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Democratic War for L.A.'s Richest 

Betsy Butler and Torie Osborn woo the carbon-counting strata of Assembly District 50

Thursday, May 24 2012
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A t the top of the Santa Monica Mountains range in Beverly Hills, standing in the middle of the "urban forest" campus of the environmental group TreePeople, California Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, a leggy blonde in a powder-blue business suit and spiked heels, looks out of place.

Butler is in Coldwater Canyon for a brief campaign stop at TreePeople's Green City Fair, where the style is determinedly casual — middle-aged men munching on organic fruit are wearing wide-brimmed straw hats and loose pants with sneakers; Millennials in T-shirts and jeans sit at booths and peddle ideas and products that promote the wonders of a "green" life.

Butler might easier blend with the ladies who lunch. But she's trying her best to woo green voters at a crunchy, Westside jamboree just off dusty Mulholland Drive. As she steps cautiously from one booth to another, she tells an energetic young hawker that she doesn't have room for an organic garden at her Beverly Hills apartment. Things seem to be going OK — then the baby bottles come up. To a middle-aged man in sunglasses who's pushing solar power, she explains that she wholly supports his line of work, and she's running for California Assembly District 50. The man gets down to business.

click to flip through (5) ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER
  • ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER
 

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"Are you Democrat or Republican?" he asks.

"Democrat," Butler responds.

The man nods in approval.

"Did you send those baby bottles?"

"Yes," Butler says, now somewhat guarded.

"I don't know if that was a great idea."

The first-term state assemblywoman says nothing but visibly tightens up. For weeks, she's been taking flak for those things. Mailed to several thousand voters as a campaign gimmick to tout the new California law she sponsored, which bans toxic chemicals in baby bottles and sippy cups, the Evenflo plastic bottles have instead given detractors and a somewhat obsessed blogger the chance to question her environmental and street cred in a voting district jammed with liberal hearts that bleed green.

"It's not something anyone can use unless you have a baby," says Marta Evry, the film editor, blogger and former Butler supporter who has been writing about every detail of the campaign with the zeal of a scorned lover. "The bottles are wasteful and made in Mexico — the unions aren't happy about that. It's a huge campaign gaffe."

Torie Osborn, Butler's key rival in the four-way race, says, "I don't think the baby bottles helped Betsy a lot. They show that she's tone-deaf, that she doesn't know what's happening in this district."

Will plastic, toxic-free baby bottles made in another country be a deciding factor in who wins the California State Assembly's District 50 race? In one of the most unabashedly liberal, environmentally conscious — and wealthiest — voter strongholds in the United States, which includes cities such as Malibu, Santa Monica and West Hollywood, which have banned plastic bags or nonrecyclable food containers, yes, they just might.

"This district is La La Land," says Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science geographer Paul Robinson, an expert on social issues in California. "It's divorced from the reality of what's happening in other parts of L.A."

It's early to say whether that's a fair assessment. Assembly District 50 was created only a few months ago, carved into existence by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. The independent commission drew its new boundaries without interference from California's incumbent politicians, who have long controlled the creation of voting districts to assure their own re-elections.

Stretching from the Pacific Ocean and tony Malibu eastward to the mansions of exclusive Hancock Park, and encompassing such communities as Topanga Canyon, Santa Monica, the Pacific Palisades, Bel-Air, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Larchmont Village and the Hollywood Hills, the 50th is one of the wealthiest Democratic districts in California — and the nation.

Known in political circles as President Barack Obama's ATM, the new district is home to deep-pocketed contributors, who have donated many millions of dollars to his 2012 re-election campaign and tens of millions to his successful 2008 bid. It includes not only eye-popping wealth but also high-powered celebrity and political clout.

"There aren't a lot of districts like this in California," says Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, based in Los Angeles. He pauses. "There aren't a lot of districts like this in the country."

The Who's Who of residents includes billionaire supermarket magnate and former Bill Clinton best friend Ron Burkle; billionaire media titan and Obama supporter David Geffen; two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks; megastar and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio; talk show host and outspoken gay-rights supporter Ellen DeGeneres; and many more heavy hitters.

It is a heavily white district in an increasingly brown part of America. Seventy-two percent of voting-age residents are white, 11 percent are Asian and 11 percent are Latino. Just 4 percent are black. Although it has several middle-class neighborhoods — such as Hollywood, Pico-Robertson and Miracle Mile — other areas in the district don't share the same concerns as poor, working- and middle-class neighborhoods in Middle America.

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