Before this week, Israel was probably the last thing on voters' minds in Los Angeles. But Monday's bloody encounter at sea between Israeli commandos and pro-Palestinian activists put the issue back on the front page.
It also now figures into the fortunes of peace activist Marcy Winograd, whose primary campaign against Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) has been sputtering around in search of an issue for more than a year.
Winograd quickly condemned as murders the killings of nine activists aboard an aid-bearing flotilla bound for Gaza (Israel says it was self-defense), and noted that in a show of solidarity with the Free Gaza movement, a Winograd for Congress T-shirt was worn by one of the activists onboard.
Suddenly, Winograd has an issue. And those inclined to cast a protest vote against Israel's actions have their candidate.
The consensus among political observers, however, is that Winograd's appeal remains limited to the KPFK crowd. A poll commissioned by Harman's campaign shows her clobbering Winograd, with 58 percent of the vote, compared with 17 for Winograd. Winograd's campaign staffers conducted their own poll, putting Harman at 43 percent, which they argue makes the incumbent vulnerable. But they have not released Winograd's own poll number, which is not an encouraging sign for her supporters.
“I think Marcy's gonna get her clock cleaned,” says Eric Bauman, vice chair of the California Democratic Party.
This is Winograd's second run against Harman, a veteran lawmaker whose district extends from Venice to San Pedro. In 2006, Winograd was a high school teacher in Pacific Palisades when she saw Harman defending the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program on Meet the Press.
Winograd was so outraged that she moved to Harman's district, taking an apartment in Marina del Rey, and ran for Congress. She quickly became a darling of Westside progressives. Fueled by anti-Bush anger, she took 38 percent of the vote, forcing Harman to sit up and take notice of progressive concerns.
Winograd is hoping once again to capitalize on anti-incumbent anger on June 8. But the political winds have shifted.
In the first campaign, Winograd was running against Bush-administration extremism. This time around, she's taking on a broad foreign-policy consensus, which includes not only the middle-of-the-road Harman but also left-of-center President Barack Obama.
That's a bigger lift, and it has some political observers wondering why she bothered.
“In a time when she might have been able to win, she couldn't win,” says Fred Huebscher, a South Bay political consultant. “So why does she think this time is better?”
Give Winograd credit, though, for making Harman work. To many residents of her district, Harman is a creature of Washington. She has been in office for 16 of the last 18 years, and is seen on MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports more often than at local events.
Harman can come off as entitled, and it doesn't help that she's always on the list of the richest members of Congress.
“There's a lot of hatred for the congresswoman,” says Julian Burger, who has been manning a table for Winograd at the Torrance Farmers Market. “A lot of people say, 'Yeah, we gotta get rid of her.'”
Harman has always been a Democrat in the mold of her close political friend Sen. Dianne Feinstein. On national security, she is a hawk and an advocate for the South Bay's defense industry. While a self-described fiscal conservative, she has always been progressive on hot-button social issues like abortion and gay rights.
Much of Harman's current trouble with the base of the party dates to the Bush years, when she was the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. She was one of the few members of Congress briefed on the most controversial aspects of the war on terror, and has come under repeated criticism for not fighting back against wiretapping and torture.
When the Democrats took control of Congress, Harman was passed over for the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee.
Since then, it has appeared to many that she has been on the lookout for a new job. Harman was rumored to be on the short list for an intelligence post in the Obama administration, but that has not materialized.
Now, thanks to Winograd, she has been forced to go through the humbling process of reintroducing herself to her constituents. “The opportunity to serve is not an entitlement,” Harman says in one TV spot. “I have to earn it and I understand that.”
Harman's consultant, Harvey Englander, says she is taking nothing for granted. “Voters are frustrated and incumbents have to spend more of their time and energy and resources talking about what they've done,” Englander says.
One of the things Harman's done is move to the left. She opposed Obama's escalation of the war in Afghanistan last year, has repeatedly called for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, and broke with her fellow Blue Dogs to support a public option in the health-care bill.
All the while, Harman has refused to debate Winograd. But she did make a rare appearance at the California Democratic Convention, which provided some unexpected drama. At a panel for the progressive caucus, Winograd managed to get on the same stage as Harman and force her into an extremely unusual sparring match over America's role as the world's only superpower.
“I challenge my opponent to stop voting for this war machine,” Winograd said.
Annoyed, Harman defended projecting America's values abroad and challenged Winograd “to understand that we also confront some evil in this world.” After noting that she had not signed up for a debate, she got up and left the stage.
From the start of this campaign, Winograd has waded into controversial waters by challenging Harman's unflinching support of Israel. Winograd got into the race because Harman was embroiled in a bizarre wiretapping scandal, in which she was accused of doing the bidding of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group.
In a speech at the left-leaning All Saints Church in Pasadena, Winograd accused Israel of institutionalized racism and extermination, and called for a one-state solution with universal suffrage in the occupied territories.
In an interview with the Tehran Times, she criticized Obama's nuclear policy and called herself a non-Zionist Jew, which sent up all sorts of red flags for Israel's defenders.
In January, Harman got Rep. Henry Waxman to write a fund-raising letter saying, “In Marcy Winograd's foreign policy, Israel would cease to exist. In Marcy Winograd's vision, Jews would be at the mercy of those who do not respect democracy or human rights.”
Harman also took aim at Winograd's characterization of the raid on the flotilla, releasing a statement saying it is “premature to assess blame or call anyone a murderer.”
The campaign has tried to make up the gap by tapping netroots. Across the country, netroots activists are seeking to use primary election challenges to pull centrist Democrats to the left. Winograd was endorsed last week by Democracy for America, founded by former presidential candidate Howard Dean, which also backed Joe Sestak and Bill Halter in their anti-establishment campaigns in Pennsylvania and Arkansas.
Winograd has raised much of her money online, and she has put it into TV spots and phone banking. But her campaign has had to contort her message to address the one issue everyone knows is at the top of the agenda.
“The salient theme is jobs,” Winograd says. “Where are the jobs? We could double jobs if you invested in mass transit instead of war-making.”
Her campaign has also attacked Harman for the Wall Street bailouts, the Bush-era bankruptcy bill, the exclusivity period for generic drugs in the health-reform bill, home foreclosures, and jet noise at the Santa Monica Airport (which is in Waxman's district).
“The truth is there's no reason for Winograd to be running,” Huebscher says. “She's just running because she's delusional.”