On Feb. 23, 2012, Sandra Fluke sat before a congressional panel and testified about access to contraception at Georgetown University. A third-year law student, Fluke had spent months surveying students about the difficulties they faced getting birth control at the Jesuit institution.
At first, her remarks got as much attention as wonky congressional testimony usually gets — zero. But five days later, a post appeared on CNSNews.com, a conservative site. The headline: “Sex-Crazed Co-Eds Going Broke Buying Birth Control.”
“Speaking at a hearing … to tout Pres. Obama's mandate that virtually every health insurance plan cover the full cost of contraception and abortion-inducing products, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke said that it's too expensive to have sex in law school without mandated insurance coverage,” Craig Bannister wrote. “Apparently, four out of every 10 co-eds are having so much sex that it's hard to make ends meet if they have to pay for their own contraception, Fluke's research shows.”
The next day, Fox News picked up the story. The day after that, Rush Limbaugh weighed in, and the story exploded.
“What does it say about the college co-ed Susan [sic] Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex?” Limbaugh said. “What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.”
Limbaugh has a lot of time to fill — three hours a day, five days a week — and for the next three days he devoted much of it to misogynistic attacks on Sandra Fluke. He offered to buy aspirin for the women of Georgetown to hold between their knees. He said that, in exchange for contraception, Fluke should post videos of herself having sex.
“I'm not questioning her virtue. I know what her virtue is,” Limbaugh said. “She's having so much sex that she's going broke!”
Sandra Fluke does not listen to Limbaugh, so she only realized something was up when she started being attacked on Twitter.
“It took us a while to figure out what was happening,” says her husband, Adam Mutterperl. “It was actually pretty frightening at first.”
Initially, Fluke thought the controversy would burn itself out fairly soon. But in the middle of a presidential campaign, in which one of the themes was the “war on women,” it ignited like gasoline.
On cable TV, everyone was asked to react, and almost every reaction was news. The Republican presidential candidates distanced themselves from Limbaugh's remarks. Then their own remarks were commented on and reacted to. Fluke got a supportive call from President Obama.
Under pressure from advertisers, Limbaugh was forced into a halfhearted apology. That wasn't enough for Gloria Allred, who tried to get Limbaugh prosecuted under an antiquated Florida statute that makes it a crime to impugn a woman's chastity.
The question for Fluke was how she would react. Fluke is earnest and somewhat shy. On occasion, she displays a deadpan sense of humor. But for the most part, she prefers hacking into the weeds of policy. Her congressional testimony was not about herself at all — she focused instead on how Georgetown's policy had affected her friends and her survey subjects.
She had expected some pushback. Requiring Catholic institutions to provide contraception coverage was, of course, an issue up for debate. But she did not expect that it would be so personal. Even two years later, Fluke is still routinely attacked on Twitter, either as a slut or a spinster. She is used to it now, but at the time, it was still fresh.
Those around her felt the need to protect her and support her. Mutterperl, who was then Fluke's boyfriend, had to be persuaded not to lash out at her attackers. Deborah Epstein, her faculty adviser, worried about the psychological toll of the online abuse.
“I wanted her to bow out,” Epstein says. “That was the option that would be most protective of her.”
Instead, Fluke went on The View. She was poised and measured. She called Limbaugh's remarks an effort to silence her, and took the opportunity to argue for contraceptive coverage.
“I was not gonna become a cautionary tale,” she says now. “I was not going to go away and have people say to little girls, 'That's why you have to be careful when you speak up, because that kind of thing might happen to you.'?”
Suddenly she was everywhere: CNN, The Today Show, Andrea Mitchell, Hardball, Rachel Maddow. That summer, she traveled the country campaigning for Democratic candidates. She introduced Obama at a rally in Denver. “She is one tough and poised young lady,” Obama said onstage. “I suspect she's gonna be doing some even greater things as time goes on.”
In September, she spoke in primetime at the Democratic National Convention. To date, she has been mentioned by Politico 263 times. (E.g.: “QUIZ: How well do you know Sandra Fluke?”)
