Before we get started, let’s get one thing straight: Contrary to what Barry Groveman’s opponents insinuate by circulating a 7-year-old L.A. Weekly story, the mayor of Calabasas, who is now running for a seat in the California Assembly, is not under investigation for having solicited illegal campaign contributions. When he ran for district attorney in November 2000, Groveman was merely a consulting attorney for the Los Angeles Unified School District, hired to advise the district about the toxic ground under the Belmont Learning Complex. He was not an “officer of the agency,” and therefore not bound by state ethics laws. He was thus free to seek campaign money anywhere he pleased, including among the contractors lining up to do business with the district.

Nevertheless, he insists, “I didn’t even do that. I had my own rule that I wouldn’t take contributions from anyone associated with the project.”

The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) formally closed any case against him in the summer of 2001. The law firm that spurred the investigation by sending “confidential letters” to the FPPC, Preston Gates and Ellis, gave him a written apology that October. And for the price of a phone call, Groveman will happily fax you a copy of that letter, plus nine pages documenting his innocence.

But just as one door is closed, another yaws open. No sooner had Groveman finished faxing over his exonerating pages than another document came over that same transom: a copy of a letter from Howard Strauss, chair of Sierra Club California’s political committee, demanding that Groveman and his campaign “cease and desist the improper use of the Sierra Club name and logo.” Apparently Groveman used a photograph taken of him while he spoke at a rally opposing a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal off the Ventura coast. He happened to be standing in front of a Sierra Club banner at the time, and he captioned the photo, “Groveman joins the Sierra Club in opposing LNG plant.” “As you and your campaign know,” reads the terse letter from Strauss, “the Sierra Club has not endorsed you; we have endorsed your opponent Kelly Hayes-Raitt.”

That fax didn’t find its way to the L.A. Weekly from the Sierra Club. Instead, it was sent over by Hayes-Raitt herself (evidently a lot of trees have to die in the fax battles of environmentalist candidates). Hayes-Raitt also called members of the media with the tip, confiding juicily that, “I just picked up something interesting from the Sierra Club.” In a later conversation, when I asked if she’d had anything to do with alerting the Sierra Club of Groveman’s transgression, she admitted she had. “As soon as I saw [the brochure], I called their political director, Emil Lawton,” she said, “and within two hours he had called me back and said, ‘We’re having our lawyer draft a letter.’?”

Groveman calls the charge “a dirty trick” and “politically over the top.” “I was invited to that LNG event by the people who held the event,” he says. “I understand that I’m going to get these attacks because I’m the frontrunner. And I don’t mind that people say negative things about me in a campaign. But I do mind when somebody tries to mislead the public like this.”

He also chafes at the notion that Hayes-Raitt, who bills herself as one of Heal the Bay’s co-founders and served as executive director of the Coalition for Clean Air, has better environmental credentials than he does. “I just did the toughest secondhand-smoke law in the country,” he says, referring to Calabasas’ new law confining outdoor smoking to designated areas. (“It’s not a ban,” Groveman protests.) “I’ve put dozens of people in jail for environmental pollution.” He also helped write California’s landmark law requiring the labeling of toxic chemicals, Proposition 65. If elected, he says, “I’ll be the first legislator to force big entities to pay damages for natural-resource destruction. And I’m going to make global warming one of my main issues.”

In other words, he suggests, that Sierra Club endorsement of Hayes-Raitt was probably a mistake.

If you’re running for president of the United States, you do your best to present yourself as tough on terrorists; if you’re running for governor of California, you promise to stand up to special interests. But if you want the opportunity in the California Assembly to represent the people who live along that storied stretch of coastline that reaches from Oxnard to Santa Monica — a district so solidly Democratic that only the primary matters — you strive to prove that you’re green. The woman who has held the seat for the past three two-year terms — the maximum allowed by California law — former Agoura Hills mayor and schoolteacher Fran Pavley, authored some of the most significant environmental legislation to have swept the state in years, including a law mandating a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and trucks. Before her, Sheila Kuehl, now state senator in the 23rd District, fielded legislation on endangered species, drinking water and zero-emission vehicles. But neither Pavley nor Kuehl have much faith in either Hayes-Raitt or Groveman as effective defenders of the environment in the Legislature.

Instead, both the incumbent and her predecessor have enthusiastically — or, as Kuehl put it, maniacally — thrown their support behind a candidate with few environmental credentials outside of banning pesticides from local schools and promoting natural gas in school buses: Santa Monica School Board President Julia Brownley.

Brownley also has been endorsed by the California Democratic Party, the L.A. County Federation of Labor and the California League of Conservation Voters (CLCV). “We’ve known Kelly and Barry for a long time,” said CLCV’s Southern California director David Allgood, “and we chose to go with Julia.”

Brownley acknowledges that her environmental record is “relatively small.” She believes she won the CLCV’s endorsement because “people have gotten to know me, they know my overall record of service, they know I’m someone who’s going to delve deeply into these issues, and I’m going to take the time to learn the issues.”

And Kuehl, who recruited Brownley, notes that at the beginning of her legislative career, she had no environmental record, either. “I was a feminist attorney and a law professor,” she says. “But I recognized the connection between social justice and environmental protection.”

Pavley had served on the California Coastal Commission before she came to Sacramento, but she maintains that a history of environmental activism matters less in this race than working well with others.

“Integrity is the critical ingredient in public policymaking,” she says. “You can put all your time and effort into a critical bill, but you always have to remember that you have to work with the same people the next day, if not the next hour.” Pavley has not only passed her many bills, she has done so with the ongoing support of two very different governors. It’s a feat she doubts either Groveman or Hayes-Raitt could duplicate.

“Kelly burns bridges,” the typically plainspoken assemblywoman says frankly. “People who have known her for a long time have problems with her. I think her voting record would be fine, but that’s not all there is to being successful in Sacramento.”

As for Groveman, “In the 25 years I’ve been out in the trenches on land-use issues, I’ve never seen him out here on anything. His involvement [in public service] has been limited to his two years on city council.”

If the candidate with the most cash wins, however, Groveman may be hard to beat: With well over half a million in his campaign fund (including $193,000 of his own money), he has raised $150,000 more than the next richest contender, 35-year-old attorney Jonathan Levey, who may stand a chance only if Groveman goes down and the progressive Democratic vote gets split between Brownley and Hayes-Raitt.

Groveman might also have the advantage of hailing from the city closest to Pavley’s, although that advantage will be weaker in 2006 than it was in 2000, when the primary was open and Pavley beat S. David Freeman with “significant crossover votes from Republicans and Greens.” (Since then, however, Freeman has become Pavley’s ardent supporter. “Dave’s been wonderful,” she says.)

Ultimately, none of the current candidates is exactly Fran Pavley or Sheila Kuehl, whose combined legacies have made the 41st District’s Assembly seat a hard one to fill. But Pavley is quick to note that new legislators succeed only to the extent they can listen and learn. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned on so many issues,” she says. “The best you can do in a candidate is to pick someone whose heart is in the right place.”

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