The odds of going to Sacramento as a Westside legislator used to be about as good as, say, the chance of snookering Michael Ovitz in a movie deal.
Maybe not that good.
That's because for more than two decades, the Westside has been essentially a closed shop, open only to those Democrats who belonged to the political organization headed by Reps. Howard Berman (D-Panorama City) and Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).
And once ensconced in Sacramento, the legislators handpicked by the Berman-Waxman apparatus tended to stay on forever--or at least until a demographically friendly congressional seat opened up.
Then, in 1992, the voters spoke two words: term limits.
Largely as a result, three Assembly Democrats who together represent the vast majority of the Westside have decided to give up their seats and run for other offices--Terry B. Friedman of the 41st District, Burt Margolin of the 42nd and Gwen Moore of the 47th.
Facing ejection from the Assembly in two years under the term-limit law, Friedman, a Brentwood resident, is running for a judgeship, while Margolin and Moore--both of Los Angeles--are competing, respectively, for state insurance commissioner and secretary of state.
Suddenly, the political heavens have opened over the Westside, raining down 22 Democratic and five Republican candidates for the soon-to-be-vacant seats.
The candidates, many of them political newcomers, have been scooting everywhere--raising money, securing endorsements, seeking media attention and, above all, trying to separate themselves from the pack.
The clock is ticking. With Democrats enjoying a large voter-registration advantage in two of the three open Assembly races and a slight edge in the third, the future representation of the districts could well be decided in the June 7 primary.
Making the competition all the more intense is the mostly hands-off approach taken so far by the Berman-Waxman group, which appears to be reorganizing after seeing several of its candidates go down to defeat in elections two years ago.
Democratic Assembly candidates are quite open about their efforts to turn to the political organization that has delivered in the past. Many have tried, and continue to try, to get endorsements from the Berman-Waxman folks--or at least a spot on the group's slate mailer. So far, only one candidate--Ed Johnson in the 47th District--has made the cut.
The silence of the Berman-Waxman forces has left political operatives in the races perplexed--and edgy.
"(The Westside) is the heart of the Berman-Waxman machine," said political consultant Rick Taylor, who is working for a candidate in each of the three races. "Where are they?"
There are two other state legislative races on the Westside this year. Veteran state Sen. Ralph Dills (D-Gardena) is running for reelection in a redrawn 28th District that stretches from Venice to Wilmington. Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) is seeking a second term as representative of the largely coastal 53rd District.
But most of the Westside's primary campaign action has been concentrated in the three wide-open Assembly districts. The following is a preview of those races:
41st ASSEMBLY DISTRICT: Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Malibu, western San Fernando Valley, Agoura Hills, Westlake.
In this coastal swing district, the low profile of the Berman-Waxman group is most apparent in the fortunes of candidate Bill Rothbard, a close friend of Friedman.
When Friedman, first elected to the Assembly in 1986, surprised one and all by deciding to give up his seat, he told supporters privately that Rothbard was his heir apparent. But in doing so, Friedman broke the rules of the Berman-Waxman clan by not getting their approval for his kingmaking.
The group had expected Friedman to run for reelection, figuring he could get a judicial appointment--even from a Republican governor--after his Assembly tenure.
Friedman's faux pas, campaign watchers say, has kept the Berman--Waxman group from endorsing Rothbard. Complicating matters for Rothbard, Friedman has not felt free to campaign openly for him because, even though he has yet to win his judgeship, judicial canons of ethics allow judges to endorse only in judicial races.
This, however, hasn't stopped Rothbard from letting it be known that he has Friedman's support.
Rothbard, a Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy director who last year tried unsuccessfully to win appointment as Santa Monica city attorney, also has gained law enforcement and labor support. His opponents grumble that this would not have been possible without Friedman's help.
Friedman could not be reached for comment.
Rothbard, a resident of Pacific Palisades, has set up a campaign office in the strategically important Valley, home to 52% of the district's Democratic vote.
The Santa Monica portion of the district appears likely to be the preserve of women's rights attorney Sheila James Kuehl, who once played Zelda Gilroy on the "Dobie Gillis" television show. She has the endorsement of key officeholders connected with the town's powerful renters' rights political group, including state Sen. Tom Hayden. Still an open question, however, is whether she can raise enough money to get her message out.
Since Santa Monica could account for 25% of the Democratic primary vote, a big win there could put her over the top in a crowded field of six that also includes constitutional lawyer Roger Jon Diamond, resources manager Pat McGuire, transportation commissioner John D. Shallman and attorney Edward Tabash.
With endorsements from U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, state Sen. Diane Watson and County Supervisor Gloria Molina, Kuehl is hoping that the strong support for women candidates shown in the 1992 elections will be repeated this spring.
