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Jewish Journal

Susan Shelley: Berman-Sherman’s Republican Jewish opponent

by Jonah Lowenfeld

May 15, 2012 | 8:40 pm

Susan Shelley

Susan Shelley

Earlier this month, when the Los Angeles Daily News announced its endorsements in the San Fernando Valley’s 30th District Congressional race, the newspaper tapped two Jewish candidates — but not the same two candidates whom voters have been hearing so much about.

Along with its endorsement of Rep. Howard Berman of Van Nuys — who is, thanks to redistricting, facing off against another Democratic incumbent, Rep. Brad Sherman — the paper also endorsed Susan Shelley, a first-time Republican candidate.

Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one in the 30th District, and with three Republicans on the ticket, the Daily News called Shelley “a long shot” in the so-called June 5 primary, which will allow all voters, regardless of party, to vote for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation.

Still, the editorial board called Shelley “exactly the type of GOP candidate California needs.”

“Like many Californians,” the endorsement said, “she’s conservative where it counts (on fiscal policy and personal liberty issues) and liberal about social policy (she’s pro-choice, for example).”

“I don’t think the government should control your body; I do not think the government should be in your bedroom,” Shelley said in a recent interview with The Journal. She described her views on such subjects as “socially libertarian, socially ‘leave-us-alone.’ ”

While she is as much a fiscal conservative as any in the Tea Party caucus, Shelley’s support for marriage equality for same-sex couples and her pro-choice stance have placed her on a collision course with some of the more established forces in the Republican Party.

In March, the Los Angeles County Republican Party endorsed another candidate, Mark Reed, a businessman and actor who unsuccessfully ran against Sherman in 2010. California no longer holds party-based primaries, and Shelley believes that endorsement was made, in part, because of her moderate social views.

But even if that’s what pushed the Republican Party away, Shelley believes her mix of political positions will win her fans among Jewish voters in the Valley.

When it comes to Israel, a country Shelley has not visited, she stands staunchly against anyone who would minimize the Iranian threat to the Jewish state.

“I’m sensitive to the fact that bad things can happen,” Shelley said, “and they happen to the Jews first, more often than not.”

A writer and former game-show producer, Shelley is the creator of the “tidbits” word puzzle. Many newspapers that used to carry the puzzle, including the Los Angeles Times’ now-defunct Valley edition, have since stopped; still, she creates a new puzzle each week for distribution on her Web site.

Born in Chicago, Shelley moved to the Valley with her family while she was in high school. A reliable Republican voter since 1980, Shelley, who declined to state her age, was actually a registered Democrat for most of her adult life.

“We were Jewish, Chicago, registered Democrats,” Shelley said. “In California, there wasn’t much going on in the Republican Party, so if you wanted to pick a candidate for Senate or the House, the primary to vote in was the Democratic primary.”

In 2008, that changed.

“The Democratic Party was going too far left for me; I couldn’t stand it anymore,” she said, sitting in a large room at Los Angeles Mission College set up for a candidate debate later that afternoon. “The talk about health care being a right instead of a commodity that has to be paid for bothered me. I’m a liberty person, and I believe in freedom.”

Shelley admits to having minimal political experience in her stump speeches. In 2010, she volunteered as communications director for Republican David Benning, who in 2010 narrowly missed the chance to challenge Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) when he finished second in the Republican primary. In August 2011, when Benning decided not to run again this year, Shelley jumped into the 30th District race.

Deciding to run for Congress was easy; getting validation as a viable candidate turned out to be somewhat more difficult for Shelley.

When Shelley learned she would not be included in a candidates debate sponsored by this newspaper last February, an event that included Sherman, Berman and Reed, she filed a formal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against The Jewish Journal’s parent company, TRIBE Media Corp., alleging that by excluding her, the company was acting to advance Berman’s candidacy and thereby overstepping the limitations placed on nonprofit publishers.

“I did not feel that there was any valid reason to include [Reed] and exclude me,” Shelley said. “I felt it was probably because a Jewish woman perhaps could be seen as an attractive alternative to the incumbents by the Jewish community.”

When he spoke of the decision to the Los Angeles Times in early February, Rob Eshman, The Journal’s publisher and editor-in-chief, listed a number of criteria — including fundraising numbers, having a campaign organization and having been included in polls — that Shelley and another candidate had failed to meet in order to qualify for the debate.

“We have limited resources, and people have limited time,” Eshman told the Times at the time. “You want to include people who have a shot. ... You can’t [have a viable campaign] with just a Web site. It really does cost money.”

Data released since then suggest Shelley continues to be a very long shot.

In March, all seven of the candidates running in the June 5 primary — including Shelley — were included in a poll conducted by the Sherman campaign. Shelley polled at 5 percent — behind Reed, who polled at 12 percent, but one point ahead of Navraj Singh, a Republican candidate who has already made two unsuccessful congressional bids, losing to Sherman in 2008 and to Reed in the Republican primary in 2010.

According to documents obtained from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in April, Shelley’s campaign, at the time she filed her complaint with the IRS, had spent just $227, on campaign buttons. She also had loaned her campaign about $200, about half of which was spent on expenses associated with her campaign’s Web site.

The FEC documents also show that as of March 31, the largest single donation Shelley’s campaign has received is $1,659 in “in-kind legal services” from attorney Mark Bernsley, covering his time spent preparing Shelley’s complaint.

Nevertheless, since February, Shelley has been included in every debate held for candidates running in the 30th District, and she spends her days reaching out to voters, mostly at meetings with different groups around the district. She spends much more time talking about her fiscal conservatism than about her social libertarianism.

“In this race, which has two Democratic incumbents who think the same way about almost everything, someone should be in the race to make the conservative argument for the economic policies that will bring back growth,” Shelley said.

The centerpiece of her economic argument is a flat tax — and at 5 percent, her flat tax is significantly lower than ones proposed by many Republicans over the years, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry (who proposed a 20 percent flat tax) and Herman Cain (whose “9-9-9 plan” included a 9 percent flat income tax).

Like many flat-tax proponents, Shelley says her proposal may not necessarily result in less revenue coming into the federal government, thanks to a broader tax base. But she acknowledged she doesn’t actually know what the budgetary impacts of her proposal might be, and Shelley’s 26-page e-book outlining the flat tax, “Uncle Sam’s Nickel,” includes very few numbers.

“It’s not a budget document, obviously,” Shelley said. “It’s an idea: What would you, personally, do if you knew tomorrow you could keep 95 percent of the money you made doing it?”

Shelley was not specific about where she would cut government spending, instead she proposed remaking the federal government piece by piece, from the “essential workers” upward.

Because, to prepare for the possibility of a government shutdown, all federal government departments are required to keep lists of which workers are essential, Shelley said she would like to ask each department to submit that list to Congress and then make the case to lawmakers for any funding over and above those “essentials.”

“Then the elected representatives of the people of the United States can decide if we still need that,” Shelley said.

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