August 30th, 2012
A discussion with former State Senator Sheila Kuehl about Torie Osborn’s landmark run for California State Assembly. This is the third in a series of three posts. (First post found here, second post found here.)
Q: What lessons might progressives draw from your campaign?
A: We need to understand better what the voters think of us, and to connect with them on their own terms, in order to be better organizers and educators. Here’s where I would say we are, based on two years of talking to thousands of voters, from conservatives to the far left:
1. Support is surprisingly strong for single payer healthcare. The one reliable applause line I had in over 250 speeches came when I said I favored Medicare for all. I was especially surprised by the “closet cases,” as we say in the gay community. Every week, small business owners, private sector doctors, even a retired insurance exec — all kinds of unlikely people “came out” to me as secret single payer supporters. There is broad, deep and growing sentiment that it’s the only real path to affordable, comprehensive universal health care, and that Obamacare is only one step toward it.
2. We’re ripe for criminal justice reform. I was really pleased to hear so many people voice strong support for change in the criminal justice system. People are concerned about the stranglehold they perceive the prison guards union has on Sacramento, but they felt even more strongly, on economic, if not moral, grounds, that the punitive model of the prison system, especially in juvenile justice, has to be radically reformed to a more rehabilitative model. I often cited the fact that California spends $150,000 per kid for juvenile justice with a 70% recidivism rate while Missouri spends $44,000 with 7% recidivism!
3. Unexpected antagonisms. Again, I was shocked at how anti-government, anti-union and anti-immigrant even this west side district is. Decades of conservative messaging has definitely gotten into people’s heads. In such a liberal district, where women’s and LGBT rights, climate change and environmental issues are ho-hum consensus, I didn’t expect such ambivalence about government and economic issues. At one “Drinking Liberally” gathering, several people challenged me on the Dream Act (access to state college tuition for immigrant kids), on the “retro” unions, and they constantly told me they were fed up with the waste in government. I thought I’d stumbled into the “Drinking Conservatively” crowd. It was more than just a few people.
I think I made a good case to those folks by talking about the fact that government, through providing education, the safety net and investment in small business, is “the delivery system for the California Dream” but I also found I needed to balance my positions and also talk about the need for governance reform, two year budgeting, and pension reform. And we just have lots of education to do around racial justice and immigrants’ rights.
Q: What did you learn about presenting the tough issue of fair taxation?
A: I learned that to talk successfully to broad audiences about taxes you have to convince them that a larger economic vision is at stake, and also that you are willing to look seriously at governance reform.
I ran for the Assembly because I passionately believe that the time has come to implement fair taxation: to stop corporate giveaways, to modernize our tax system, to bring top-tier tax rates back to where they were 30 years ago. When I first started campaigning, I began all my debates and my stump speech talking straight tax policy – and it fell completely flat. The case has simply not yet been made. People across a broad political spectrum think that government is riddled with waste. I would talk taxes; people would talk back pension reform.
As the campaign progressed, I began to talk more about education, about the vast disinvestment in our great universities and K-12 public school systems and how we need to raise taxes to restore this important component of the California dream. That worked better.
I didn’t find the sweet spot, however, until I started talking about an economic vision for CA, the 9th largest economy in the world. A vision that includes smart investment in small businesses as well as rebuilding education and infrastructure. I changed my speaking approach and began to paint a picture of letting “California be California again” by returning to excellence in education and economic innovation. I used an organizer’s approach and listed California’s assets as a first step toward thinking about long-term priorities.
I reported that California receives 60% of all venture capital invested anywhere, that the state relies on small businesses, has a DNA of reinvention and innovation, and 37.5 million of the most vibrantly creative people on the planet, including the hopes and dreams contributed by our immigrant communities.
Even though I didn’t have a finished blueprint, simply getting people excited about hoping for a better California opened up the space to talk about taxes. Fire up folks’ hope neurons, and then you can talk about the tough stuff.
Q: Why were you so out front on amending Prop 13?
A: Restoring prosperity to California begins with goring that sacred cow. In 1978, 70% of Californians voted for Prop 13 in order to rein in volatile residential property taxes. The research shows those voters did NOT know that the cap on tax increases also covered commercial land and buildings, a policy only California has. Nor did they realize that they were voting to require a 2/3 vote to raise any future taxes, a move that has crippled governance ever since. The voters of California need to know that those two parts of Prop 13 are the direct cause of the systemic revenue shortfall and budget woes that are decimating California’s future – not teachers or firefighters.
