These Dems Could Help Unlock Gridlock

With the Democratic primary victories of Debra Bowen for secretary of state, and Mike Feuer and Alex Padilla for State Legislature, Los Angeles — of all places — is playing a role in whether Sacramento becomes a less incendiary and gridlocked place.

Bowen, who has been a member of the state legislature since 1992, in November faces the popular moderate Republican Secretary of State Bruce McPherson in a bid for his job. She is one of the few liberal legislators who resists the hyper-partisan flame throwing that has long gripped the statehouse. Bowen works instead to get things done, including her 2001 law making it harder to get access to Social Security numbers.

She’ll now engage in a spirited race with McPherson for a job that — more than any other statewide post — must be filled by somebody committed to being equally fair to both Democratic and Republican voters in California.

State Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), whom Bowen badly beat on June 6, would have faced a far tougher race against the fair-minded McPherson, who was appointed by Schwarzenegger to fill the job after the resignation of disgraced Democrat Kevin Shelley.

The “two Debbies” didn’t look much different on paper leading up to June 6. Both are liberal Democrats who consistently vote against business and for organized labor, for instance.

But Bowen, who represents an affluent Los Angeles region including West Los Angeles, Cheviot Hills, Marina del Rey, Palms, Venice and every beach city from Manhattan Beach to Long Beach, brings to the race an easy style, a reputation for fairness, and an expertise in computer science that are key to competing with the impressive McPherson.

Although a liberal, Bowen has refrained from the excessive behavior that earned Ortiz and other angry Sacramento partisans a lot of free media coverage — but that also led to further gridlock. With Bowen’s decisive victory, especially in voter-rich Southern California, the race now pits a reasonable and smart Republican against a reasonable and smart Democrat.

That’s something we rarely see in California politics anymore, and voters can only benefit.

At the same time, another Westside political leader — former Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer — is now widely seen as the predetermined winner in the Westside’s 42nd Assembly District, a safe seat created by political gerrymandering that cannot be won by a Republican.

Feuer, an attorney and former director of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, was at one time in his political career closer to Ortiz than to Bowen in temperament. When I first covered Feuer as a city councilman, early in his career, he insulted colleagues who disagreed with him, acted like he was superior and made his share of enemies.

But over the years, Feuer mellowed, not losing his sometimes-haughty manner, but gradually developing an appreciation for those who were not his natural allies, including the Westside business community.

What a contrast to the person Feuer will replace, Assemblyman Paul Koretz, an outspoken Democratic Party attack dog who spends more of his time slamming the minority Republicans than working on any legislation of merit. Koretz earned recent headlines calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush, but in his several years in Sacramento he has done Los Angeles very little good.

Feuer not only will replace Koretz, but in the June 6 primary he beat West Hollywood’s Abbe Land, a liberal Democrat who in her political career has arguably been even more steeped in micro-legislating than was the highly ineffective Koretz.

Feuer gained broad expertise on the regional troubles facing Southern California during his time on the L.A. City Council, and he is likely, if he overcomes his tendency to preach, to bring a level of rational discussion to Sacramento that the state Assembly often lacks.

Another victory that will help the cause of bipartisanship and getting things done in Sacramento is that of City Councilman Alex Padilla, former president of the L.A. City Council, who beat State Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez for the job representing state Senate District 20 in the San Fernando Valley.

Montanez, an emotional hyper-partisan like Koretz, proved incapable of working with both sides of the aisle in Sacramento. She also often did a disservice to her many Latino constituents by continually backing labor-sponsored laws that would have further hurt and restricted small business — a sector in which Latinos make up a large percentage of owners.

Padilla, an MIT graduate who I only half-jokingly say will significantly boost the intelligence level of the unpopular state Senate, will stand out as a rational liberal-to-moderate Democrat who isn’t necessarily owned by big labor.

Padilla learns quickly, as evidenced by his achievement in becoming the youngest City Council president in Los Angeles history. He’ll rise quickly in Sacramento, too, although he may not be able to fill the shoes of outgoing moderate Democratic superstars like Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg.

Like Feuer’s, Padilla’s victory is a done deal, even though the 2006 general election is months away, because his is another gerrymandered legislative seat that cannot be won by Republicans.

The Bowen-McPherson race for secretary of state, however, will be hard-fought. It will almost certainly involve claims on both sides that the other cannot be trusted to preside over California elections — or the modernizing and regulating of voting machines.

The Democrats will trot out their bogeyman, Diebold Election Systems, which is frequently attacked by Democrats for leaving no paper trail, and the Republicans will trot out their bogeyman, scandal-tainted former secretary of state and prominent Democrat Kevin Shelley. But the truth is, both Bowen and McPherson would do solid jobs in this crucial position.

Sadly, Los Angeles has done its share over the years to send angry hyper-partisan politicians to the statehouse. It’s a welcome respite from all that, to see the region put forth promising Sacramento leaders like Feuer, Padilla and Bowen.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at