9 Most Asked Questions, Part 1 of 3

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.