Running Uphill

Photos by Debra Dipaolo

Dave Freeman stands in the rain, holding a plastic grocery bag and looking a little lost. It’s a Wednesday morning at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, but he has no interest in organic produce or fresh flowers; it’s the shoppers he’s after. He spots a potential target, a woman examining a mound of Japanese yams.

“Hello, ma’am,” he says with a Tennessee twang. She smiles tightly, then returns to the yams. Freeman reaches into his bag and pulls out a pamphlet. “I’m running for the state Assembly. Maybe you’ll vote for me.” She gives him a long look, taking in the red cowboy boots, the white felt cowboy hat soaked with rain, the long fingernails and the whiskery eyebrows that seem poised to poke him in the eyes. She opens the pamphlet and scans the text: “closed nine nuclear power plants . . . helped desegregate lunch counters in Knoxville . . . Chairman Tennessee Valley Authority . . . Conservationist of the Year . . . fought the oil companies . . . saved billions in public money.”

“My goodness,” she says, impressed. “You’ve got my vote.” He thanks her and moves on.

Several miles away, on an equally soggy day in Hancock Park, Dan Stone adjusts his clear, blue-plastic poncho and knocks on yet another door. The screen opens and an elderly man peers out. Stone takes a breath and begins.

“Hi. I’m a doctor over at Cedars and I’m running for the Assembly my two opponents are very nice people a West Hollywood councilman and a lawyer but there are already 30 local government officials and 15 lawyers in Sacramento and there hasn’t been a doctor there for more than a decade and I believe I can make a difference.”

Stone is barely through this 10-second spiel (some variation of which he will have rattled off some 9,000 times by the March 7 primary), when the elderly man lets out a whoop. “Hooray!” he says. “We need a doctor up there.” He tells Stone about his wife’s trouble getting her insurance to pay for her medication, which runs about $500 a month. Stone promises to fight for better coverage, and the man promises to vote for him.

Other than their desire to win seats in adjoining Westside districts and their propensity for getting wet, these two Democrats don’t appear to have much in common. Freeman is a 74-year-old Southerner trained as an engineer and an attorney, whose expertise lies in energy policy — he’s taken a leave from his job as head of L.A.’s Department of Water and Power to run for the open seat in the 41st District. Stone, a 43-year-old L.A. native who’s hoping to fill the seat in the 42nd, is associate medical director of the Cedars Sinai Medical Group and led the successful crusade to get the birth-control drug RU-486 into the U.S. for testing. He decided to run after learning that nearly a third of L.A. county residents have no health insurance.

Their commonality lies in what they represent: a new breed of candidate who has never held elective office, has little depth of knowledge outside his chosen field and whose existence in the race is owed entirely to term limits. Arguably, what each lacks in breadth of experience is ameliorated by his passion for an issue of critical importance to the state: Stone wants to secure universal health insurance, while Freeman could be phenomenal in shaping the state’s water and energy policies. For better or worse, term limits mean people like them — not political creatures by nature but attracted by the chance to make a splash — can jump into the race and commit to politics for a limited time. “Everybody talks about how bad term limits are because you’re not there long enough to get anything done,” Freeman says. “But it’s the thing that encourages someone like me to run — the opportunity to be a citizen legislator. Years I might otherwise spend goofin’ off.”

Thanks to term limits, Freeman and Stone are just two of the scores of candidates who have lined up across California to vie for an abundance of open seats — in L.A. County alone there are 11 competitive Democratic legislative primaries. Nowhere are the stakes higher than in the 41st and 42nd, two predominantly Democratic districts that traditionally produce high-caliber legislators who take the lead on a variety of progressive issues, some with state and national import.

In the 41st, which stretches from Santa Monica into the southwestern San Fernando Valley, Sheila Kuehl has shepherded through a variety of bills protecting patients, gay students, battered women and abused children. In the 42nd, which includes both Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, Wally Knox fought to limit handgun purchases and to restore overtime pay. He also foiled a plan by the phone companies to add yet another Westside area code. (Kuehl and Knox are now vying for the same Senate seat.)


