Incumbent legislators are rarely voted out. That’s why the 1,705-vote defeat of Assemblywoman Betsy Butler by fellow Democrat Richard Bloom is noteworthy.
This defeat of an entrenched politician with close ties to the Democratic Party machine should be seen as a victory for recent reforms enacted by the voters, including the Open Primary law – which pits the top two candidates in any district against each other irrespective of party affiliation – coupled with the establishment of an independent redistricting commission that eliminated the Legislature’s power to draw its own district lines.
But what makes Bloom’s victory even more significant is that it provides one rare sign of hope for education and political campaign reformers (in an election where a political campaign finance reform measure – Proposition 32 – was defeated by public sector unions) that politicians who arrogantly and blindly adhere to the political agenda of special interests are at greater risk than before of being kicked out of office.
Butler, a relative newcomer, represented the 53rd Assembly District, covering the South Bay region of Los Angeles County, prior to redistricting. Amidst great controversy she moved into the newly created 50th District, representing Santa Monica, Malibu, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and Agoura Hills – probably the state’s wealthiest Assembly district. While she won a bitter primary contest against another female Democrat who savaged her for her carpet bagging, she was unable to completely mend fences.
Hence, the stars aligned for a November runoff in which reforms and revenge would play a major role.
Butler was backed by the Democratic Party machine and its money despite the fact that her challenger was a true-blue fellow Democrat and the popular mayor of Santa Monica. Incensed that “one of their own” was being challenged, the party and its political affiliates poured in some $1.5 million to defend Butler – significantly outdoing Bloom’s fundraising.
But then CNN broadcast an investigative report by Anderson Cooper, and Butler’s advantage of incumbency began to fell apart. The widely viewed report detailed the outrage of education reformers over the Legislature’s failure to approve a sensibly streamlined bill allowing school districts to remove from the classroom teachers accused of sexual misconduct against children. Senate Bill 1530 was authored by a Democrat and introduced as a response to a teacher sex scandal in the Los Angeles Unified School District and had broad support. It passed the state Senate on a strong bipartisan vote, then landed in late June in the Assembly Education Committee, where Butler was a member.
The California Teachers Association knew it could kill the bill there, presumably with little fanfare; simply business as usual. Indeed, the bill was killed in the Education Committee – not by members voting “no,” but in a more insidious way that has been becoming all too common in the Assembly: by members simply failing to vote at all. Four Democrats beholden to CTA – including Butler – put campaign contributions first and students last. The bill was killed. They thought it was over.
They were wrong.
Education reformers statewide united and raised such an outcry over the “death by silence” demise of the bill that CNN’s Cooper took notice. Obviously, so, too, did enough voters in the new district, who, wisely chose to dismiss Butler.
Chalk it up as a rare victory for campaign, legislative, and education reforms in California – and one that ought to be replicated in other districts where too many beholden politicians think they can hide from the public’s view. We need to remind them that they can’t.
Gloria Romero is an education reformer and former Democratic state senator from Los Angeles.