Race heats up in California’s 54th Assembly District
Heather Hutt, running for assembly in West L.A. | HeatherHuttCA.com

LOS ANGELES—Six candidates are on the ballot for California’s 54th Assembly District in a special primary election that has already begun and ends on May 18.

Governor Gavin Newsom called this election to fill the seat, which was previously held by Sydney Kamlager, who was elected to the 30th Senate District on March 2, 2021. If one candidate receives a majority of all votes cast in the special primary election, they will be declared elected, and the special general election shall not be held. If no candidate receives a majority of votes in the primary election, the top two vote-getters will be placed on the special general election ballot.

The primary ballot features three women (Cheryl C. Turner, Dallas Fowler, and Heather Hutt) and three men (Samuel Robert Morales, Bernard Senter, and Isaac Bryan). All but Senter are persons of color and Democrats: He is a Walmart grocery worker running as a member of the Socialist Workers Party. Morales is the only Latino in the race, and the other four are African American.

The 54th A.D. covers a broad swath of West Los Angeles County, comprising parts of South L.A., Westwood and West L.A., Culver City, and Inglewood. This is the district of now U.S. Rep. Karen Bass; as Assemblymember from the 54th, she rose to the position of Speaker of the Assembly during the time of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a city and county that are considered overall among the most progressive in the country, the 54th, with its diverse population and past voting history, is an especially left-leaning place. The candidates are generally speaking to that tradition.

With a population just shy of 40 million, California has 80 Assembly seats (each representing about 500,000 people) and 40 Senate seats (each about 1 million).

Three of the candidates appeared with moderator Daniel Lee and special invited panelists on a Zoom forum on April 18—Morales, Bryan, and Fowler. Heather Hutt, a strong candidate who prominently promotes her close connection to Vice President Kamala Harris as the then U.S. Senator’s (and California’s) first Black U.S. Senate state director, was unable to attend. The profusion of Harris’s enthusiastic gratitude and recommendation for Hutt is somewhat deceptive as it does not actually constitute an endorsement. The Culver City Democratic Club State Assembly District 54 Candidate Forum on March 31 also invited Hutt, who claimed an earlier commitment to a campaign fundraiser for that evening.

This article will focus on those four candidates. Senter is running a minimalist campaign with no visible public profile and not even a candidate statement in the Official Sample Ballot for voters to read. Cheryl Turner, the only lawyer in the race—“an environmental, consumer, and civil rights attorney representing those needing help finding solutions to their most pressing needs”—has sent out one piece of promotional literature that reads well for the most part but is high on generalities and low on specifics. In her candidate statement, she proposes, among other things, to “lower taxes,” a nod to homeowners and higher-income consumers, which would seem antithetical to her flyer statement that she wants “to help eliminate the wealth, health, and social inequities in our communities.” Plus, she lists no endorsements. In public appearances, she has touted her experience dealing with lawmakers in Sacramento. Yet, at the Culver City forum, she said she had not heard about AB1400, the single-payer healthcare bill currently being debated in the Assembly. Turner sounds like a thoughtful, sincere, and empathic person who has much to contribute to society. Yet, it isn’t easy to imagine this candidacy taking on any higher profile than it has at present.

Samuel Robert Morales identifies himself as a “financial advisor/entrepreneur” in the sample ballot, further calling himself, in the April 18 debate, a “stockbroker” in “financial services” who has worked for J.P. Morgan and now Citibank. On several questions thrown his way, he must have surprised listeners by saying how pro-union he is—including police unions—and how he supports the Green New Deal, solar rooftops with tax incentives, EV subsidies, and closing L.A.’s oil fields. He is openly gay and married.

Yet, he is also frank about other positions which may sound out of step with the progressivism of the 54th. Although he declares that healthcare is “a human right,” he is against AB 1400 because “everyone likes their Medicare” and private insurance and suggests expanding California Care instead. He is for more housing on mass transit lines, but not in the low-density residential areas of West L.A.

And he supports Qualified Immunity for police officers, saying that while it’s right to punish miscreant officers, removing their pensions and benefits only hurts their innocent families. In Culver City, he said, “defunding the police is not the answer.” Although he supports reassigning some crisis intervention to professionals other than police, he had to be reminded by another candidate that “defunding” does not mean “eliminating” but reducing their funding. He said he would accept campaign contributions from police and prison interests, not take the pledge to refuse contributions from the fossil fuel industry, and would not support a ban on corporate contributions.

He is critical of the public schools, saying that “parents are desperate for alternatives,” which sounds like code language supporting charter schools. Finally, like Senter, Morales did not submit a candidate statement to the sample ballot, and, also like Turner, he lists no endorsements. It does not appear that Morales has a broad enough base to appeal to and is awkward seeing beyond his relatively secure comfort zone.

The remaining big three in the race

From the outset, I’d like to say that any one of the remaining three candidates—Hutt, Bryan, and Fowler—would be well suited to the challenges of a career in the California Assembly (and, full disclosure, as my own Assembly person).

