The bodies are being cleared from the field in the wake of our bloody primary election. The most prominent casualty of the restless electorate has been conventional wisdom. It seems that almost every prediction made by pundits, party insiders and political prognosticators was wrong.
With a war chest approaching two million dollars, Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich seemed invincible. But Trutanich proved to be a paper tiger, being knocked out of the running for District Attorney by Jackie Lacey. Prop. 29, the $1.00 tax on cigarettes, was supposed to be a shoo-in but as of press time it appears headed for defeat.
In the blood bath for the top two spots on the November ballot for the 50th Assembly District, the conventional wisdom was that it was a cat fight between nominal incumbent Betsy Butler and progressive firebrand Torie Osborn. Santa Monica Mayor Bloom and Republican Brad Torgan were supposed to be irrelevant.
The 50th Assembly race was in fact a turf battle between gay political heavy weights. Assembly Speaker, John Perez needed to protect a loyal but weak incumbent, while former State Senator Sheila Kuehl was determined to put progressive soul mate Torie Osborn into the strategic Westside seat which would be a crucial factor if Kuehl decides to run for County Supervisor when Zev Yaroslavsky is termed out in two years.
With Butler and Osborn easily spending over half a million each, this was one of the most expensive and wasteful races in California. Osborn and Butler both ran to the left while de-foresting large swaths of the Amazon rainforest for mailers that generally insulted the intelligence of the average voter.
Butler tried to make her slim legislative record look substantive and acted as if abortion rights and equal pay for women were in danger in California. Osborn’s mail made it look as if her opponents were reactionary Republicans, while her posthumous endorsement by the legendary Harvey Milk was classic.
In the end, the race turned into a four-way brawl with Butler barely edging out the underfunded Bloom for the top spot by only 102 votes. West Hollywood’s pro-choice gay Republican, Brad Torgan, pulled nearly a quarter of the vote and was snapping at Osborn’s heels as the results came in.
As Osborn and Butler bloodied each other, low-key Bloom played upon his real world political experience and managed to come across as the competent adult in the race. In the meantime his opponents ignored the fact that Bloom’s bastion of support in Santa Monica did not need to be motivated by massive mailings.
But it was not just the gay Assembly Speaker whose ego was caught up in the race. The Butler/Osborn feud divided the West Hollywood City Council. John Duran, Jeff Prang and John D’Amico endorsed Butler while Abbe Land, John Heilman and former Council member Lindsey Horvath backed Osborn. The Council alignment put strains on the West Hollywood Democratic Club and Stonewall Democratic Club as members tired to sort out a tangle of allegiances. Osborn was a true veteran of the movement whose candidacy was being vehemently opposed by guys who owe their election to the efforts of her generation of activists.
The divide within the gay and lesbian community was vicious. How do you reconcile loyalty to the gay Assembly Speaker, one of the most powerful politicians in the State, when he is backing a mediocre backbencher against a former executive director of the LA Gay and Lesbian Center? A tepid speaker with a rather cold persona, it was hard to envision Butler as a warrior for GLBT rights when compared to the passionate charisma of Torie Osborn. Speaker Perez had simply decided for Butler to run in the 50th as the newly drawn boundaries of her former South Bay district would be challenging for her to hold. The wishes of the residents of the 50th were clearly irrelevant to his calculations.
The highlight of the campaign was the tantrum thrown by then Mayor John Duran when Osborn captured the endorsement of the West Hollywood Democratic Club. As Osborn took the podium to thank the Club, Duran launched into an angry tirade. “This is bullshit; we won’t work for you. We’re not all lesbians!” Duran shouted. Captured on a cell phone, the incident went viral in political circles.
It was ironic that we have openly gay elected officials who always stress the need to elect members of our community to office when they are fund raising for re-election, who were opposing Osborn’s bid to similarly empower the GLBT community.
This was particularly true in the case of West Hollywood Council members John Duran and Jeff Prang. Duran has made three unsuccessful bids for the State legislature, demanding that our community have “a place at the table.” One woman told me that Duran apparently believed that Osborn was not qualified to take a “place at the table” as Osborn was phallically challenged.
Prang has built his entire persona in the Democratic Party as being a gay rights stalwart. I was approached by a number of Party activists who questioned if Prang’s loyalty was to Speaker Perez or to the community he claims to represent. Prang himself was initially running for the Assembly as a GLBT standard bearer. Some Democrats thought it odd that Duran and Prang could be so adamant about electing gay men to office yet somehow find ways of not supporting a qualified lesbian legislative candidate.
Given the nasty divisions of the race, it seems unlikely that the majority of Osborn’s volunteers will be backing Butler in November. Indeed many of them are so alienated by what they perceive as betrayal by the Democratic Party “leadership” that it may be hard to rally them to the polls at all. The old divisions between gay men and lesbians seem to have reopened like an unhealed wound.
Duran has yet to apologize for the “we are not all lesbians” slur. Although he claims he simply spoke out in a fit of passion, his refusal to repudiate his comments leave a nasty taste of misogyny in the air. While Duran is currently trying to expiate his political sins on the California AIDS LifeCycle ride, it will be interesting to see if he makes efforts to heal the divisions inflicted on the community.
So as the dust settles, our gay Assembly Speaker and our local gay council members may find that whatever cynical political advantages they felt were gained by the power playoff endorsing Betsy Butler may have been lost by damage to their credibility in the community that they purportedly represent.
If Butler does win in November, it will be interesting to see if her endorsement of John Duran and Jeff Prang for re-election to City Council has any repercussions. Hopefully they won’t be haunted by the ghost of Harvey Milk.