Political standards, passion and a bit of hope fuel election underdogs

Zein Obagi Jr. paid a filing fee to get on Tuesday's primary ballot, joined his competitors at a few candidate forums and has been appearing "here and there and sharing what thoughts I can" during the campaign season.

But the 30-year-old attorney has no illusions about his prospects.


"I don't have any expectation" of advancing to the November election, Obagi said in a recent interview.

The West Los Angeles resident is one of scores of political hopefuls who have jumped into big races alongside better known, more experienced and better funded candidates.

Most have worked hard in their uphill battles to get voters' attention — attending neighbors' coffee klatches, knocking on doors and pinning fragile hopes on websites, Facebook and YouTube videos.

Why risk public indifference and election day humiliation?

Some feel passionate about issues they feel are going unaddressed. Some want to help their party by carrying its standard in a long-odds race. More than a few may be driven by vanity and a belief they can offer what others can't.

Then there is the YOLO (you only live once) factor:

"Some run for the sheer adventure of it," said Claremont McKenna political science professor John J. Pitney Jr., a former Republican Party official. "Maybe you won't win, but some day you can tell your grandkids that you ran for Congress."

Many don't realize the difficulty of campaigning, and some believe they can defy the odds.

"Hope springs eternal in the political breast," said longtime Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, and "every once in a while, the unexpected happens."

Former Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich, 47, readily acknowledges she doesn't have the major campaign money or big-name endorsements bestowed on three of her seven rivals for a seat on the nonpartisan Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

But the self-described attorney/educator/mother said her campaign, dubbed Team Love, has a winning formula for reaching voters: "our phones, our feet, Facebook and tweets."

Money in politics is the problem, she says — a corrupting influence that the wealthy use "to drown out other voices."

She sees her campaign, inspired by a neighbor, as the antidote.

"We want to show there is no barrier; anyone can run, anyone can participate.


"David did not beat Goliath with money," Conley Ulich said. Then she added, with no trace of wistfulness, "You just don't know what is going to happen on Tuesday."

Computer scientist/engineer Jeffrey H. Drobman said his two tries for county supervisor about a quarter-century ago taught him a valuable lesson: Running for office is a way to "get my ideas out there."

Those efforts led to a leadership post with a local Democratic club and a membership in an engineering association.

This year, as an underdog candidate for California secretary of state, he is pushing for online voting and other technological changes that most agree the office has been slow to adopt.

Drobman, 65, said he has talked about his proposals with the two candidates he expects to advance to the fall election: Republican Pete Peterson and Democrat Alex Padilla.

Under California's primary system, only the first- and second-place finishers, regardless of party, can run in the general election.

"They liked my ideas," Drobman said, "so hopefully I will have more access to the secretary of state" after the election.

Obagi, running in the super-crowded (18 on the ballot, plus a write-in candidate) race to succeed retiring Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) said he campaigned hard for the same seat two years ago. He finished second-to-last in that eight-candidate primary, with 1.8% of the vote.

But he said both races have helped him lay the groundwork for a future run by allowing him to build name recognition and hone his campaign skills.

Just don't expect to find him campaigning in these final days before the election. He's in Ohio, attending a friend's wedding.

In fact, Obagi said, he hasn't tried as hard this time because he decided to shoulder most of the work of running his Beverly Hills law firm, Obagi & Stodder, so the firm's other namesake, Seth Stodder, could devote more time to his campaign for a South Bay/Westside state Senate seat.

Stodder is the only no-party candidate on a ballot with seven Democrats, so Obagi figures his law partner has a decent shot at winning a place on the fall ballot, despite running against candidates with higher name recognition.

Name recognition is probably not the problem for Cindy Sheehan, 56.

Except for Jerry Brown, Sheehan, who gained international attention as an antiwar activist after her son Casey died in Iraq, is arguably the best known of any of the 15 candidates on the ballot for governor.

She's written books, has a weekly podcast, delivered countless speeches and once famously carried out her protest at a makeshift camp outside then-President George W. Bush's Texas ranch.

She ran for Congress twice against former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and was the Peace and Freedom Party's nominee for vice president in 2012.

The party is helping her shoestring-budget run for governor now. It paid part of her filing fee, but she's pretty much on her own as she travels from her Vacaville home to campaign events around the state. She doesn't have a car, so she counts on friends for rides or uses campaign money to pay airfare.

Sheehan said she's running because she feels there is "an increasing consolidation of political power in the Democratic and Republican machines in California and all over the nation."

She wants to get more people "engaged in the political process" to reverse the state's dismal election turnout rates.

"I want people to know they don't have to vote for the lesser of two evils, that there are alternatives," Sheehan said.

Like Obagi, she doesn't expect to reach the November ballot but said she has found "a lot of people who have told me they're voting for me."

"It gives me hope," Sheehan said with a small laugh, "that I won't come in 15th."