When Terry B. Friedman and Burt M. Margolin became college chums in 1970, their friendship was cemented by an intense interest in politics. Both were leaders in the California Federation of Young Democrats. Both had liberal Jewish backgrounds. And both spoke of becoming politicians one day.
Margolin realized his goal in 1982, when he was elected to the Assembly. Observers say Friedman is likely to follow him in November, thanks to the backing of a powerful and controversial Democratic alliance that grew out of those early years.
The alliance is known as the Berman-Waxman organization. It wields considerable influence in Westside and San Fernando Valley politics. And Margolin, a leader, played a pivotal role in securing its support for Friedman when 43rd District Assemblyman Gray Davis dropped out of the race on March 7.
"I was immediately for Terry," said Margolin (D-Los Angeles), who described himself and Friedman as best friends since their UCLA days. "He has a long history of commitment, so it was easy to make the case on his behalf."
The 36-year-old Friedman, who has never run for office before, was also well known to other leaders of the political coalition.
'Obvious Choice' for Backing
Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) have been close to Friedman since their college days. Waxman said Friedman, who serves as director of the Fairfax-based Bet Tzedek Legal Services, was an "obvious choice" for the endorsement.
"Some of us have known him since his days at UCLA," Waxman said in a telephone interview from Washington, "and he's greatly admired."
The 43rd District, which includes Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Brentwood, Encino, Sherman Oaks and Studio City, is considered a Democratic stronghold. Howard Berman held the seat for 10 years before moving on to Congress. Davis was his successor. Politicians covet the seat because of its high-profile constituency and because of its fund-raising potential. Davis collected more than $1 million in campaign funds as the 43rd District representative, second only to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.
The fact that Friedman, an owlish public-interest lawyer who drives a 9-year-old Toyota, is widely considered the front-runner for the seat so early in the race says a lot about Berman-Waxman, a coalition of progressive Democrats known for sophisticated, well-financed and successful campaigns.
"Every candidate in the race would have wanted their endorsement," Friedman said. "I have been fortunate enough to receive it."
Berman-Waxman critics agree that Friedman is fortunate. But many are seething over the choice. Some Assembly Democrats have complained that Berman-Waxman stepped in with an endorsement too soon after Davis' sudden departure, leaving other prospective candidates insufficient time to organize bids for support. Others have questioned the choice of Friedman, who is unknown to many legislators outside of the Westside-San Fernando Valley area.
Jim Blatt, a leader of the San Fernando Valley Democratic Club, said his organization was not consulted. He called Berman-Waxman a "Westside" group. "Members of the San Fernando Valley don't appreciate others making decisions for them," Blatt said, "especially the Westside."
Friedman's two opponents in the June 3 Democratic primary are also critical of Berman-Waxman's election endorsement. Bruce Margolin (no relation to Burt Margolin) and Rosemary Woodlock, who are both attorneys, said the organization is attempting to anoint Friedman as Davis' successor before the vote.
Bruce Margolin called the endorsement inappropriate and unfair. "We expect our politicians to represent us," he said. "We don't expect them to choose who will fill an open seat."
Added Woodlock: "I don't think Mr. Friedman would be in the race if it weren't for the Berman-Waxman machine."
They have also accused Friedman of moving into the 43rd District too late to meet residency requirements. Friedman denied the charge, and the secretary of state's office backed him up last week. But Woodlock said she will take her case to court this week in an effort to force Friedman out of the race.
Woodlock said Friedman is a 43rd District "carpetbagger."
Friedman and others, however, contend that he is well established in the community as the head of Bet Tzedek, a $1.6-million-a-year nonprofit agency that provides free legal advice to the poor, elderly and disabled. As director of the agency since 1978, Friedman has worked with many of the Westside-San Fernando Valley legislators now backing him. He has also supported their campaigns.
"Terry Friedman has paid his dues," said Santa Monica City Councilman Alan Katz. "He has been a part of the . . . community for years. He is not just earning people's support because of the Berman-Waxman endorsement."
"On the basis of what he has done for the community, I think he would make a very good legislator," said Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica).
Friedman said that he has been preparing for public office since college, when he served as president of the California Young Democrats and was involved in campaigns for Robert Kennedy, George McGovern and Tom Bradley.
He considered running for Los Angeles city attorney last year, but dropped the idea after the Berman-Waxman organization backed attorney Lisa Specht, who later lost. His real goal, however, was always to run for the Assembly, Friedman said.
"For a long time Burt (Margolin) and I had talked about how great it would be if there was an opportunity for me to run for the Assembly so that we could work together," Friedman said. "I had been hoping something would happen."
Something started to happen in January, when Assemblyman Davis let it be known that he was interested in running for higher office.
"Gray literally had scores of conversations with people all over the state," Assemblyman Margolin said. "He had made it clear that when an opportunity to serve in higher office occurred, he would consider the race."
Friedman said he was aware of Davis' plans and informed his political contacts that he was interested in the seat. But Friedman lived near the southeast corner of Wilshire and Westwood boulevards, across the street from the 43rd District boundary line. Friedman said he and his wife were planning to move anyway, because their apartment was too small and needed repairs. He found a new apartment within the 43rd District, and less than a mile from his old address, on Feb. 8.
By that time, Berman-Waxman had already decided to throw its support to Specht or Friedman, according to people close to the group. And Friedman said he was well prepared to announce his candidacy if Davis stepped aside.
As time passed, however, Friedman said he began to doubt whether Davis would make a move. "When it didn't happen in January or February I figured it just wasn't going to happen this year," Friedman said.
Davis finally stepped aside on March 7 to run for the state controller's seat that had been vacated by Kenneth Cory the day before. Candidates interested in Davis' seat had only five days to qualify. A Democratic free-for-all was predicted by some observers, but several possible candidates lost interest after Berman-Waxman endorsed Friedman.
Afterward, some critics charged that the group knew of Davis' decision in advance and prepared their candidate for the seat, but Waxman denied it. "Davis had been talking for some time about looking for another office," Waxman said. "But nobody knew about the controller's seat opening up."
Friedman said he heard on March 5 that Cory was leaving. He had arrived at UCLA Law School to teach a class when a secretary handed him an "urgent" message from Assemblyman Margolin.
Host of Calls
"I called (Margolin) at 4 p.m., but he was on the phone," Friedman said. "So I called him back at 5. He said, 'Cory is retiring and Davis said he is interested in running. What do you think?' I told him that I would have to finish teaching my class. I said I would call him back."
Friedman called Margolin back that night. On Thursday he spoke to representatives at the Berman-Waxman organization. By late that night, after Lisa Specht had decided against running, Friedman said Berman-Waxman had agreed to back his campaign. On Friday, the day Davis announced he would run for controller, Friedman said he made up to 70 telephone calls to other possible supporters.
"It was a chaotic period of time," said Assemblyman Margolin. "I knew that we would have only five days (before the filing deadline) to organize Terry's campaign and that there would be furious competition for the support and endorsement of various community leaders."
When the smoke cleared it seemed Friedman had locked up most of those endorsements. In addition to Berman-Waxman, he was supported by Davis, Assemblymen Hayden, Tom Bane (D-Tarzana) and Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman and Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky.
With the Berman-Waxman organization and so many endorsements behind him, political observers say that Friedman will be tough to beat. But Friedman said he expects a lively campaign. His first challenge may come this week, if Woodlock challenges his 43rd District residency in court.
"I assume that it is going to be a tough race," Friedman said. "I have to raise my name recognition and I have an obligation to let the voters know what I believe. We'll know what happens on June 3."