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.
“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.
Geographer Robinson says that a lot of residents in the 50th escape Los Angeles' “day-to-day reality” of unemployment and failing schools. AD 50 even lucks out when it comes to smog, because much of it is buffeted by the air-cleansing ocean breeze. And he adds, “Where L.A. is much more diverse, … this is the remaining bastion of white L.A.”
The battle to represent this doughnut hole in Los Angeles has grown increasingly intense. After all, whoever gets elected to California Assembly District 50, if they do a fairly decent job in the Sacramento statehouse, can expect very deep pockets to open as they seek higher offices. In short, victory in the new 50th is like holding a winning ticket to California's political lottery.
At 8 a.m. at a Santa Monica seasonal gourmet food shop called the Thyme Café & Market, Osborn, an energetic 61-year-old who moved to California in 1978 to run a feminist recording label for singer-songwriter Holly Near, can't help but start the day by ripping into her rival Butler.
“Betsy is like an automaton,” says Osborn, a plainspoken gay woman with short blond hair and her trademark red-framed glasses. “She reads the [Democratic] party's positions on issues and just recites them.”
The campaign has been rife with intra-party turmoil, marked by a very public freak-out in January by then–West Hollywood Mayor John Duran that landed on Huffington Post — he loudly and publicly called a clever campaign maneuver by Osborn “bullshit!” The hard-charging Duran, a close friend and gay supporter of Butler's, says, “In my circle of friends, a lot of people are asking whether Torie's ego is out of control. My only advice to Torie is to keep her ego in check. … Just like I have to.”
“I'm running against a pretty ruthless machine,” Osborn insists, charging that powerful gay California Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and the California Democratic Party are spending an inordinate amount of time and money to elect Butler, who is largely politically indistinguishable from Osborn. “It's a machine that will misinform,” Osborn says. “It's heartbreaking, since it's run by liberal Democrats.”
Doug Herman, Pérez's political consultant, says Osborn and her supporters are simply “crying,” but he refuses to discuss her accusations in any detail. “There's a bunch of rumors in every campaign,” he says, “and to respond to a laundry list of them is crazy.”
But Sacramento veteran Sheila Kuehl, who in 1994 became the first openly gay person elected to the California Legislature, and who has sided with Osborn, says, “People are trying to mask the fact that the Sacramento machine is going full-bore for Betsy.”
One powerful endorsement for Butler comes from Equality California, the influential statewide gay-rights group on whose board Butler has served for six years. In addition to Butler's support for many gay candidates and issues over the years, Equality California cited the fact that she holds a perfect voting record on pro-LGBT issues in the Legislature.
This internecine war could be repeated in the fall. There's a decent chance that Butler and Osborn will face each other in the Nov. 6 runoff — unless one of the two male candidates, Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom or gay Republican attorney Brad Torgan, comes in second. That's because Californians approved an experimental election reform in which voters can cross party lines during the primaries to choose whomever they wish. The top two vote-getters — even if they're both Democrats or both Republicans — battle it out in November.
Douglas Johnson, a redistricting expert at Claremont McKenna College's Rose Institute, says registered voters in the 50th are 53 percent Democrat, 19 percent Republican and 23 percent “decline to state” or independents, most of them liberal.
Since political differences among the three Democratic candidates are essentially nonexistent — the exception is Torgan, a goateed Barry Goldwater conservative who wore a suit even at a Topanga meeting of people in camo pants or jeans — the election resembles a hot race for high school student body president. “This district is essentially overpopulated with financially well-off, liberal Democrats,” says longtime Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. “It's less of an ideology contest and more of a personality contest.”
Even though Osborn and Butler probably would vote identically — for gay rights, environmental protections and bills backed by labor unions — they are very different.
Butler, who is in her late 40s and came of age politically during the 1980s' Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush years, paid her dues in the political system by working for California state Sen. Lucy Killea, California Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston and President Bill Clinton.
“Politics is a team sport,” Butler tells the Weekly, recalling the lessons she learned. “If you work well with others, you can be successful. If you can't, you won't.”
The earlier anti–Vietnam War and feminist movements of the late '60s and early '70s informed Osborn's political life. After her gig at Holly Near's record label, Osborn was the first woman executive director of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, marching in the streets and against a slow-moving political establishment during the AIDS crisis.
