In any political race, each candidate tries to define what the election will be about. With California’s June 5 primary just days away, the candidates in California’s new 46th Assembly District race are still shaping the context in which voters will make their choices.
Brian C. Johnson, who heads the Larchmont Charter Schools in Los Angeles, has, thanks to significant backing from charter school interests, been able to count on a large measure of the discussion in this race being about his preferred subject, education reform.
Adrin Nazarian, chief of staff to Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian, who also served in that position for the four years Krekorian was in the Assembly, would rather voters cast their votes on the basis of who knows the ins and outs of working in Sacramento. (Nazarian, for the record, is Armenian and not related to the well-known Iranian-American Nazarian family in the Jewish community.)
Andrew Lachman, a business law professor who served for two years as a policy aide to State Sen. Curren Price, is, like Nazarian and Johnson, a Democrat, and when he speaks to voters in this solidly Democratic district, he also emphasizes his work experience.
But while Lachman hopes his 12-year stint as a lawyer at Paramount Pictures will help win him support from entertainment industry voters, he is also counting on Jewish voters to propel his candidacy in the 46th District — a swath mostly in the San Fernando Valley that stretches from the Hollywood Hills and Studio City, north through Valley Village, Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks, all the way to Panorama City and North Hills.
To that end, Lachman is talking a lot about the decline in Jewish representation in Sacramento.
“We are losing our Jewish voices in the State Assembly,” proclaimed a pro-Lachman pamphlet distributed at a recent event sponsored by a Jewish group. If elected, the text continues, “Andrew may be the only Jewish State Assemblymember left in Los Angeles — and possibly the entire state of California — within the next two years.”
Thanks to the newly redrawn boundaries of California’s political districts, fewer than half as many Jewish voters live in the new 46th district (just under 14,000, or 7 percent of all registered voters, according to redistricting consultant Paul Mitchell) compared to the old 42nd District (about 39,500, or 14.6 percent of total registration, according to the Statewide Database & Election Administration Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
For the last six years, Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) has represented the old 42nd District, which included neighborhoods on both sides of the hills. Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz held that seat before him. Both lawmakers are Jewish.
“I have loved representing this district,” said Feuer, who is running for Los Angeles City Attorney. “It has been one of the highlights of my life.”
The new 50th Assembly District, which includes large portions of the Westside that used to be part of the 42nd District, has approximately 34,000 Jewish voters, or 12 percent of the total registration.
When considering which of the six candidates on the ballot in the new 46th District to vote for — none of whom have held elected office — most people in the district are less likely to be weighing a candidate’s views on Israel or the Middle East than trying to discern how a candidate would improve public schools.
“All of our schools in the Valley can be world-class schools,” Johnson said in an interview with The Journal. “A huge part of what it’s going to take to do that is going to be returning control to the local schools.”
Johnson taught first grade in a Louisiana public school for two years before moving to the administrative side of education, first as executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the (pro-reform) nonprofit Teach for America, and then to the Larchmont Schools, a pair of charter schools in Los Angeles, where he is executive director.
When Johnson speaks about local control, he means applying some of what differentiates charter schools from traditional public schools — paying teachers based on performance instead of seniority, for instance — more broadly to public schools statewide.
In the 46th District, this debate has been waged largely in the form of competing mailers for and against Johnson’s candidacy. Pro-reform groups have spent more than $600,000 on pro-Johnson messaging; teachers unions, fearful of having an avowed proponent of (largely non-unionized) charter schools in Sacramento, have already spent $100,000 opposing him.
Lachman, who has been endorsed by the California Teachers Association and UTLA, said that he, too, supports “more flexibility at the local level” for schools.
But he points out a difference in his approach: “I think that the solution is to focus more of our money in public education, rather than putting it into private hands,” Lachman said, “as opposed to just blaming teachers.”
Johnson said he believes all public schools would benefit from greater self-rule, and highlights that charter schools are public schools: “We get our money just like district schools, from the state. We teach the state standards; we take the state tests; we have to follow the same laws.”
Nazarian’s stance is less specific about the role of charter schools in the effort to improve public education, but he did point to one particular cause for California’s perpetually underfunded education system: Proposition 13.
“Once Prop. 13 took effect, we saw a severe cut in education,” Nazarian said in an interview. Although he doesn’t advocate changing the way residential property values are assessed, he said, “when it comes to commercial properties, we need to figure out a way to have corporations, primarily, start moving toward a direction of paying a fairer percentage of the current-day assessment of their property tax.”
Asked about Prop. 13, Johnson said much the same thing.
The Republican candidate in the race, Jay L. Stern, a biology and chemistry teacher at LAUSD’s Panorama High School, was recruited by the Republican Party to run in the 46th District just days before the filing deadline in March. Stern, who describes himself as “ethnically Jewish” but not at all religious, opposes any change to Prop. 13, and he expressed concern that the Democrats are two seats away from holding two-thirds majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly.
To advance his bid in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans three-to-one, Stern is trying an unusual tactic. Instead of mailing out campaign flyers, Stern said, “what I’m sending out are packets of cilantro seed, telling people to grow their way out of this mess, that they can’t depend on government.”
Lachman has picked up endorsements from many Jewish leaders, including Irving Lebovics of the Orthodox Agudath Israel and Tzvika Brenner, the president of Hatzolah, an Orthodox volunteer emergency response corps.
“I don’t believe that me being Jewish is a prequalification for me running for Assembly,” Lachman said, while maintaining that even if the values the Jewish community espouses have non-Jewish champions in Sacramento, certain issues of concern to Jews might not be advanced without Jewish lawmakers in office.
He pointed to the examples of Assemblymen Bob Blumenfield (a Democrat currently representing the 40th District in the San Fernando Valley and running for the newly aligned 45th District, but who would reach his term limit at the end of his next term) and Feuer, who in the past few years have together co-sponsored laws that put increased economic pressure on Iran by taking action at the state level.
“Do you think,” Lachman asked, “that the Iran legislation would have been able to get through without Assembly members Blumenfield and Feuer leading the way and explaining why it was important?”
Richard Katz, who represented the Valley in the Assembly from 1980 until 1996, is supporting Johnson in the race for the 46th District based on Johnson’s work with the Larchmont School, and he disagrees with the idea that Jews need to be represented by other Jews.
“If we relied just on Jewish votes to pass legislation, we’d never have enough votes to pass anything,” he said.
Two other Democratic candidates, Laurette Healey and Adriano Lecaros, will also appear on the ballot on June 5.