Again, California is the ONLY state that protects commercial property in such a manner. It costs our state $6-10 billion a year, and unfairly burdens homeowners, who now pay up to 2/3 of property taxes in California, a total reversal from pre-1978. It’s indefensible! On the campaign trail, I found a widespread readiness among voters, including business owners, to tackle commercial property tax reform. A number of groups are gearing up for a long-term public organizing drive to take it to the ballot in 2016. It’s time!
Eventually, we also will have to change the other revenue suppresser in Prop 13 – the 2/3 super majority required to pass tax increases in the legislature.
August 26th, 2012
A discussion with former State Senator Sheila Kuehl about Torie Osborn’s landmark run for California State Assembly. This is the second in a series of three posts. (First post found here.)
Q: Your race drew statewide and even some national attention because you were taking on Sacramento, a sitting legislator as well as a sitting Mayor, and the full force and deep pockets of the speaker of the Assembly. How did that happen?
A: Well, it’s important to remember that I did not choose to take on Sacramento. Sacramento chose to run against me. I decided to run for this open seat in 2009 — that summer I met with and shook hands with opponent Mayor Richard Bloom. I’d been actively campaigning for over a year when suddenly Assemblymember Butler moved into the district, with the support of Sacramento. I’m a grassroots organizer. I don’t back down to power, or shrink in the face of tough odds. And when Sacramento decided to throw punches at me, I was certainly going to throw them back.
The lesson of my campaign is not that you can’t take on power. It’s that it is always worth it to fight for what you believe. It is always worth it to be true to your heart. It is always worth it to be part of a movement, and to be in service of training young people.
I hope the near success and the national visibility of my campaign – in particular Tom Hayden’s extraordinary article in The Nation – influences future leaders in Sacramento to seriously consider the 2/3 majority issue as the overriding priority before putting their incumbency machinery into high gear against strong, local leaders.
Q: You lost in the closest four-way race in California history – the range was 24.3%-25.8%, or 1.4%, of 62,400 votes cast, separating fourth place from the top vote. On campaign mechanics: What would you have done differently?
A: I’m proud of my 15,155 votes, only some 700 out of second place. Monday morning quarterbacking is a dangerous sport. When you lose a heart-breaker like this, everyone has a “coulda woulda shoulda”. After sorting through all of them, I’ve come to believe, in order of importance:
l. Voter turnout combined with ballot designation. I was the outsider, the change agent, the riskier choice — and I came in third against two elected Democrats by a sliver of difference. Ultimately, just a few more voters went with the safer choices. I call it my “cookie-crumbles, luck-of-the-draw, coin-toss, near-win!” Pundits called it “the crapshoot primary.” Our strategy was based on a projected 40% voter turnout, but this normally high-voting district had a shockingly low 25% turnout. In a low-voter turnout election, the candidate with the toughest lift suffers. The “Director, California Nonprofit” didn’t capture my strengths for those who didn’t know me, and they went with the electeds.
2. Field. In retrospect, I think we should have invested more in professional field, less in mail. In a super-close race, field can make 1-2% difference, and that’s what we needed. We had a field plan that was part traditional, part “movement” — i.e. volunteer based because of my passionate and large support base. But my volunteers didn’t show up until the very end — too little, too late. I think now that was our fault: in order to project strength against the Sacramento-based campaign against us, we seemed over-confident to our own supporters, despite our polls showing the tie that was indeed the outcome. People assumed I’d win, based on our energy and grassroots endorsements, so they didn’t show up in droves to help until too late.
3. Social media. Perhaps we should also have tried an experimental social media ad buy. It’s not tested so the consultants don’t like it, but it might have gotten us 500 votes.
4. In the “fickle fate” category, one cookie that crumbled the other way was the LA Times endorsement. Originally they were planning to endorse in the AD 50 primary race but decided at the last minute to substitute the Ventura congressional race. I think I would have had a great shot at that endorsement – the Times likes independent, unusual candidates. AD 50 is the last bastion of LA Times reader strength so that could easily have translated into the winning votes.
But it just wasn’t meant to be.
Q: Why did you do negative mailers? Didn’t this hurt your brand, which is a sunny-side up kind of optimism?
A: In The Political Brain, progressive political guru Drew Weston posits that negative media is absolutely necessary for a full throttle campaign – especially for a come-from-behind candidate or issue.
Unfortunately, good liberals and progressives feel a lot of ambivalence about going negative. There is what I would call a knee-jerk “it’s better to be noble than win” attitude – what sometimes seems like comfort with outsider status, with staying at the margins, rather than doing what is necessary to win. Since I was the underdog candidate running against two people with elected ballot titles, with our polling showing a dead heat, we needed to undermine the opponents’ messages. That meant going negative. It wasn’t up for debate.