“Lightning struck,” says Abigail Gardner, a media relations executive at SKDKnickerbocker, who began advising Fluke shortly after the controversy began. “It struck a person who was incredibly equipped to handle it.”
Almost immediately, women's rights advocates began urging Fluke to run for office, seeing her as a leader for a new generation of feminists. When Rep. Henry Waxman retired early this year, Fluke announced she was thinking about running for his seat, which spurred another round of national publicity.
After sizing up the race, Fluke set her sights a little lower. Two years after Limbaugh made her a lightning rod, she is running for an open seat in the California state Senate.
On a recent summer night, Fluke is speaking to a group of volunteers at a home in the Hollywood Hills. The guests are sipping wine in the living room, which has a sweeping view of the city lights below.
They have come to see a political celebrity, and to offer to help get her elected. But as she takes the floor, it's clear Fluke still isn't quite comfortable in the spotlight.
“When I just spend my time talking about policy goals and issues, then people inevitably ask me to tell them more about me,” she says. “So I'm forcing myself to go ahead and talk about myself.”
She is not the sort of person who is destined for elected office. She grew up in a conservative town smack in the middle of Pennsylvania. Her mother is a schoolteacher and her father is a Methodist pastor.
It wasn't until she was an undergraduate at Cornell that Fluke discovered politics. When the school cut funding for the Women's Resource Center, she participated in a sit-in. She also organized a teach-in and a march to protest the Iraq War. She remembers arguing with her mother about WMDs.
She went to Georgetown intending to become a public interest lawyer — the kind that represents indigent clients and pushes for social justice policies at state capitols.
Fluke decided to take up the contraception issue when a friend suffered complications from an ovarian cyst. Georgetown's policy barred contraception coverage but allowed it for students who needed contraceptive drugs for medical reasons other than birth control. Fluke and a friend, Lucy Panza, did a study showing that women who qualified for the exception often were hassled about reimbursement anyway.
Many students had challenged Georgetown's contraception policy before, without success. Fluke's approach was more savvy, says Epstein, her adviser.
Fluke “was careful to understand the importance of the Jesuit tradition,” Epstein says. “That is something that not everybody knows how to do. She presented her rebellious advocacy work in a way that was so respectful of the tradition that she opposed.”
But running for local office involves another set of skills entirely. Fluke's fame gives her certain advantages, but she is by no means a shoo-in. She has had to develop relationships, raise money, take positions on obscure local issues and sell her biography. She is not a natural retail campaigner, and she is learning on the fly.
At the house party in the Hollywood Hills, she talks a bit about her legal background, and then asks for policy questions.
“I'm a veteran advocate,” one woman says. “So what about our veterans?”
“Oh,” Fluke says, momentarily thrown. “When you said 'veteran advocate,' I thought you meant 'really experienced advocate.' Advocate for veterans. Got it.”
The room fills with awkward laughter. “You are probably both,” she continues. “You are a veteran veterans advocate.”
From there, she moves to surer ground, discussing sexual assault in the military and increasing access to mental health services. She says she is often told she doesn't sound like a politician, and she takes it as a compliment.
At first blush, L.A. would seem an ideal place for Fluke to run for office — far better, in any case, than Saxton, Pennsylvania. The Westside district has reliably produced some of the Capitol's most liberal senators, including Tom Hayden, Sheila Kuehl and Fran Pavley.
But it can be tough to break in. Fluke moved to L.A. in 2007 to accommodate her husband's comedy career but went back East for law school. She has only been active in state and local politics for a couple of years. To some, it seemed more than a little presumptuous when Fluke, 33, publicly mulled running against experienced local officials for Waxman's seat.
After getting a lot of advice on the matter, Fluke opted for the state Senate race instead. Even there, she faced a crowded primary field, including Betsy Butler, a former assemblywoman, and Amy Howorth, the mayor of Manhattan Beach. Fluke beat them both, finishing second, about 3,000 votes behind Ben Allen, good enough to advance to a “top-two” runoff.