Many politicos see Diamond as the wild card in the race. The conventional wisdom is that the Pacific Palisades resident, who led the fight against oil drilling in the Palisades and pushed for nonsmokers' rights before that cause became a trend, will appeal to the same constituency as Rothbard. Diamond is better known out of the gate, though neither is exactly a household word.
Diamond got a late start in fund raising, but Taylor, his consultant, says the candidate has made up for it and will have raised $100,000 by the end of the current two-month reporting period.
Meanwhile, McGuire, who is from Tarzana, and Tabash, who is from Malibu, are staking claim to the moderate Democratic voters. Both have spoken out strongly against illegal immigration, with Tabash especially determined to stop spending tax money on those who lack legal status.
The two have a similar fund-raising strategy, having lent their campaigns about $150,000 each.
Shallman, the sixth candidate, is a businessman who worked in Mayor Richard Riordan's campaign.
After this district was redrawn to reflect the results of the 1990 Census, it was considered winnable by either a Democrat or a Republican. Yet Friedman easily won reelection in 1992, despite facing a potentially strong Republican dream candidate, Christine Reed, the former mayor of Santa Monica.
In the last two years, GOP registration has slipped from 40% to 36%, while the number of registered Democrats has risen slightly, from 49% to 50.5%. (Ten percent of the voters declined to state a party preference.)
Two moderate Republicans, both of them political newcomers, are squaring off for their party's nod in hopes of beating the registration odds in the general election. They are Calabasas banker Peter Eason and Santa Monica law student Michael T. Meehan.
42nd ASSEMBLY DISTRICT: Most of the Westside east of the San Diego Freeway and north of Wilshire Boulevard, plus portions of the southeast San Fernando Valley.
From the standpoint of the Berman-Waxman group, the candidates in the 42nd Assembly District represent an embarrassment of riches--so much so that there was a behind-the-scenes effort to encourage any two of the three with ties to the organization to step aside.
If that had happened, insiders say the remaining candidate might have gotten the group's muscle behind him. Instead, the trio--Los Angeles Unified school board member Mark Slavkin, Community College board member Wally Knox and West Hollywood Councilman Paul Koretz--all stayed in the race.
That says something about the competitiveness of this election year--and the Berman-Waxman group's apparent ambivalence thus far in the primary campaign.
The organization, which grew out of a college friendship between Berman and Waxman, is still licking its wounds after a disastrous 1992 election season. Three of its highest-profile candidates lost--Mel Levine and Gray Davis in runs for the U.S. Senate and state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal in his bid to win another a term in a district created by reapportionment. After that debacle, there was much speculation about whether the dynasty would rebound or fade away as a political force.
For awhile, the group's leaders "left the radar screen of politics in California," said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "Now they have to decide whether to reinvent themselves. . . . They have to be very careful (and) pick their spots."
Political consultant Michael Berman, who is Rep. Berman's brother, and his partner, Carl D'Agostino, are believed to be working on statewide slates that may include picks in local Assembly districts. They could not be reached for comment.
Such slate mailers, typically sent to party voters close to Election Day, can have a big influence in primary races in which candidates are not well known.
"You'll know who they're for when you see who they put on the slate card," said Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum.
The 42nd Assembly District candidates say Waxman has foregone his role as local kingmaker in favor of national politics. Margolin, who has his race for state insurance commissioner to worry about, isn't getting involved. Other Berman-Waxman members have for the most part been silent, but not all.
Democratic Assemblywoman Barbara Friedman of North Hollywood, a member in good standing of the organization, has endorsed Knox, whose wife is an old friend. Knox also has labor support. But the winner in the elected officials' endorsement derby appears to be Slavkin. He has both retiring Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman and longtime Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills), whose district includes several Westside neighborhoods, to put on his mailers, provided he raises the money to send his campaign literature out.
Slavkin had a disappointing early fund-raising effort, coming up with only $52,504 by March 17, the end of the first filing period this year. By contrast, Knox lent his campaign $200,000 and Koretz raised $164,908.
Civil rights attorney John Duran, meanwhile, had raised $150,000 as of March 17, the end of the first filing period. Duran won 35% of the vote against Margolin in the 1992 primary for the Assembly seat, so he has some name identification.
Duran, who wrote the 1992 state law prohibiting discrimination against gays, hopes to draw strong support from the district's estimated 16,000 gay and lesbian voters. If he and Kuehl win, they would be the first openly gay state legislators in California, Duran said.
Another candidate benefiting from strong name identification is homeowner activist Laura Lake.