Still, 90% of our campaign was positive. We sent 22 mailers and 2 of them were negative. One was a tongue-in-cheek hit on Assemblymember Butler’s silly, wasteful baby bottle distribution. That mailer doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone.
The other negative piece pointed out her votes for big cuts in the state budget. Our polling showed overwhelmingly that the voters wanted someone to stand up and say NO on cuts to education and senior services. In retrospect, I regret the convoluted message and tone of that mailer but I do not regret going negative per se. The question I pose back to those who criticize that aspect of my campaign is: Is a hard-hitting negative mailer worse than a misleading “re-election” campaign? Or mailers with pictures and quotes implying endorsements that don’t exist? Wasn’t it questionably ethical for the Speaker to order his caucus to assign an unprecedented 47 delegates to fix the state party endorsement and then accuse me of packing local club endorsement meetings? In truth, two campaigns went negative but one pretended that it didn’t.
Read Part 3 of the series.
August 21st, 2012
A discussion with former State Senator Sheila Kuehl about Torie Osborn’s landmark run for California State Assembly. This is the first in a series of three posts.
Q: What inspired your Assembly run and what was the vision for your campaign?
A: In ’08, for a couple of amazing months, I worked as a super volunteer for the Obama campaign. One day at OFA headquarters, a young woman with whom I was working side-by-side mobilizing African-American and Latino voters to go door-knocking in Nevada, said to me, “A former community organizer is running for President and you’ve spent your life organizing and advocating for change. Why don’t you run for office?” I found I didn’t have a good answer, and the wheels started turning. Six months later, in the spring of 2009, I made the decision.
I had three goals for my campaign: First, I wanted to help change the conversation on California’s out-of-whack tax system that’s costing our schools and services so dearly. Second, I wanted to run the kind of strong grassroots campaign that attracted, engaged and trained young people, like the Obama campaign that inspired me. Third, I was definitely “in it to win it”. I’ve seen too many progressive campaigns that just seem to want to make a statement, and that wasn’t my goal at all. I wanted to run a serious, smart and winning campaign.
My commitment to tax reform grew out of my time (2006-08) as senior advisor to Mayor Villaraigosa. Every day at City Hall, I saw the tragic “Sophie’s choices” — between, for example, funding librarians or firefighters, choices we were forced to make because of 30 years of regressive tax policies. I watched up close the wholesale destruction of the delivery system for the opportunity, for the American Dream. It made me a diehard advocate for reforming our tax systems, particularly Prop 13, to stop the bloodletting. I wanted to help move the political conversation from one about deficits -– which leads to cuts and more cuts — to one about revenue shortfalls. (Note: As of August, I’m back with Mayor V. as Deputy Mayor. I’ll keep you posted about my experience…)
I also think we need leaders in government who have activist chops, skill at coalition-building, and links to progressive organizing and who don’t just come from the well-worn paths of holding local office, or raising money for electeds. It seemed like a good time for a pragmatic progressive, a longtime nonprofit leader with an MBA in finance and deep experience tackling crises to step up and run.
I strongly believe that even though we lost, we succeeded in our goals. And, lots of new leaders were inspired; five of my super-volunteers are now running for office or planning to. We formed an intense empowerment zone, a community of grassroots folks advancing reform and tapping into many voters’ hopes and dreams for a more substantive and courageous political culture. The ripples of involvement nurtured by Team Torie will generate social change inside and outside the electoral arena for a long time.
Q: What surprised you most about being a candidate for the first time?
A: How much people want change, and how angry they are at the politics-as-usual that is not delivering it. Voters “get it” about the problems, and they see solutions that they feel politicians don’t seem capable of delivering. They are outraged by the steady destruction of the world’s greatest education system, for example, or the inhumanity and poor cost-benefit ratio of our criminal justice system, or the rewarding of corporations that outsource jobs, when California’s is a small business economy. Many, many people want “systems change,” not simply tinkering around the edges.
I also saw a kind of political depression that transcends ideology or issue that is fed by the negative view of Sacramento. People generally view our state’s political culture as captured by money and self-interest. They resonated to my message of fiscal sanity and humanity, especially when we talked about fixing the criminal justice system and education, and investing in small businesses while reining in corporate power.