Allen has taken a more traditional path to Sacramento. A scruffy-looking 36-year-old, he was born and raised in Santa Monica. He was president of his class at Santa Monica High School. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he interned for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, working on health policy. After law school at UC Berkeley, Allen returned home and ran for the Santa Monica–Malibu school board, where he has served for six years.
Allen has never been mentioned in Politico, but he has been quoted regularly in the Santa Monica Daily Press. While Fluke was stumping for President Obama, Allen was deciding whether to ban chocolate milk in the cafeteria.
Politics in Santa Monica can be every bit as contentious as it is on the national stage. Like so many issues in Santa Monica, the proposed chocolate milk ban brought out the activists. More than 1,000 health-conscious parents signed a petition in support. After lengthy consideration of the pros and cons, Allen and the other school board members voted against the idea, favoring an “opt-out” program instead.
As a rule, Santa Monicans are serious about their progressive values and tireless in ensuring they are reflected in local policy. Board meetings generally go past midnight.
“Serving on school board in Santa Monica–Malibu is probably one of the hardest jobs an elected official can have,” board member Oscar de la Torre says.
In addition to funding constraints, the district struggles with gaping class disparities and a long-simmering tension between Malibu and Santa Monica — which recently boiled over when contaminants were found at Malibu High School.
Last year, three teachers were diagnosed with thyroid cancer. A group of parents and teachers became alarmed that PCBs in the window caulking might be to blame.
Since then, Malibu activists have been angered by the board's refusal to be more aggressive about testing and remediation. Some blame Allen because he did not sound the alarm when soil samples first showed elevated contaminant levels in 2010.
“He has a reckless disregard for children's health,” says Malibu parent Cassandra Wiseman.
“We've had direct meetings with him, and he circles around the answers like a classic politician,” says Hope Edelman, a board member of the activist group Malibu Unites. “Now he's running and calling himself an environmentalist. That seems like the worst form of hypocrisy we can imagine.”
The issue, though intense, lacks the national magnitude of the Rush Limbaugh controversy. But it's probably more relevant experience for someone seeking local office. Allen has tried to navigate it as best he can, and even some in Malibu give him credit for his handling of it.
“He's taking a very pragmatic approach, and that's perceived by a lot of people in Malibu as being anti-Malibu,” says Seth Jacobson, a Malibu resident who ran against Allen on a pro-secession slate in 2012. “I don't think he's anti-Malibu. Of all the board members, he's been most responsive to our needs.”
Malibu is not in the 26th District, which runs from the Hollywood Hills to Palos Verdes. But some activists now are urging friends who do live in the district to vote for Fluke.
“It's a tough issue,” Allen says, “and it's heated.”
Fluke would be the first to admit that standing up to Rush Limbaugh does not qualify her for office. Indeed, she would much rather talk about other things, such as her advocacy work supporting low-wage workers or defending victims of human trafficking.
She has focused her campaign on issues such as campaign finance reform, early childhood education and college affordability. She has attracted support from lawmakers and activists who want to see more women serving in the Legislature.
Though both of California's U.S. senators are women, only 12 of the 40 state senators are. Feminist activists, who are increasingly alarmed at the rollback of abortion access in conservative states, want California to push even harder to be a national model for women's rights.
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson argues that much work needs to be done on income inequality and child care affordability, which would have a disproportionate effect on women: “It's important that we encourage competent, qualified young women to get into the arena.”
While Fluke has the support of pro-women groups, Allen has been building relationships with local officials for the better part of a decade. “At the end of the day, people here are more interested in local solutions than the national-level slugfest,” Allen says. “I think people, when they're looking for a state legislator, they want someone who's been invested in the local community for a long time and is from here.”
Allen's connection to Yaroslavsky has helped him win over an older generation of L.A. politicians. And his local experience has earned the support of officeholders throughout the district.
“He's been deeply involved in the community, paying dues,” says Denny Zane, a veteran of Santa Monica politics. “She is completely new. It kind of looks like she parachuted in. She might share our values, but we don't know her.”
Fluke has raised money from across the country, mostly in small increments of $100, $250 or $500.
Allen has received many more contributions for $4,100, the maximum allowed. He also attracted $600,000 in financial backing from Bill Bloomfield, an eccentric millionaire who often supports Republicans.
