The contest to succeed Congresswoman Diane Watson seemed all but settled even before it officially began.
In February, when Watson, 76, a Los Angeles Democrat, announced her retirement plans and endorsed then-Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) a few days later, the congresswoman in effect cleared the field of strong competitors. She helped avert the type of bruising battle that marked her first campaign for the House seat nearly 10 years ago.
At that time, the unexpected death of Democratic Rep. Julian Dixon touched off a contentious succession scramble that featured some of Los Angeles’ best known African American politicians. After emerging victorious, Watson, a fixture in the area’s political firmament, faced only token opposition in her subsequent reelection campaigns.
What a difference a decade makes.
Many of the area’s political and civic leaders this year quickly embraced Bass, who has built a formidable coalition of supporters throughout the economically and ethnically diverse congressional district, which runs from South Los Angeles through part of the Westside and into Koreatown, Hancock Park and Silver Lake.
That left political newcomer Felton Newell, a deputy city attorney who began his run more than a year ago, struggling to find allies in his long-odds push for the Democratic nomination in next week’s primary election. The other two Democrats on the ballot are largely unknowns who do not have money for substantive campaigns.
Congressional seats are among the few major offices in California not subject to term limits, so a vacancy usually attracts a robust field of candidates. In Watson’s 33rd Congressional District, Democrats (66%) hold a voter registration edge over Republicans (10%), so whoever finishes first in the Democratic primary is virtually assured of winning the seat in November.
Several factors account for the lack of a more vigorous contest, say area politics-watchers. Watson’s announcement — after she already had taken the first official step to seek reelection — caught many would-be candidates by surprise, leaving them with little time to prepare for a race. Watson’s hearty endorsement of Bass, 56, along with the former speaker’s broad political base and relatively high name recognition, further discouraged viable competitors.
“It’s not a race, because [Bass] is pretty much the consensus choice,” said Cal State Fullerton political scientist Raphael Sonenshein, who has written extensively about Los Angeles politics. “And it’s not all that surprising, given her standing.”
Bass’ endorsement list reads like a who’s who of Democratic politics. It includes Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and several Los Angeles City Council members; California’s senior U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein; a slew of state legislators, House leaders and other members of Congress; and most of organized labor.
County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) — who often back opposing candidates — both support Bass. Businessman and former basketball great Earvin “Magic” Johnson has endorsed her, as have entertainers Danny Glover and Jamie Foxx and county Sheriff Lee Baca, a Republican. Add to that such prominent groups as the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters and more than two dozen ministers and other faith leaders. The Rev. Jesse Jackson added his name to the list when he was in Los Angeles on Memorial Day.
That doesn’t leave much for Newell, 38, who is on leave from his job in the city attorney’s neighborhood prosecutor program to campaign full time.
He criticizes Bass for taking campaign contributions and perks from special interests and says she was not very effective when, as speaker, she helped lead the Democrats’ battle against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deep budget cuts. Bass notes that she was able to restore money to several important programs during the budget crisis.
Newell has raised about $103,000 to Bass’ more than $450,000, federal records show, and opened his campaign headquarters in the Crenshaw District about two weeks ago. He received some early backing from the Cherokee Nation, whose leaders were in a dispute with Watson.
He grew up in Northern California, graduated from Georgetown University and moved to Los Angeles in 2002. He owns a house in Windsor Hills.
Newell earned his law degree (and had Barack Obama for a professor) at the University of Chicago. He said his work for the Clinton administration between college and law school taught him how to get things done in Washington.
He promises to help create jobs “by cutting the red tape,” fixing “our broken school system” and securing more federal funding for subway and rail line construction.
Bass was born and raised in Los Angeles and got her start in politics as a student at Hamilton High School. She worked as a physician assistant and founded the multiethnic Community Coalition in South Los Angeles 20 years ago. It helps residents organize to improve their lives.
Her community ties and organizing skills helped her win her first bid for elected office, an Assembly seat in 2004. In 2008 she became the first African American woman elected speaker of the Assembly.
Though generally well liked and viewed as a consensus builder, she clashed with the governor over the budget process and stirred controversy when she gave raises to her staff in the middle of a fiscal crisis. An early supporter of Obama’s campaign for president, she is close to the administration. She said her priorities include access to healthcare, jobs and environmental protection.
The other Democrats on the ballot are attorney/legislative analyst Nick Juan Mostert and maintenance technician Morris F. Griffin. Three Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination: attorney James L. Andion, recall campaign organizer Phil Jennerjahn and parent/homemaker David C. Crowley II.