THE STATE ASSEMBLY IS CALIFORNIA'S headquarters of possibility and fiasco, of progress and stalemate, lawmaking and foot-dragging. It is here that lobbying is most fierce and campaign money flows most freely, where plans for affordable health insurance and better education are debated and, all too often, die.
Together with their counterparts in the state Senate, and in cooperation or conflict with the governor, Assembly members decide how much of your property taxes, vehicle license fees and all the rest stays at home, or pays for schools, or fills the holes that they leave elsewhere in the state budget.
This year, the Assembly will see its most sweeping changeover in recent memory — especially in the delegation that represents the Los Angeles area. Decisions that L.A. voters make this year will have a profound effect here and in Sacramento for the foreseeable future.
That's because 25 of the 80 members of the Legislature's so-called lower house are sent to the state Capitol by Los Angeles County voters, and of those seats, 16 are open this year, with incumbents termed out or otherwise looking to move on. A term is just two years long, and members get only three terms. That six-year maximum is the shortest tenure of any elected office in the state.
The action is all on June 6, even though it's "just" a party primary. District lines drawn up by the Democratic and Republican parties keep the seats so safe that, with very few exceptions, the November general election is a sham, like one of those show elections put on by dictators to impress naive Western observers. In a safe Democratic district, for instance — and the majority of Assembly seats in the L.A. area are safe Democratic districts — whichever Democrat wins the most votes five weeks from now will waltz through November with a runoff against a doomed Republican and perhaps a few equally doomed third-party candidates.
Like it or not — and there's not much to like — that's the way it is. Now is the time to examine the candidates, their records and their plans, and to press them on reforms, including a commitment to release the drawing of districts from the clutches of their own parties. The Times also looks for candidates who realize they will form part of a delegation that has to look out for the folks at home. Yes, Assembly members face the challenges of housing, healthcare, education and transportation, but they also should be mindful of local elected officials who visit them with legitimate funding requests for police, jails, foster care and other needs.
The Times endorses selectively. Here are our Democratic primary endorsements in four crucial districts, with more to follow in the coming weeks.
District 42: Mike Feuer, running to succeed Paul Koretz, would bring to the Assembly an impressive combination of intelligence, experience and drive. As a Los Angeles city councilman, he made his mark with a fast start, mastering the budget and leading reforms in business taxes, housing, gun safety and child protection. Some were annoyed by what they saw as the presumptuousness of a freshman, but Feuer proved adept at crafting workable legislation in cooperation even with those put off by his style. Sacramento needs his ability, pragmatism, candor and coalition-building skills.
Sacramento also would benefit from the presence of Abbe Land, one of the founders of West Hollywood. Land has demonstrated considerable skills as a consensus-builder. She could easily be the top candidate in almost any district. But not this one, which includes Sherman Oaks, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. Land, plus three other Democrats, have the misfortune of facing off against the most highly qualified candidate in the race.
District 43: Paul Krekorian is the better of two candidates to succeed Dario Frommer in this district that once was a Republican stronghold but now — with district lines that include Burbank and Glendale and stretch east to North Hollywood and south to Los Feliz — is unassailably in the Democrats' camp.
Krekorian is one of many candidates this year who name education as a top priority. He has some experience in the field, serving as president of the Burbank Unified School District board. If he is elected, he will have a lot of learning to do very quickly.
Glendale City Councilman Frank Quintero also knows schools, having founded and operated an education and job-training program. But given an Assembly member's maximum six years to get the job done, it is Krekorian who is best prepared for the role.
District 44: Adam Murray is the best of four challengers for the seat of incumbent Carol Liu, who is out of the race because of term limits. Murray is an up-and-comer with a comprehensive knowledge of the biggest challenges facing the state and his district. A commercial litigator and part-time community college teacher, he is a true policy wonk, but one who also knows how to communicate with both voters and politicians.
All the candidates have nearly identical views on the issues; only one, La Canada-Flintridge City Councilman Anthony Portantino, has ever held elective office. He is widely regarded as the front-runner, and his list of endorsements is impressive. His commitment to the district, which includes La Canada-Flintridge, Pasadena and Arcadia, is beyond question. But his knowledge of state policy issues outside education is slim. And his ties to organized labor raise questions about his capacity for independent thinking on reform issues such as setting performance standards for teachers.
Brian Center is enthusiastic but entirely unprepared for public office. Diana Peterson-More is a smart, committed community activist and labor lawyer whose ties to public employee unions raise the same concerns as Portantino's.
District 49: Mike Eng is the best candidate for the district, which includes Alhambra, Monterey Park and El Monte — and not because he's married to the termed-out incumbent, Judy Chu. In fact, voters should be wary of wives running to succeed their husbands in state office, and vice versa. The last thing California needs is to have term limits — already a dicey idea — turn political office into a family asset.
But neither should marriage disqualify a candidate. In the case of Eng, an immigration lawyer who serves on the Monterey Park City Council, voters can elect an assemblyman with a demonstrated passion for the needs of society's have-nots and a track record of working closely with business. He is unusual among candidates for the emphasis he places on environmental protection.
Alhambra Councilman Dan Arguello is an engaging man who has done an admirable job fighting the political power structure in his city. And we cannot deny the urge to back David Siegrist of El Monte, not just for his Jimmy Stewart-like guilelessness but for the entertaining prospect of a November runoff between him and the only Republican candidate — his daughter, Esthela Siegrist. Cooler heads prevailed. It is Eng who is most likely to be an effective member of the Assembly.