By Jim Smith
It’s not often that voters anywhere in the country get to choose a new Congressional Representative. In most cases, the incumbent does everything possible to stay in office. There are no term limits. But thanks to Jane Harman’s abrupt resignation, we can pick someone new.
The showdown in the election took place on April 27 at Westminster Auditorium, as far as Venice is concerned. More than 200 people packed the cavernous hall to hear 12 of the 16 candidates regale the audience about their achievements, credentials and plans.
Unfortunately, those in the audience were reduced to mere spectators as no questions were permitted from the floor. The overly-structured questions, which were supposedly sent in by email before the forum, focused on foreign and domestic policy and the budget. What could have been a lively give and take between candidates and audience turned into a semi-boring love fest between the contenders. Many of the questions were no brainers, such as: “When is it o.k. to assassinate a foreign head of state?” and “Are you opposed to eminent domain?” What’s more, only four candidates were allowed to respond to any one question, often leaving out the expert on that issue.
There were no questions on what would you do to retain the Venice Post Office building, what’s your homeless policy, what do you think of the pledge Janice Hahn and Debra Bowen signed on Israel, and at a time of controversy and chaos in the public education system, it was not worthy of a question. Their were no questions geared to concerns specific to the Venice and Mar Vista area (both neighborhood councils sponsored the event). And there were no questions about the propriety of bombing the hell out of Libya (and using depleted uranium, as Karl Abrams points out in another article in this issue).
Even so, there were high points and low points during the evening. In this reporter’s opinion, Marcy Winograd outclassed her opponents with sharp, clear answers backed up by facts and figures. Mike Chamness was similarly impressive. Everyone has an off-night, and it appeared that both Hahn and Bowen were having theirs in front of 200 voters. Both were lackluster and seemed anxious for the evening to be over.
Chamness was the only candidate to attack the new election law, know as the “Top Two,” which nearly guarantees big-money Democrats and Republicans will dominate the general election. Third parties may become extinct as one of the ways they have renewed their ballot status has been to win at least 2 percent of the vote in a statewide general election. In addition, the new law does not allow for write-in votes. They are tossed in the trash.
Some of the candidates seemed as if they had come straight from a crash course at Toastmasters. “Take the mic out of the podium and stand in front of it,” “start with a self-effacing joke,” “seek the lowest common denominator.” On occasion, these tactics backfired, as when Craig Huey, a millionaire, evangelical business man and Tea Party candidate, said as he stood in front of the podium, microphone in hand, in response to a question on health care, “I know one thing, socialized medicine is not the answer.” For his effort, he received the loudest boos of the night. Huey, who lives in a mansion on Palos Verdes must not get to Venice very often.
Republican candidates, including Michael Roozee, Kit Bobko, Stephen Eisele and Mike Gin, clearly struggled trying to make their right-wing rhetoric palatable to Venetians. The best at establishing a rapport with the audience seemed to be Mike Gin, the Mayor of Redondo Beach. Gin seems to be a liberal Republican, although he might not want to embrace that label in the South Bay. Gin is also of Chinese ancestry and is gay.
Both before and after the event, Veterans for Peace, including former Venetian Ron Kovic, asked candidates to sign a pledge that they would vote against funding bills for the war/occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Vets were able to separate the hawks from the doves much more clearly than did two hours of off-point questioning. At the end of the evening, only three candidates had signed: Libertarian Steve Collett, Peace and Freedomite Maria Montaño and Democrat Marcy Winograd.
The moderator of the forum was Brian Watt, a journalist with KPCC in Pasadena. The African-American moderator stood in sharp contrast to the overwhelmingly white group of candidates. Of the 16 on the ballot, only two are people of color, Mike Gin is Chinese-American and Maria Montaño is a Latina.
The candidates face several more forums around the 36th district, including one sponsored by the League of Women Voters on May 2. However, most voters will form their impression of the candidates after receiving endless mailers from those able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.