“I was going to the hospital every night,” Osborn recalls. “I was burying a friend every week.” She later became executive director at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the liberal advocacy group Liberty Hill Foundation. Currently, she's a senior strategist for California Calls, a coalition of progressive organizations pushing for state government reform in Sacramento.
Butler refuses to criticize Osborn or the other candidates. Osborn takes a different tack. She often gives Santa Monica mayor Bloom high marks for his debating abilities, describes Butler as “kind of passionless” and, when told that Torgan describes her as “strident,” shoots back, “Whenever a woman is aggressive or strong and she's called 'strident,' it's very sexist. It's offensive.”
At an intimate fundraising house party in swanky Pacific Palisades, a Westside neighborhood filled with lawyers, academics, movie industry people and rich retirees, Osborn stood at the door and welcomed guests with a big smile, a firm handshake and an enthusiastic, “Hi! I'm Torie Osborn!”
She can come off as a swaggering, shoot-from-the-hip, outsider candidate. Butler, on the other hand, cultivates the image of a policy wonk and dutiful political insider. She left her beloved coastal neighborhood, Marina del Rey, to move several miles inland to Beverly Hills to run for this new office — after her own 53rd district, which stretched along the coast from Marina del Rey to Torrance, got dramatically redrawn by the redistricting commission.
Butler, who is backed by California Speaker Pérez, needed to find a new district to run in that was acceptable to her political higher-ups. She acknowledges that Pérez “didn't want me to run against [Democrat] Steve Bradford” in the newly redrawn 62nd district, which she ended up sharing with Bradford after the commission essentially drew her out of her own district.
On the face of it, the hip crowd appears to be totally down with Osborn's outsider style. Billionaire David Geffen, who heads up the gay A-list in Los Angeles, has maxed out his contribution limit of $3,900 for Osborn. Movie director and Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams hosted a fundraiser for her that was co-hosted by TV directors Dan Attias and Paris Barclay, actor-director Rob Reiner, Oscar-winning movie producer Bruce Cohen, Courage Campaign founder Rick Jacobs, former movie studio head Frank Biondi and gay power player Chad Griffin.
At the recent rooftop fundraiser above the offices of his Bad Robot Productions, which brought in more than $70,000, Abrams recounted how he and wife Katie McGrath, who live in the Palisades, met Osborn when she ran Liberty Hill: “We were blown away by her principled nature and willingness to stand up for people who have little or no voice.”
Comedian Lily Tomlin enthusiastically endorses Osborn.
“You want to get the person you can trust,” Tomlin tells the Weekly, calling from a job in Canada. “Someone who has grit and will fight for something. Some people just speak to you.”
But Butler has some very big guns in this battle, and there's no clear favorite. She has heavy support from unions, established politicians and liberal advocacy groups tied to the Democratic Party. She's not as loaded with star power as Osborn — the best-known celebrity in her camp is actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. But most of the seasoned politicians are rallying around Butler, including Malibu Mayor Laura Rosenthal, who sees her as a strong contender for votes despite her recent move in from the beach: “She's very dynamic, and she's a real doer. She knows how to talk to all kinds of people.”
These fairly minor differences between the two women have stirred up strong resentments among their followers. Up in Topanga Canyon, an unincorporated land of oak-dotted ridges and tangled ravines, and a favorite bohemian destination for activists, actors and artists both in the 1960s and today, longtime resident Dorothy Reik practically sneers at the mention of Butler.
“She's not from the district,” says Reik, president of the Progressive Democrats of the Santa Monica Mountains and an Osborn backer. “She comes up here with her high heels and stockings and endorsements. She's not one of us. She's not a mountain person.”
Miles away in the flatlands, West Hollywood/Beverly Hills Democratic Club president Lillian Raffel, who lives in Beverly Hills and backs Butler, decries Osborn's campaign strategy of sending voluminous amounts of glossy mailers to voters. “People who are environmentally attuned don't like the wastefulness of the whole thing,” she says.
The big issues of the day — the double-digit unemployment still ravaging most of Los Angeles, for example — don't come up all that often. The anger is more local. Raffel presided over a major blow-up in January, when Osborn stacked a meeting of the West Hollywood/Beverly Hills Democratic Club with new members from her camp — so she could have the votes to win the organization's “endorsement.”