But, even my voters on the liberal west side of L.A. mistrust our institutions, especially government. Whether it was Malibu residents upset about the state’s plan to restore their beloved Lagoon or Beverly Hills voters fighting the subway under the high school, I was shocked at how strongly even otherwise liberal folks believe that moneyed interests have corrupted policy-making. There is widespread belief that bond monies have bought off environmental groups’ on the Malibu Lagoon, and that Century City commercial interests “own” the MTA and therefore thwart Beverly Hillers on the subway route. On the other hand, that same strain of populist anti-institutional bias gave me an opening to talk about Prop 13 and its indefensible corporate loophole. People are open to new ideas, if the case is made coherently.
I will say that, with a lot of work, and, over time, I was able to tap into a dammed-up river of hope — hope that there will be somebody running for office who “gets it” about how broken things are and offers commonsense solutions. People want fresh ideas from trusted sources.
Q: Did the campaign change you personally?
A: Surprisingly, I’m calmer, stronger, more empowered. Throwing my heart at the sky turned out to be a great gift, even though I lost. I did something entirely new as I turned 60. I lived seriously outside my comfort zone for two years in a mission-driven campaign. It heightened my emotional and political intelligence; my “BS detector” is fine-tuned now. I trust my intuitions as never before. Honestly, I feel like I graduated with a black belt in Jedi warrior training. I think I listen better, and I have actually come to like people who disagree with me, to enjoy engaging with political differences. I find I’m more compassionate toward all kinds of people. It wasn’t fun engaging in a tough fight and losing, but I feel like I emerged better, brighter, happier! I look forward to putting new skills and political intelligence in service of change, and to running again if the right opportunity presents.
Read Part 2 of the series.
August 10th, 2012
Life is full of surprises:
- I’m leaving the campaign chapter behind with a great sense of accomplishment and gratitude, even after losing. Go figure.
- I started a new, big job August 1 as Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Neighborhood and Community Services — happily helping my friend and mentor Mayor Villaraigosa’s wrap up his final year at City Hall.
- My campaign debt is fully paid down, thanks to 147 of you!
I FEEL SO LUCKY. Yes, even though we didn’t make it out of what pundits are calling “the crapshoot primary,” I feel bursting with pride for the vibrancy of the experience. On July 4th this year, I felt especially patriotic and American — so lucky to have had the opportunity at age 60 to run for the first time, and wage such a valiant and exciting and near-winning campaign. We ran one hell of a race, not only nearly toppling the odds, but raising the bar forever for Assembly campaigns.
WILL I ENDORSE OR RUN AGAIN? No and Yes. I’m staying out of the 2012 AD 50 race for now, and, yes, if the opportunity arises and we can reprise — this time with a win! — I’m there, and I hope you will be too.
HIGH RISK, HIGH GAIN. On a personal level, I’ve been trying to figure out why, after a few weeks of the blues that are now gone, I feel empowered and alive as never before. This TED talk helped me understand it. When you “lean into the discomfort” — live outside your comfort zone — and do it in a strong, connected community that shares a purpose, even losing pales next to the richness of the experience. I’ll never be able to thank you enough for contributing of yourself to Team Torie.
NEXT UP: CITY HALL! A couple of weeks ago I got a call from Mayor Villaraigosa, one of my fiercest supporters, and a longtime friend and political mentor. He said: “I know what it’s like to lose a close race, and need to put all that pent-up energy somewhere: how’d you like to come back to City Hall as a Deputy Mayor and help me make a strong finish?” I enthusiastically said yes! For those of you who know the players, good friend and progressive organizer extraordinaire, longtime Deputy Mayor Larry Frank, moves up to Deputy Chief of Staff, and I take over most of his portfolio, overseeing an amazing 22-person staff that works on a range of services and departments — from the neighborhood councils, to anti-poverty programs, to the Mayor’s field offices, constituent services, and all the special events. I’m already loving it. I’ve wrapped up my two-year project with California Calls, the extraordinary Anthony Thigpenn and his team who are changing California forever by changing the electorate by 5%, and organizing for fair taxation. I remain committed and connected to that work.
I’ve spent the past few weeks writing some campaign reflections that political blogger Marta Evry will feature on her Venice for Change site soon. And from here-on-out, I’ll also be blogging occasionally here on my own website, so be sure to check back there.
The summer has been healing, and I admit it’s been wonderful to get the chance to watch hummingbirds in my garden for the first time in two years. And to sleep more than 3 hours a night. I’m rested and ready to roll in my new position at City Hall.
