidence that he "can work across the aisle" to help break partisan gridlock in Congress.
But several first-time candidates tried to turn Greuel's and Lieu's political experience into a liability.
"It's time for something different," said Green Party member Michael Ian Sachs, an environmental technician from Redondo Beach.
Author and public radio talk show host Matt Miller, a Democrat, touted his work in the Clinton administration and in advising Fortune 500 companies, saying the experience prepared him to be the best candidate "who can bring the change we all know we need."
And TV director and producer Brent Roske, one of three candidates running without a party affiliation and the first candidate to announce his bid, said he would try to form a "congressional district council" of all the candidates — and Waxman too.
"It's all about working together" without party labels to get in the way, Roske said.
Another no-party candidate, spiritual teacher and bestselling author Marianne Williamson, brought along supporters who punctuated with cheers and applause her spirited calls to rid politics of special interests and reverse "the dismantling of our democracy."
A handful of candidates — Williamson, Greuel, Lieu, Miller, Republican gang prosecutor Elan Carr and defense attorney and Democrat David Kanuth — have raised at least $300,000 to campaign in the sprawling, heavily Democratic 33rd congressional district.
For the others, who have raised little or no money to reach voters from the Westside to Malibu and along the coast through the Palos Verdes Peninsula, forums such as Sunday's are one of the few ways they have to get their ideas across. Some, attempting to connect more with the audience, brought their microphones down the steps to speak near the front row of seats rather than stay on the makeshift dais.
Environmental health advocate and Republican Kevin Mottus used his time to warn of health hazards posed by cellphones and other wireless technology.
Attorney Barbara Mulvaney, one of 10 Democrats on the ballot, criticized the importance placed on a candidate's campaign treasury and proposed "a $200,000 rule."
"You look up here and pick the best candidate who has raised less than $200,000" as a way to minimize the influence of money in politics.
There were lighter moments. Libertarian candidate Mark Matthew Herd drew laughs when he said in his opening remarks, "If you read the L.A. Times this morning, you probably didn't know I exist." He was referring to a Sunday article on the presumed front-runners in the race, sorted mostly by fundraising strength.
The logistics of trying to accommodate such a large field clearly posed a challenge. More than half the two-hour event was required just to get through the candidates' opening statements of three minutes each.
And to fit on the makeshift stage, the contestants sat in two rows, one behind the other. They were told to switch places halfway through the forum, so that each would have equal time in front.
There was a "lightning round" of questions — different for each candidate — with an allowed response time of 30 seconds. Another 30-second round allowed the competitors to say whatever they felt was most important to communicate.
By the time they arrived at their 90-second closing statements, several candidates blurted out their campaign website addresses, hoping that at least some audience members would seek more information there.