Bloomfield, an independent, is a supporter of education reform, which can be controversial among progressives. When he began writing checks for Allen in the primary, it raised the question of whether Allen was a closet ed reformer. But nothing in his school board record backs up that suspicion.
“I'd like to see some modest changes to the system,” Allen says. “I'm not a Michelle Rhee acolyte. Whatever reforms are made should be made in the context of increased funding for the system.”
Bloomfield said he met Allen a couple times, on a recommendation from Henry Waxman. He said he does not know where Allen stands on education reform.
“He listens to all sides,” Bloomfield says. “He'll be a voice of a reason and a voice for solutions.”
The Fluke campaign has sought to take maximum advantage of Bloomfield's support, raising the alarm in fundraising appeals to Democratic donors. “I'm up against an opponent being propped up by Republican mega-donors with extreme conservative agendas,” she says in one.
“Extremists are stuck in the past, parroting Rush Limbaugh's notorious attacks two years later,” she says in another, despite the notable absence of attacks in the campaign. “Rush Limbaugh and his pals can keep their outdated attacks. You know that I'm dedicated to a bold, progressive vision for California.”
Those who have worked closely with Allen defend his progressive bona fides. Several supporters noted his work on a controversial fundraising policy, the Vision for Student Success, which prevents parents from paying for staff at their own school. The policy is meant to mitigate some of the district's wealth inequality, and it was unpopular with some Malibu parents.
“Ben stood up to that,” board member Ralph Mechur says.
“They're both liberal Democrats,” Yaroslavsky says. “He's no more moderate than she is.”
Critics say, however, that Allen can be tough to pin down. He listens to all sides while keeping his own views a little vague.
“Some would say he's overly cautious on controversial issues,” de la Torre says. “Ben's formula is, 'I'll try to get everybody to love me, and that'll take me to the top.'?”
For example, Fluke is against the death penalty. Allen says he's against it, too, and voted to abolish it, but he would make an exception “for the most egregious of crimes.” That fine distinction can make all the difference with police unions, which have sided with Allen.
Fluke contends that she has often been more forthright, even at the cost of endorsements. She also says her background shows she is willing to stick to her values under fire.
“I'll sit down with anyone, but I'll be up front on where I am,” she says. “I think I am the more progressive candidate.”
Ironically, as Fluke and Allen battle over who is more progressive, it could be the more conservative voters in the South Bay who decide the race.
In the June primary, Allen won big in Santa Monica while Fluke ran well in West Hollywood, where she lives, and had a slight advantage in the city of Los Angeles, which comprises 40 percent of the district.
But both candidates fared poorly in the more conservative cities stretching from El Segundo to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Seth Stodder, an independent, finished first in the South Bay, and third overall. (Without a Republican on the ballot, he was the most conservative candidate.) He has endorsed Fluke, largely because he sees her as an inspiration to his 12-year-old daughter.
But he also says Fluke has her work cut out for her with conservative voters. “I think Sandra has an uphill fight with some people,” Stodder says. “A lot of people viewed Sandra through the lens of Rush Limbaugh.”
Eric Hacopian, Allen's strategist, agrees. Fluke, he says, is “universally disliked by the more conservative voters in the district.”
Lindsay Bubar, Fluke's campaign strategist, acknowledges that Allen has the upper hand with Republicans. But she contends that Fluke will win independent and Democratic voters because she is seen as an outsider.
“People are looking for something different in their elected officials,” Bubar says, “someone who hasn't been entrenched in politics their entire lives.”
That's an argument Fluke echoes.
“I really do hope he uses 'paid his dues' as a campaign slogan,” she says. “I'm not sure that's why people vote for folks for office.”
Fluke is well aware that, had she not been insulted by Rush Limbaugh, she would not be running for office. She says she probably would be defending human trafficking victims for a nonprofit and advocating for legislation in Sacramento.
Having been put in this position, however, she intends to make the most of it.
“Obviously the last few years were a bit of a curve ball,” she says. “It pointed out to me both how important it is to have a diversity of voices, and how lacking we were on that front.”