Considering that standard, it’s not surprising that both Freeman and Stone face some serious opposition. (Tom Hayden considered running in both districts before opting out). In the 41st, Freeman is squaring off against former Agoura Hills Mayor Fran Pavley and former Santa Monica City Councilman Tony Vazquez. Pavley teaches history at a public school in Moorpark, serves on the California Coastal Commission and is endorsed by the Sierra Club. Vazquez, an L.A. native, is a former schoolteacher who’s endorsed by the California Labor Federation and Senator Richard Polanco.

Both are well-versed in the needs of their municipal microcosms, and both knock Freeman for his macro background, pointing out that he moved to the district two years ago and calling him a carpetbagger with no connection to the communities he wants to represent.

But Freeman doesn’t try to hide his outsider status. From his urban-cowboy garb to his unmistakable drawl, he oozes otherness. He chose to run in the 41st, he says, because the district’s liberal sensibilities were most in line with his own. Knowing the minutiae of local government is not, as far as he’s concerned, essential to doing a good job. A six-chapter, 58-page book he sent to 70,000 voters outlines the highlights of his far-flung career: Among other things, he’s managed utilities in Tennessee, Texas, New York and Sacramento, and closed nine nuclear power plants along the way, including the one in Rancho Seco.

If anything, the rivalry in the 42nd is even more fierce, where, by his own admission, Stone is a longshot candidate. For both Paul Koretz, a West Hollywood councilman, and Amanda Susskind, a public-law attorney, preparation for this race has been a yearslong endeavor. Koretz says his first memory of his father is walking picket lines with him as a toddler. He helped found the workers’ union in West Hollywood, and led the city’s highly publicized effort to ban Saturday-night specials.

Susskind’s campaign slogan, “Best qualified — best trained,” sums her up nicely: While Koretz was out walking picket lines she was writing city codes; serving on commissions on housing, women and parks; and generally getting all of her ducks in a row. She’s endorsed by Senator Polanco, the California National Organization for Women and the Los Angeles Police Protective League.

But Stone knows more about medicine than anyone outside of his profession could hope to acquire in the six short years of state Assembly service that term limits allow. He’d contribute a physician’s perspective on a range of issues, from homelessness and the mentally ill to the links between smog and growing health problems like asthma. And he’s demonstrated a fearlessness that could serve him well. When an elderly patient was turned away from the overcrowded Cedars emergency room and died on the way to another hospital, Stone held a press conference bemoaning the state of emergency-room care. After leading the effort to get RU-486 into the U.S. for testing, he’s now pressuring the FDA, which has stalled approval, to move forward. “I will publicly embarrass them, if it takes that,” he says. “Because this is ridiculous.” For what it’s worth, he’s the only candidate in the race — probably the only candidate in all of California — to have the endorsement of John Kenneth Galbraith.

The rain at the Santa Monica Farmers Market is coming down hard now, and Freeman decides to call it a day. Ultimately, he knows the race in the 41st will be won by mail — most of the $300,000 he’s raised will be spent on printing and postage. “That’s how people decide these days,” he says, “based on mail and TV.”

In the 42nd, Dan Stone is counting on things being different — truth be told, that’s his only hope. While his opponents have amassed half-a-million-dollar kitties, he’s mustered just $250,000 — a third of it his own money. Stone’s strategy is to personally deliver his message to as many likely voters as possible. To this end, he’s out in his white orthopedic sneakers six hours a day, seven days a week. By a week before the primary, he’s lost 15 pounds and has a chronic backache.

On this weekday morning, he’s getting a lot of no-answers. Over the course of two hours, he talks to about two dozen people, none of whom had heard of him or either of his opponents. But all are at the very least polite — not one slammed the door in his face.

One man seems genuinely surprised. After listening to Stone’s spiel, the man extends a tattooed hand. “I appreciate you coming out in the rain,” he tells Stone. “Very rarely does this happen. I hope you make it. God bless.”

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