The tactic betrays how meaningless the “official” Democratic Club endorsements often are. Vote-stacking at this grassroots level is used frequently by establishment candidates and Democratic Party bosses to bury Democratic upstarts such as Osborn. L.A. voters then are prompted to believe, via glossy Democratic Party mailers, that a serious vetting led to a popular endorsement of the handpicked candidate.
But Osborn turned the tables on local Democratic Party insiders and won. “We did nothing illegal,” Osborn says. “They did it, too, but they were out-organized.”
Then–West Hollywood mayor Duran, a Butler backer, was furious about Osborn's cleverness, and, as she describes it, “went off his rocker.”
Duran's tantrum was caught on video, which blogger and Osborn supporter Evry posted on Vimeo. When the Huffington Post linked to it, the Duran outburst spread to major news outlets. In the video, pointing an angry finger at Osborn, Duran, a gay man, yells, “We're not going to work for you, Torie! This is bullshit! This is bullshit! You divided our community!” He stalks away yelling, “We're not all lesbians!”
Duran defends his behavior. “I'm a hot-blooded Latino with a short fuse, who loses it sometimes. … For the most part, I keep my anger in check. I reacted to what I thought was unfair and unjust, and that's a trigger for me.” He then adds, “I'd do it again, probably.” He insists Osborn's move was “a very heavy-handed tactic and unnecessary.”
But Sheila Kuehl says Duran was “extremely unprofessional — he was the mayor of West Hollywood.”
What has to rankle establishment Democrats like Pérez is that the party leadership was forewarned by Osborn herself. She used the same audience-packing strategy weeks earlier at the Malibu Democratic Club meeting, where her backers showed up and voted to give her that club's endorsement. Malibu mayor Rosenthal wasn't pleased. “I understand that it's politics,” Rosenthal says, “but endorsements should be won on the strength of her candidacy.”
Republican Brad Torgan, 50, the truest of outsiders in this race, calls the battle between the two women “annoying to watch — the whole Betsy/Torie kerfuffle. When I see them at community forums, it's obvious that there's a lot of tension. Whether they admit to it or not, the vibes are that they don't like each other.”
The other Democratic candidate, Bloom, 58, an affable family-law attorney with a stylish, closely cropped beard, has been keeping his head low, and perhaps wisely so. Bloom has a strong voter base inside Santa Monica, a fashionable, small city. He hopes the insular sniping will turn voters away from Butler and Osborn — and toward him.
“I have deliberately stayed clear of that,” Bloom says with a smile. “As far as I'm concerned, it's not productive. This is a campaign of values and ideas, and I'm not interested in engaging on that level.”
That approach could work for Bloom on June 5, says strategist Carrick, but he warns Bloom that “if he's going to run up the middle, he better have something to say.”
Bloom shouldn't be underestimated. He ran three times for Santa Monica City Council until he won a special election in 1999, and he hasn't lost since. He has a laid-back vibe and likes to talk up Santa Monica's redevelopment successes.
But he has his detractors. Santa Monica Dispatch editor Peggy Clifford recently took Bloom and the City Council to task, describing him in a May 11 editorial as “the rudest and noisiest person in the [City Council] Chambers, week after month.” Clifford charges that under Bloom, rather than restore a “gloriously idiosyncratic beach town,” politicians have “reduced [Santa Monica] to a highly profitable product.” She also writes that Santa Monica City Hall has “spent over $3 million annually on promotion, doubled the size of the City Hall staff and demoted the beach to a 'visitor-serving facility.' ”
Still, among the cool and wealthy crowd, architect Frank Gehry, who designed the landmark Walt Disney Concert Hall and numerous acclaimed buildings around the globe, has donated money to Bloom.
As Clifford's angry editorial suggests, battles over land use and preservation are a topmost issue in the 50th Assembly District. In Malibu, Mayor Rosenthal says the city is fighting a controversial state project to dredge and then redesign Malibu Lagoon, and Malibu boasts the strictest building codes in California. In Beverly Hills, Raffel says key concerns are stopping Metro from digging a subway tunnel under Beverly Hills High School and saving historic mansions. In Topanga Canyon, which is dotted with exclusive homes, as well as ramshackle cabins, resident Dorothy Reik says, “We want to preserve our open spaces. We don't want people to come in here and develop it.”
