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AD51 Candidates Forum

Moderator Dick Price and the candidates. (Photo by Al Strange)

After Governor Jerry Brown tabbed 12-term Congressman Xavier Becerra to be California's Attorney General last December, State Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez defeated attorney Robert Lee Ahn to take Becerra's 34th Congressional District seat in a runoff election in June.

Now, candidates by the baker's dozen have lined up to take the Assembly District 51 seat Gomez vacated, in another special election on October 3rd, with a runoff coming on December 5th in the likely event that no candidate will capture 50% plus one of the votes cast.

To help voters sort through the 13 candidates vying to represent this Los Angeles district–which runs from Silver Lake and Echo Park on the west, to Eagle Rock in the north, and down to East Los Angeles in the southeast–community activists organized a candidates forum this past Tuesday, September 19th, that featured eight candidates and drew a packed-house audience of more than 200 to Highland Park's elegant Ebell Club.

AD51 Candidates Forum

Photo by Al Strange

Candidates answering a series of questions from a trio of moderators included Democrats Ron Birnbaum, Luis Lopez, Gabriel Sandoval, David Vela, and Mario Olmos; Peace and Freedom's John Prysner; Libertarian Andrew Aguero, and Independent Patrick Kuppola.

Spokesmen for Democrats Mike Fong and Alex De Ocampo read statements at the evening's start, while Franky Carrillo, Jr., Barbara Torres, Mark Vargas, and Wendy Carillo declined to participate.

How Did the Questioning Go?

After giving their introductory statements, the candidates were asked a series of questions on such topics as undoing California's commercial bail system, reducing the influence of corporate money on elections, reforming Prop 13 to more fairly tax large commercial property, whether to protect Obamacare or work for a single-payer system, preventing fracking and how best to protect the environment, and stopping the school-to-military and school-to-prison pipelines.

AD51 Candidates Forum

Photo: Judith Klapper

A respectful audience listened attentively as the candidates took turns giving their one-minute answers, and then cheering during two lightening rounds when the candidates gave only green light or red light signals to a series of pointed questions put to them by moderator Marlin Medrano.

Representatives from Americans for Democratic Action, the Democratic Socialists of America-Los Angeles, LA Progressive, and the Pasadena/Foothills Chapter of the ACLU spent two weeks furiously emailing and talking on the phone to organize the event, in some cases meeting for the first time the night of the forum.

Separate from the forum, ACLU of Southern California staff members worked with partners from the Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles, California Nurses Association, California Partnership, Drug Policy Alliance, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, and Inner City Struggle to devise a 15-question candidate survey, which they then rated and posted. Copies were distributed at the forum.

Marcus Benigno and Kris Olkershauser tabling for the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter

Marcus Benigno and Kris Olkershauser tabling for the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter

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The guide provides access to each candidate's actual answers so voters can make up their own minds. The ACLU staff members and their partners did yeomen work putting together the guide and then getting it posted and distributed. The scorecard represents something of a departure for the participating groups, something they might replicate in upcoming races to help elect more representatives that support their organizations' values.

Although in the recent past this region has been one of California's poorest, mostly immigrant-heavy, and overwhelmingly Democratic districts, gentrification is rapidly changing its face. In the 2010 census, voting-age demographics were 59.5% Latino, 20.0% White, 15.9% Asian, and 4.1% Black. Democrats account for 61% of voters, Decline to States 26%, and Republicans just 9%, with smaller parties accounting for the remaining 4%.

ADA organizers: Marlin Medrano, Clifford Tasner, John Seeley, and Ankur Patel. Thom O'Shaunessey (seated)

ADA organizers: Marlin Medrano, Clifford Tasner, John Seeley, and Ankur Patel. Thom O'Shaughnessey (seated). Photo: Judith Klapper

So Who Stood Out?

Of the 225 people who signed up for the forum, 103 participated in a followup survey, conducted largely to see what we had done well and what needed fixing in conducting the event. Of the respondents, 75% had attended the event and 75% were registered to vote in the district. (Some people included in the survey signed up for the event but did not attend.) Since we had people's attention, our poll also asked which candidates the audience members supported: Ron Birnbaum led with 37.5% of the votes, with Luis Lopez (17.9%) and John Prysner (10.9%) following.

Asked to name their second favorite candidate, survey takers again gave Ron Birnbaum (27.7%) the nod, with David Vela (15.4%), Luis Lopez (13.9%), and John Prysner (12.3%) following.

Combining first and second choices put Birnbaum (65.2%) on top, followed by Prysner (33.3%), Lopez (31.8%), and Vela (20.1%).

Photo: Al Strange

Photo: Al Strange

After the forum, the Americans for Democratic Acion endorsed Ron Birnbaum, largely because of his consistent support for SB 562, the Healthy California Act.

By rule and custom, the ACLU and the DSA do not endorse candidates. Also, given that the forum was organized and promoted by two leftist organizations and a left-leaning publication, the results no doubt skewed further left than the district as a whole. Also, the candidates who could not or would not attend doubtlessly fared more poorly than if they been there to answer questions. The poll is not an endorsement, just a guide to the mood of the room at the Ebell Club that night.

Asked what they liked about the evening–the core reason for the survey–respondents overwhelmingly approved of the Ebell Club venue, thought the three moderators–me, Marlin Medrano, and Jonny Coleman–asked good questions and treated the candidates fairly, liked that so many of the candidates attended and were there to actually answer questions–and generally appreciated that the forum was held.

Concerns were raised about the lighting–we had arranged the candidates too close to the front of the stage and so in the dark–and the sound system, or rather that some candidates and moderators didn't always speak directly into the microphones. Other comments involved prodding candidates harder to see where they might differ from others.

Given the likelihood that no candidate will gather the needed one vote plus 50%, the organizers have begun discussing hosting a debate between the two finalists sometime after the October 3rd election.


Dick Price
LA Progressive