Lake has sought support from the Berman-Waxman organization, attempting to breach any ill will that might remain in the wake of her two attempts to unseat Zev Yaroslavsky, one of the group's allies, from his Los Angeles City Council seat. The Westwood-based activist said the district has a large overlap with Yaroslavsky's 5th Council District and her image there is positive, even though she lost twice to the councilman.
Lake is one of two women among the seven contenders in a race that thus far has been notable for its friendliness--indeed, most candidates admit that many of their opponents would do a good job in Sacramento.
The other woman, running with backing from several women's organizations, as well as Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg and the county sheriff's association, is West Hollywood City Councilwoman Abbe Land.
Land, however, has suffered from a lack of money. Her base of support also is likely to be split with Koretz, her colleague on the West Hollywood council.
Koretz has endorsements from Rosenthal and several Los Angeles council members, including John Ferraro and Joel Wachs. He has distinguished himself from most of the other candidates by not shying away from his opposition to the death penalty, a position that would be the kiss of death in many other districts and might not go over too well even in the traditionally liberal Westside these days.
Taylor, Slavkin's consultant, said he has been surprised by how the candidates are, as he puts it, "running to the right," especially on crime issues.
There is no clear front-runner here--or even pair of front-runners--in many people's opinion. Political mavens agree this seat is truly up for grabs.
And what of the seventh candidate, Bruce Margolin, a criminal defense attorney who has fought for decades to legalize marijuana? With nearly the same moniker as the incumbent, Burt Margolin, perhaps he has the best name identification of all.
The Republican candidate in this heavily Democratic district will be businessman Robert Davis.
47th ASSEMBLY DISTRICT: Culver City, Crenshaw, Cheviot Hills, Baldwin Hills, Mid-City.
With nine Democrats and two Republicans running, this district defines the cliche "crowded field."
The district was drawn to favor the election of an African American, and all but two of the 11 candidates are black. Because the district is affluent, the candidates describe the 47th as one of the premier African American legislative districts in the country, a good base from which to move up the political ladder.
Here, the Berman-Waxman team acted according to its past practice of picking a candidate who has paid his dues to the organization--or to one of its members. Their guy is Ed Johnson, a longtime deputy to Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Los Angeles), who won the endorsement of the state Democratic Party at its convention last month.
But Johnson has stiff opposition.
Assemblyman Willard W. Murray Jr. (D-Paramount) has exercised his parental prerogative by getting behind his son, attorney Kevin Murray. The elder Murray has friends, so the younger Murray has some big-name backers of his own--Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), state Sen. David Roberti (D-Van Nuys) and Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), to name a few. Murray also has the advantage of having secured a spot on his dad's slate mailer, which targets black voters.
The candidacy of commmunity activist Valerie Lynne Shaw is also getting some attention from political prognosticators. Shaw, who used to be an aide to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, was recently rated along with Johnson and Murray as one of the top three candidates in the race by the political newsletter Calpeek.
Another grass-roots candidate, teacher Jimmie Lee Gray, who is active in the teachers union, could surprise people if she gets a large bank of volunteers from the union to knock on doors for her.
Attorney Geoff Gibbs is a standout in the fund-raising department. The former deputy to Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun had loans and contributions of roughly $75,000 by the March 17 filing period. But he is not a longtime Angeleno, and many question whether his local roots go deep enough to enable him to win.
The remaining contenders are attorney Marsha F. Kimble, writer Neil Liss, businessmen Leslie Roberson and Rudolph Valentino Thompson.
Two Republicans, businessman Jonathan Leonard and attorney Kathleen Lee Brundo, will square off in the GOP primary. But they face an uphill battle in the 47th, where 75% of registered voters are Democrats.
With the large number of African American candidates likely to split the black vote, the district's white voters may prove the deciding factor in the race. Such a scenario was played out two years ago when County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke beat state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles).
At least among the estimated 8,000 Jewish households in the district, Berman's and Waxman's endorsement should help Johnson a great deal, as will his ties to the popular Dixon.
But as all the candidates admit, it's a field of unknowns.
"This race is going to be won by the person who shakes the most hands," said political newcomer Roberson. "And I'm a-shakin'."
On the Cover
For more than two decades, the Westside has been essentially a closed shop, open only to those Democrats who belonged to the Berman-Waxman political organization. But things changed in 1992 with the passage of term limits by California voters. Suddenly, the political heavens have opened over the Westside, raining down 22 Democrat and five Republican candidates for three soon-to-be-vacant seats in Sacramento.
Assembly District 41
Where: Santa Monica, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Malibu, western San Fernando Valley.
Assembly District 42
Where: Most of the Westside east of the San Diego Freeway and north of Wilshire Boulevard.
Assembly District 47
Where: Culver City, Palms, Mid-City, Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw.