Last summer, in a spasm of reform-mindedness, California voters approved the "jungle primary." The aim was to elect more moderates and tamp down partisan bickering by putting the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, into the general election.
The reform measure gets its first real test on Tuesday in a special primary election to replace retired Congresswoman Jane Harman. So far, however, it's not working out quite the way it was drawn up.
Most expect L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn to finish first, followed by Secretary of State Debra Bowen. The two then would square off in July, which would mark the first time under the new system that two Democratic candidates meet in a "general" election.
In theory, the jungle primary should favor the moderate candidate — the one who can appeal not just to core Democratic voters but to Republicans and independents as well. That's why, when the field took shape in February, there was a scramble to figure out which candidate was the "moderate."
Neither one really fits the bill.
"The whole label thing makes me crazy," Bowen said over coffee recently when asked if she would describe herself as the moderate candidate.
The outcome of the election will have less to do with the jungle primary and more to do with turnout and long-term changes in the district, which have made the district more liberal than it was when Harman first was elected 20 years ago.
Turnout in the July 12 runoff is likely to be quite low, especially among Republicans and independents. That should work in favor of Hahn, who will benefit from the L.A. County Federation of Labor get-out-the-vote machine.
Hahn has a well-earned reputation as one of the most liberal members of the City Council, especially on labor and criminal justice issues.
Bowen, meanwhile, has endeared herself to the party's hard-core partisan base by decertifying the controversial electronic voting machines.
Neither will be as moderate as Harman, who once famously declared herself "the best Republican in the Democratic Party."
Bowen and Hahn are just two of the 16 candidates on the May 17 ballot. The others include Marcy Winograd, an antiwar activist who ran twice against Harman; Mike Gin, the moderate, gay, Republican mayor of Redondo Beach; Dan Adler, a Hollywood agent; and Craig Huey, a Christian conservative who made his money in direct mail and has spent $500,000 of it on his own campaign.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district 45 percent to 27 percent, which would make it hard under the best of circumstances for a Republican to advance to the runoff. But to make the odds even longer, there are six Republicans in the field, who will split the conservative vote, including Gin, Huey and local officeholders Kit Bobko and Mike Webb. A more disciplined Republican Party would have cleared the field.
Hahn, Bowen and Winograd are the top three contenders on the Democratic side. Hahn, who lives at the district's southern tip in San Pedro, has a strong advantage in the harbor area and with union members. Bowen, who lives at the northern end of the district in Marina del Rey, is stronger in the beach cities and has the backing of environmental groups.
Winograd lives just outside the district in Santa Monica. Last year, she took 41 percent of the primary vote against Harman. She was considered a threat to split Bowen's Westside base. But according to a poll Bowen issued last month, Winograd is at just 6 percent. In the same poll, Hahn and Bowen were tied with 20 percent of the vote apiece.
Hahn leads in fundraising. The latest report shows her with twice as much cash in the bank as Bowen. Making the most of that disadvantage, Bowen has described herself as the "grassroots" candidate and repeatedly charged that Hahn is funded by "City Hall lobbyists and special interests."
The charge is true. More than 20 City Hall lobbyists have donated to Hahn — donations that would be illegal if they were for a city campaign. One of the small ironies of the charge, however, is that Bowen herself was registered as a "City Hall lobbyist" in the early '90s, before she entered politics. (Bowen said she did some work for Westchester businesses about LAX traffic impacts.)
Hahn is personable. From her years on the council, she has shown herself to be a more old-school, transactional pol, perhaps something she learned at the knee of her father, legendary Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.
"Janice is a computer printout of the momentary public opinion on any issue," says David Freeman, who clashed with Hahn when he chaired the Harbor Commission. "She has her father's knack for smelling out what people think in the moment. She's capable of changing her position in midsentence."
Bowen, meanwhile, comes off as more of a technocrat. She can seem aloof and cautious, but she also has more patience than Hahn for the details of policy. In discussing her goals should she be elected, Bowen said she would be interested in delving into cybersecurity, making an offhand reference to the hacker in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (Bowen is a science fiction fan.)
Hahn said her focus will be on homeland security issues, expanding on her expertise at LAX and the Port of Los Angeles.
Each would have big shoes to fill. During her 16 years in office, Harman became a formidable voice on national security issues.
Hahn and Bowen have expressed their respect for Harman's legacy, but they have shied away from her hawkish record. Asked at one debate whether she would pattern herself after Harman, Bowen said, "I don't pattern myself after anyone." She went on to note that she would be much more of a civil libertarian than Harman, who endorsed the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program.
For her part, Hahn has sounded almost like Winograd, Harman's most persistent critic.
Winograd ran last year on a platform of "jobs, not wars." In one of Hahn's mailers, she vows to "invest in jobs, not war."
Perhaps because of their antiwar stance, neither candidate has won over the aerospace industry, which funded much of Harman's political career.
According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, Harman's top contributor was Northrop Grumman. Boeing came in at No. 4, and Lockheed Martin was sixth. (The data reflect contributions from employees and corporate political action committees.)
So far in this campaign, Bowen and Hahn have received hardly anything from defense companies. (The only "aerospace" contribution for either one was a $500 check to Hahn from Jim Aldinger, a Boeing engineer and former Manhattan Beach councilman.)
"I think at this point they're waiting," Hahn says.
Hahn, Bowen and Winograd all talk about bringing troops home from Afghanistan and investing that money at home. They also argue that defense industry know-how can be refocused on nondefense applications, such as clean energy. And they talk about defending the El Segundo–based L.A. Air Force Base from closure.
To the aerospace industry, none lives up to Harman, who spoke the industry's language and had no trouble defending an aggressive military posture around the globe.
"Jane is special, for aerospace," Aldinger says. "She was just naturally interested in it. If her replacement is Debra or Janice, I think either one of those is capable of learning and being an advocate for aerospace. I don't know if they have the passion for it that Jane does."