GELFAND’S WORLD--Sunday saw an old American tradition brought back, the opening of a local political campaign headquarters. The idea seems like an anachronism, sort of like a dial telephone or bias ply tires, but there it was on a bright Sunday afternoon in San Pedro. In this case, it was the candidacy of Warren Furutani, who is running for the open state senate seat in a district that goes from the harbor in the south up to Watts and Inglewood to the north.
Since the district is strongly Democratic, the question as to who goes to Sacramento would have been determined in the primary election in previous years. Now, with California's nonpartisan blanket primary, the top two vote getters go on to the November runoff, even if they come from the same political party.
Furutani's main opponent is Democrat Steven Bradford, who previously represented the state assembly district that makes up the northern half of the senatorial district. Bradford is African American and has political strength in that end of the district, while Furutani is Japanese American and has his roots in the more southerly portion.
I used the term anachronistic earlier, because we have all become adapted to the modern digital style of politics, based around nationally broadcast debates, internet news, and Facebook arguments. The other word that comes to mind is atavistic, because the local campaign headquarters is a throwback to earlier days. I can remember when we didn't have the internet or smart phones, and volunteers walked door to door handing out mimeographed fliers. (Were they mimeographed? How old do you have to be to remember the mimeograph machine?)
But there are decent enough reasons to add some of that old time political technique to our modern technological campaigns. The opening of a campaign headquarters is a chance to energize the troops. The idea is to get people into a room together and pump them up with rousing speeches, a buffet, and one overworked coffee pot. Those same people will be asked to volunteer their time working the phone banks over the coming months. It's a chance for people to make an emotional and intellectual commitment to one candidate.
For the volunteers, it is also a chance to mingle with elected officials and respected ex-officials. In this one room on this one afternoon, we heard from the state Treasurer, the former mayor of Cerritos, the former mayor of Carson, and the city councilman from San Pedro, Joe Buscaino.
Some may remember that Buscaino won the open City Council seat just a few years ago by defeating Furutani, and here he was, giving an energetic introduction, telling us why we need Warren Furutani up in Sacramento. Maybe it was just the decent thing to do, but I get the idea that Buscaino genuinely respects Furutani. In fact, when they ran against each other, their campaigns were particularly clean and respectful, something surprising and nearly unique in present day politics.
In a way, the opening of a campaign office is like a college reunion. I ran into people I'd known when I lived in Lakewood in a different century. There was Rick Tuttle, the former Controller of the city of Los Angeles, and there were Julian, Joy, Sergio, and Louis. There were also members of a younger generation who are feeling their political oats. There were a couple or three men who had run for major elective offices in the past few years and hadn't quite won, but were there because that's what office seekers do.
This gathering was notable for the presence of Asian-American politicians including the former mayor of Cerritos and notably, John Chiang. Chiang has worked his way through state Controller to his current office as state Treasurer. He is being touted as a possible candidate for governor, and he got a lot of enthusiastic cheers as other speakers dusted off an old line, referring to him as "the next governor of California." Furutani could do worse than be touted by a statewide elected official like Chiang.
In conversation, Furutani seems like a thoughtful person, and he demonstrated enormous patience listening to my extended inquiries about his campaign strategy, platform, and general interests. When I asked him what he is most interested in, he replied, "Education." That seems believable and appropriate, considering that Furutani previously held elected office on the school board prior to being elected to the state Assembly. He doesn't seem to be interested in blowing his own horn all that extravagantly, but the other speakers pointed out his accomplishments in protecting public education when he was in the state legislature.
When I asked what the campaign is likely to be about, Furutani answered, "The environment." He brags that he doesn't take contributions from oil interests, unlike his opponent. He also reminded me that this district has oil refineries, of which at least one uses a potentially dangerous chemical additive that could have done a lot of human damage during the recent refinery fire.
I tend to doubt that the oil issue will be all that telling in the coming campaign for the simple reason that Democrats are not going to go into vigorous attack mode against an industry that employs so many workers. Still, it was a good try, and suggested that liberal Democrats have to work hard to differentiate themselves from their equally liberal opponents. It's the mirror image of the Republican Party where campaigners fight to be more to the right than the other guy.
In his own campaign speech, Furutani talked about being a fourth generation Japanese American, and how his whole family has its roots in the 35th Senatorial District. His family lived on Terminal Island until the Pearl Harbor attack, following which they were forced to live in what the authorities euphemistically referred to as a relocation center -- Furutani bluntly refers to it as a concentration camp -- in the southeast part of the country. Furutani is a graduate of Antioch University. He served previously on the LAUSD board and on the community college board prior to his election to the state Assembly.
His choice of topics to push in this campaign include the old standards: the economy, education, and the environment. Interestingly, he also wants to concentrate on the way we treat the elderly. His campaign packages this collection into what he calls the "Four E's."
It's true that lots of campaign headquarters have been opened and closed during the presidential primary season, but those were mainly created, funded, and maintained by national presidential campaigns. For the vast majority of the 20 or so serious candidates, those headquarters came and went and are now forgotten. The classical grass roots campaign headquarters, maintained on a minimal budget and featuring long-term local activists working for somebody running for local office is a different species entirely, Americana at its most activist.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture, science, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at email@example.com)