Heather Hutt has a compelling personal story as a single Black mom whose three sons have been exposed to gang violence and unfair treatment by the police. A lifelong resident of the 54th, she ticks off the appropriate boxes of concern with police accountability, systemic racism, improved public safety through community involvement, more social services, job training, affordable housing and healthcare, criminal justice reform, investment in public schools, environmental justice, and renewable energy. Aside from her featured photos and tributes with the Vice President (but not endorsement), she also has won the support of 12 union locals, several community organizations, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, nine currently serving Assembly members, L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, and former Supervisor Yvonne Burke, former Congresswoman Diane Watson, two L.A. City Council members, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, and many others. Her campaign website is here.

Isaac Bryan has the endorsement of Rep. Karen Bass and the L.A. Times. | Bryan Campaign

In the endorsements department, Isaac Bryan is no slouch either. He boasts proud support from Rep. Karen Bass and the Assemblymember he would be replacing, Sydney Kamlager. In addition, four L.A. City Council members, County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Holly Mitchell and Culver City Mayor Alex Fisch, the California Teachers Association, SEIU California, and two other unions, BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors and a host of others.

Bryan rose from a highly troubled early life as a kid adopted into a family of a dozen children and foster children. He earned a master’s in public policy at UCLA, was Kamlager’s senior advisor and is the founding director of the UCLA Black Policy Project. He recently chaired the Measure J Campaign to Re-envision Justice, which L.A. voters passed. Bryan is skeptical of charter schools and does not believe police unions are comparable to other unions in the labor movement. He advocates for reallocating police funding to trained crisis professionals. Asked about environmental racism and solutions, he is quick to underline that “this issue intersects with all the other issues.” He also points out that he is the only candidate in the race to earn a place on the ballot from voter support; all the others paid a fee to get on the ballot.

On the affordable housing question, Bryan points out that there are more vacant housing units in L.A. than the numbers of unhoused people in the city: “Affordable” is not enough. What we should be seeking is “economic justice.” On single-payer, Bryan says, it is critical to building a groundswell coalition for AB1400, and if we seek change on this as on other issues, it’s “no more politics as usual.” His campaign website is here.

Dallas Fowler says she’s “not business as usual” and calls herself a “Progressive Democrat.” Her campaign literature ticks off her key issues—“housing as a right, funding thriving green jobs, stop the drilling in our community, single-payer healthcare, protect public education, mandate financial literacy, criminal justice reform, public banking, equality for all, combat human trafficking, and the rape kit backlog.” She also features a photo promoting her work to elect women statewide, showing her with Kamala Harris and Lieut. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, the latter of whom has endorsed Fowler. Other endorsers include State Treasurer Fiona Ma, Inglewood Mayor James Butts, lawyer Ben Crump, two L.A. School Board members, and Prof. Cornel West. Significantly, however, she lists no labor endorsements.

Dallas Fowler, an outspoken supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders when he ran for president, is a third progressive candidate running for the seat in West L.A. | DallasFowler.com

In bold type, she reminds voters, “Dallas was a Delegate for Senator Bernie Sanders in both 2016 and 2020,” and there’s a photo of the two of them together. She speaks of protecting “our water from the privatizers that want to turn us into the next Flint and our children from for-profit charters that think nothing of building schools on toxic sites.” She is for AB1400, though she feels it can be amended to ensure that healthcare professionals will stay in California. Interestingly, she has a background in the construction industry, a knowledge she can usefully apply toward addressing the homeless crisis. “Business as usual built prisons over schools and luxury high rises for the wealthy over affordable housing for us all.” Her campaign website is here.

A voter has only one choice to make in this primary. The three candidates I’ve focused on here all have high positives and stellar endorsements. I can rest easy, predicting that one of them will be my next Assemblyperson. I sense from the amount of campaign literature I’ve received (all union printed, of course) that the biggest funding is gravitating toward Hutt and Bryan. Yet for her boldness as a Bernie Democrat and her more piquant language defining the problems we face, I am drawn toward Dallas Fowler. Although she has not won labor endorsements, I would like to see her win one of the top two spots for the runoff election. Whom I vote for then, I will have to decide later on. Even if she does not get to become my next Assemblyperson, the close race will position her well for future opportunities. So Dallas Fowler will get my vote in this primary.

Six vote centers across the district will be open between May 8 and 17 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and on Election Day, May 18, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. An additional five locations will be available for voting on May 18. Twenty-two drop boxes will also pop up throughout the district. In addition, all voters have been sent a mail-in ballot they can send in any time until May 18, an option many, if not most, will use. All this information is spelled out here.

Readers can view the Culver City Democratic Club State Assembly District 54 Candidate Forum on March 31 here.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Heather Hutt had been endorsed by Vice President Kamala Harris.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first two books, "Five Days, Five Nights" and "The Six-Pointed Star," are available from International Publishers NY.

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