As we enter this crazy political fall season, I hope you will remember fondly the energy and excitement of Team VicTorie and work like hell to re-elect the President, pass the progressive tax measure Prop 30 and defeat the heinous anti-union Prop 32. We have a chance to abolish the death penalty and reform Three Strikes this November as well; I’ll send out more information on other propositions as we get closer. Remember that it is only the power of collective civic action by passionate, engaged people that brings democracy alive, and gives hope that we can reverse the concentration of money and power in fewer and fewer hands. AT TO 2012, we were all in training for something great, I believe. Stay in touch and let me know what that was for you!
I am honestly humbled by what we were able to accomplish together. I’ll never be able to thank you enough.
June 6th, 2012
Well, we made history. We built an insurgent campaign that was vibrant, grassroots, people-powered. We drew over 2,300 individual donors, and dozens of newly engaged volunteers. But, it wasn’t enough to overcome a determined and aggressive Sacramento machine — and a praiseworthy surge by my Santa Monica Mayor.
We came in third in a “top two” race, missing second place by 1% — 673 votes — out of 48,000 cast.
There will be much opportunity to analyze the statistics when the precinct numbers come in, in a few weeks. But this is a time to thank each and every one of you for supporting a first time candidate on a mission to lift the political conversation in our battered state — so we can reinvest in California Dreamin’ again…
My work will take a different course than I had hoped. But I look forward to working with you along the way. You and your support have been the lasting gifts of this campaign, and I will always be grateful.
June 2nd, 2012
Written for Huffington Post by Steve Early
In 2008, millions of Obama-for-president volunteers got fired up about electoral politics in a way they hadn’t been before. The incoming president’s 12 million strong army of active online supports threatened to upend the balance of power in Washington — and Obama promised to do just that.
Instead, the administration consciously chose a different route, working the inside game and letting the powerful list linger, as former White House official Van Jones lays out in his memoir.
For a glimpse at the road not taken, look no further than Torie Osborn. Read more…
May 31st, 2012
Small Businesses Support Osborn’s Call for Commonsense Reform in Sacramento
SANTA MONICA, CA— With less than a week to go until the most anticipated Assembly Primary in California, Torie Osborn, a nationally recognized leader of non-profits and government reform efforts, received a major boost today in her bid to represent the new 50th Assembly district. The California Small Business Association, representing 203,000 small business owners, gave Osborn their enthusiastic support today, citing her message of collaboration and strong support for small business.
“Torie Osborn is a small businesswoman who understands what it takes to balance a budget, meet a payroll, and who can easily grasp the practical effects that laws passed in Sacramento will have on Main Street,” said Betty Jo Toccoli, President of the CSBA. “Torie knows small business is the engine of California’s economy and has been underserved by state government. We look forward to working closely with her in developing common-sense solutions to get Sacramento working for Californians again.” Read more…
May 29th, 2012
Finance Reports Frame Contest as the Grassroots Locals vs. Entrenched Insiders
SANTA MONICA, CA— The heated contest for the new, open 50th Assembly District seat is a stark contrast between Torie Osborn, a fresh, homegrown and grassroots candidate, and Betsy Butler, a Sacramento insider backed by an old-style political machine.
That’s the clear conclusion from updated campaign finance numbers, which show Osborn dominating in local support and small individual contributions while Butler is relying heavily on money from PACs and Sacramento politicians. Read more…
May 24th, 2012
Written for In These Times by Steve Early
The spirited California Assembly candidate battles the Democratic establishment.
In 2008, thousands of Obama campaign volunteers got fired up about electoral politics in a way they hadn’t been before. Four years later, some are now running for office themselves. But few have made a bigger splash in local Democratic circles than former In These Times staffer Torie Osborn, a nationally-known advocate for gay and lesbian rights and other progressive causes. Her insurgent campaign for a California Assembly seat has roiled the waters of Los Angeles-area liberalism and bucked the legislative leadership in Sacramento, which is circling the wagons around her main opponent.
If Santa Monica-based Osborn beats Assemblywoman Betsy Butler in the newly-created 50th Assembly district—either on June 5 or in a November general election run-off—her victory over the party establishment will be a Left Coast monument to what might have been possible, in more places, if Obama’s campaign organization (or the Democratic Party) had been serious about grassroots movement building. “There could have been 100, or even 1,000 Torie Osborns, who came out of the network of energized people trying to change American politics in 2008,” says California political consultant Paul Kumar, an admirer of Osborn’s “extraordinary campaign organization.” Read more…
May 24th, 2012
From Beverly Hills Weekly by Rudy Cole
My choice for State Assembly: Torie Osborn.
Even though the district boundaries have changed many times through the years, for decades Beverly Hills has helped send some really outstanding leaders to the State Assembly.
This year, we have an opportunity to do it again by voting for Torie Osborn. Read more…