Thirty-three miles from Topanga, in poor sections of South Los Angeles devastated by the recession, black and Latino community leaders are begging for strip malls with chain stores and minimum-wage jobs. “It's a completely different dialogue,” says Robinson, the geographer. “People are talking about preserving basic services, not mansions, because programs have been cut. Public schools have been essentially abandoned in poor areas.”
He adds, “It's an interesting juxtaposition, since [residents of the Westside and South Los Angeles] are solidly Democratic.”
If the four candidates for the 50th district have done much to reach out to Latino, Asian and black voters, it isn't readily apparent. Only Republican Torgan, who was inspired politically by Goldwater's book The Conscience of a Conservative, complains to the Weekly that no candidate forums have been held east of Beverly Hills, where several middle-class and even a few working-class areas can be found.
In truth, there's no real need for the candidates to build a coalition of blacks, Latinos and white liberals. Assembly District 50 is “an area of California that's not seeing the ethnic changes that the rest of the state has been going through,” says redistricting expert Douglas Johnson.
The tiny percentage of black voters in the district are mostly clustered in the far southeastern sector of the 50th and have more in common with black and Latino residents in South L.A. Geographer Robinson says few are likely to vote in this race. The same holds true for Koreans and other Asians, also clustered in the southeastern section. Latinos in the 50th are generally wealthier than L.A. Latinos and tend to hold political views similar to the white voters.
Republican Torgan, who has virtually no hope of winning, is making an effort to attract those with a libertarian bent. “My core values are limited government, fiscal restraint and a strong belief in civil liberty,” he tells the Weekly. “When I looked at the race, I only saw candidates who were far left and farther left. I didn't see anyone with my values.” But even this Republican is pro-choice and pro–gay marriage.
Butler, Osborn and Bloom, meanwhile, each are trying to forge a crunchy coalition of white folks: canyon people in the Santa Monica Mountains, gays and lesbians in West Hollywood and other enclaves, beach people in Santa Monica and Malibu, ex-hippies and neo-hippies, environmentalists, entertainment-industry hotshots, lawyers and academics, feminists, social-justice activists, vegans, animal-rights activists, surfers and rich philanthropists.
At West Hollywood's trendy Lemonade restaurant, which offers hibiscus and watermelon-rosemary lemonades, Betsy Butler sits on the patio wearing oversized sunglasses. With an assistant sitting by her side, she fits in seamlessly with the urbane, entertainment-industry crowd having a late lunch.
Asked who's going to win the top two slots on June 5 and advance to the November runoff, Butler says casually, “Who knows?”
She's reluctant to go further, saying only that she wants to be one of the two left standing. She's willing to talk about her baby bottle law, though, and her experience fighting the chemical industry to get it passed. The feedback she has received tells her that “people know exactly what the bottles [I sent] were about. … Everyone has an infant in their life.”
She has largely stayed out of the public sniping over whether she should have mailed them to voters. As a sitting legislator, she says, “I don't have time — I have way too many bills to be passed.”
Andre Parvenu, an urban planner who was one of 14 citizens on the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which re-drew the voting districts, says this wasn't intended — a rich, white, liberal district of unusually like-minded people surrounded by the hurly-burly and diversity of Los Angeles.
He calls it an accident produced by complex formulas used to divvy up Greater Los Angeles. “It's simply a matter of circumstance,” Parvenu says. “We used the same criteria as other districts in the state.”
Under those criteria, Parvenu says, the commission wanted each voting district to have an equal population, to be as compact as possible (not gerrymandered by political incumbents into bizarre shapes like squirrels, poodles or army tanks) and to respect city borders — not cut up towns like West Hollywood or Beverly Hills.
The commission didn't consider household incomes or types of employment but did try hard to observe natural boundaries such as mountains. “Geography … had a great deal to do with our decision making,” Parvenu says.
One key hope of those who worked hard to undo the longtime gerrymandering of California was that the citizen commission would create some voting districts in which competing values and competing parties talked about big ideas and vied for the attentions of a more richly mixed electorate.
But in this race, lacking any meaningfully divergent views among the frontrunners, unfolding in a district that bears little relationship to its larger surroundings, this may be the first election decided by a battle over baby bottles.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.