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Politics in Paradise: the 41st Assembly District Democratic Primary, Part 1

By Frank J. Gruber

This column is subject to a no endorsements of candidates running for local office rule, but I can say what I think about them.

Most Santa Monica voters, including me, are Democrats, and the only local race on the June 6 primary ballot is the one to select a Democratic candidate to succeed Fran Pavley as the member of the State Assembly for the 41st District. Whoever wins the primary is guaranteed to win the seat.

Generally left-wing Democrats dominate the 41st, and it has been a fabled district for the left -- the district of such articulate and purposeful figures as Tom Hayden and current State Senator Sheila Kuehl. Ms. Pavley herself has created something of a national reputation for herself, based on environmental legislation. To a certain extent 41st District voters have elected not only a representatives for themselves, but also representatives of activist leftists throughout the country.

But if I can digress to consider my pet idea, the 41st is a good example of why California should divide up into multiple states. Every Assembly district in California has about 450,000 people. This means that districts cover a lot of ground. In our case, it means that while the people of the 41st share many interests -- in protecting the coast, for instance -- in many ways their interests differ.

If Los Angeles County were its own state, and if 100 representatives in a unicameral legislature represented its ten million people, then every 100,000 people would have their own representative. That would make state government much more personal and effective.

But that's not the way it is, and instead of four of the candidates representing quarters of the 41st, they are fighting to see which one of them gets the job. The differences between them reflect personalities and geography more than issues, because all the candidates offer the generally affluent voters in the district a kind of comfort-food, no-hard-choices, holier-than-George-W.-Bush liberalism.

That doesn't mean they wouldn't be good representatives, but based on their campaign literature none of them care much about the housing crisis or gang violence in Oxnard or the Pico Neighborhood. Don't expect any of them to be the next Sheila Kuehl or Tom Hayden.

In today's column and a "part two" tomorrow, I'll consider the candidates. Limits on space and the patience of readers preclude my evaluating their positions on all the issues, but, picking one, I'll discuss briefly how each of them addresses traffic congestion. Not because traffic is the most important issue, but because for decades it has been the universal complaint of the middle and upper class voters in the district. As such, it is an issue that is highly conducive to pandering. How the candidates address traffic provides a good reality check.

In alphabetical order:

Julia Brownley is the candidate best known to Santa Monicans after years on the School Board. She is not the most exciting politician: her political virtues are more related to process than big or startling ideas. Santa Monicans will remember ten or so years ago when the School Board was so dysfunctional it had a therapist, and certainly Ms. Brownley's temperament has helped turn the board into a more effective body.

Ms. Brownley has the endorsements from both Sen. Kuehl and Assembly Member Pavley, from most Democratic Party and labor organizations, as well as from Marcy Winograd's Progressive Democrats of L.A., and the California League of Conservation Voters.

A lot of voters in the district would probably be happy enough if Ms. Brownley is elected and merely follows Sen. Kuehl's lead on every vote. One can, however, argue more positively on her behalf that one thing Sacramento could use is knowledge about how school districts operate and what schools need.

As for traffic, I like how, in her position paper on transportation, Ms. Brownley identifies sprawl and the lack of transit as key reasons for traffic congestion, and she identifies "growing smarter," investment in transit, and "making major efforts to attract [transit] riders" as the solutions.

I admire Ms. Brownley for not promising to "fix" traffic -- something no one is going to do.

Since he lives in Calabasas, and I don't cover the Calabasas City Council, I haven't seen Barry Groveman in action. From what I've read about his record in Calabasas, the issues there are almost quaint compared to those in Santa Monica -- how to organize drop-offs at elementary schools, for instance.

By the same token, I am impressed that Mr. Groveman's solution to the school drop-off traffic crisis in Calabasas was to get more kids to take the school bus.

Mr. Groveman has the endorsements of the three non-SMRR Santa Monica City Council members, as well as centrist Democrats like Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Of the candidates, he is on the less ideological side, coming, as he does, from the corporate and legal world as much as the political. He speaks of wanting to break through the "bickering" in Sacramento. Bob Brooks, the Republican Sheriff of Ventura, a Groveman supporter, has called him, according to the Ventura County Star, "a very conservative Democrat."

Mr. Groveman has an undeniable history of accomplishment, in various fields, both public and private and, notwithstanding what the Sheriff in Ventura says, I'm willing to count Mr. Groveman as an honorably pragmatic liberal -- a believer that government can make a difference.

But Mr. Groveman's traffic program is useless. He proposes a "Tool Kit" of trivialities (synchronizing lights, more tow trucks, etc.) that he says will "get Southern California moving again." Nothing about what causes bad traffic; nothing about reducing the amount of driving people do. If Mr. Groveman believes his Tool Kit will "open our clogged automotive arteries" then I want to show him bridge in Brooklyn.

Mr. Groverman is also responsible for the most annoying piece of political mail I received this election (and that's saying a lot): his "Parents Guide to: A Safe & Healthy Family." Gee, thanks; now I know that I should feed my kid carrots with low fat ranch dip and limit his TV time.

What happened to just sending out a potholder with your name on it?

Tomorrow in Part 2: Kelly Hayes-Raitt, Jonathan Levey, and Shawn Casey O'Brien.

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