When Bryan Caforio addressed disgruntled Porter Ranch residents packed into the West Hills Presbyterian Church for a meeting about the natural gas leak that has sickened and displaced thousands in the area, he cut straight to the chase.
"I'm running for Congress against Steve Knight who — I don't believe any of his people are here," he said, referring to the area's Republican representative. "What I'll say is that if you're in Congressman Knight's district and you're not able to reach out to him and he's not taking the steps you believe he should in order to get things done, go ahead and reach out to me."
He told the audience he was working with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and would be handing out business cards in the back of the room. He walked offstage to polite applause.
Caforio, a first-time Democrat candidate looking to unseat Knight in the 25th Congressional District, was attempting to seize on Knight's relative public absence in the area since the gas leak was discovered Oct. 23.
Knight did not appear in Porter Ranch in public until Jan. 9, when he spoke at a South Coast Air Quality Management District meeting, three days after Caforio made his remarks at the town hall hosted by the Weitz & Luxenberg law firm and environmental activist Erin Brockovich.
Though Caforio's broadside may be the most public, he isn't the only candidate to smell a political opportunity where most residents only smell the odor of the mercaptans in the natural gas seeping from the damaged well.
"They have been coming out of the woodwork," Matt Pakucko, president of the advocacy group Save Porter Ranch, said after a neighborhood forum last week.
During that meeting, Los Angeles Councilman Mitchell Englander spoke for nearly an hour about the leak, while Deputy Dist. Atty. Elan Carr made his way around the cramped church meeting room, talking to displaced residents and handing out business cards for his campaign.
Both are running for the county supervisor seat held by Michael D. Antonovich, who is facing term limits and himself seeking the state's 25th Senate District seat. The campaign for another candidate vying for that seat, Darrell Park, handed out endorsement letters at another air quality district meeting this weekend.
Richard Matthews, a candidate to replace termed-out state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) in the 27th district, has also been a constant presence at community events.
Candidates and elected officials alike who dive into a crisis where voters are looking for help from the government have a very fine line to walk, said Darry Sragow, a veteran campaign consultant who practices law and lectures at USC.
"You have to be perceived as someone who can actually help solve the problem, not somebody who is grandstanding. Once you put yourself on the line and expose yourself as someone who can help solve the problem, you better deliver," he said. "If you overpromise, you are going to wind up having some pretty bad days. If you fail to show up, you are going to be punished for that."
No candidate is pursuing the issue as hard as Caforio, an attorney who recently moved to Valencia and is running against one-term incumbent Knight in a competitive congressional district that stretches from Simi Valley to Lancaster and includes a pocket of Porter Ranch. It is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with 20% of voters listing no party preference.
He has aggressively attacked Knight for being "missing in action" on the issue of the leak.
A spokesman for Knight said the congressman sent staffers to neighborhood council meetings in December while he stayed in contact with local, state and federal officials by phone. Knight's first visit to the area was Jan. 8, after a relief well became operational, spokesman Daniel Outlaw said.
"My focus has been and will continue to be serving my constituents and doing everything I can to help them deal with the hardships they are currently facing," Knight said in a statement. "Unfortunately, some have chosen to politicize the suffering and worries of the people affected in Porter Ranch."
Knight's absence did not go unnoticed by displaced residents at the neighborhood forum.
"First time I've seen him," said Porter Ranch resident Dave Hasson, 70, as Knight took the microphone.
"This has been going on for two and a half months now," said Pakucko, the president of the advocacy group. "He was very late to the party."
Knight has also faced criticism from Sherman, his congressional colleague, after Knight said in a recent Daily News op-ed that getting the Environmental Protection Agency involved would only "hinder the ongoing process."
Sherman wrote a letter to the EPA on Dec. 10 requesting the federal agency look into the gas leak and invited Knight to co-sign the letter as well as another letter sent to other federal agencies. In an interview, Sherman said Knight turned him down both times. The EPA is now investigating the leak.
"It has been a somewhat frustrating experience for me and my staff," he said.
The political drama comes as Porter Ranch residents have increasingly expressed frustration with government and elected officials at community forums over the slow pace to stop the leak.
Still, some elected official's response to the leak has made them heroes in the eyes of voters.
"I really didn't like my councilman," said Maureen Callahan, 52, of Englander. But since he has been front and center at various meetings and written numerous motions on the leak, "I'm glad he is coming to bat. I've been very pleased."
One Porter Ranch resident, Tom Cannon, 54, who spoke to Carr at the community forum looked down at his campaign card advertising his candidacy in the supervisorial race after Wednesday's meeting and smirked.
"Good luck. He is running against our hero," he said of Englander.
Times staff writer Alice Walton contributed to this report.
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