UPDATE: Republican Steve Fazio took 37.5 percent of the votes in the race to become state senator in California’s 27th district. Henry Stern defeated Janice Kamenir-Reznik for the second spot on the November ballot. Though Kamenir-Reznik, a prominent figure in the local Jewish community, led Stern for most of the evening of June 7, by the time all the votes were counted she had taken 19.7 percent of the vote to Stern’s 26.5 percent. All three candidates are Jewish.
“While of course the results in my race were very disappointing, that does not take away from my sense of accomplishment and gratitude,” Kamenir-Reznik wrote in an email to supporters the morning after the election. “I am very proud of the race we ran.”
Until January, Henry Stern, 34, a top staffer for termed-out state Sen. Fran Pavley, appeared to be a lock to replace her: He had an impressive war chest and endorsements from a laundry list of elected leaders.
Then, Janice Kamenir-Reznik, 64, entered the race with a history in Jewish and civic life longer than her opponent’s entire life.
If there was ever a question of why California’s primary system is called a “jungle primary,” the lopsided Democratic side of the contest in the 27th state Senate district could provide an answer.
Even though the district leans Democratic, the five Democrats splitting their ticket will likely assure the lone Republican, Steve Fazio, a spot in the November election under the primary rules passed by voter initiative in 2010. And the tone has soured among the competition.
Amid an unusual wash of campaign money for a state seat, much of the oxygen in the race has gone to barbs traded between Kamenir-Reznik and Stern, whose fundraising and endorsements indicate they are likely the strongest candidates.
Each has accused the other of accepting money from fossil fuel interests in a district where the environment looms large for many voters, sprawling as it does from the Ventura Freeway and the backbone of the Santa Monica Mountains down to the Malibu coastline.
Kamenir-Reznik’s entry into the race didn’t augur well for a friendly contest with Stern.
Sheila Kuehl and Zev Yaroslavsky, respectively current and former Los Angeles County supervisors for parts of the same district, pulled their support from Stern to endorse Kamenir-Reznik when she put her name on the ballot. Both claim Kamenir-Reznik as a longtime friend.
“She had been my preferred candidate all along,” Kuehl told the Jewish Journal. “And so I apologetically called Henry and said, ‘I’m sorry but Janice was always my candidate, and I have known her for 35 years, so good luck.’ ”
Kamenir-Reznik said her decision to run for the seat in 2016 came after an unfruitful attempt two years ago to recruit her to run.
She’s perhaps best known to L.A.’s Jewry as a co-founder of Jewish World Watch, an organization fighting genocide and rape in Africa that grew out of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, and now focuses on Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as lobbying in Washington, D.C.
She also is a former president of the California Women’s Law Center and presided over Los Angeles County’s Judicial Procedures Commission, where she helped launch a network of self-help legal clinics. Together with her husband, she ran Reznik and Reznik, a large law firm dealing with diverse land-use issues.
Both she and Stern have worked in environmental law.
Stern’s sell is that even though he has less experience in years, his background is more relevant to the office he’s running for.
“She’s done amazing work in the Jewish community, and I would never, ever try to take that away from her,” Stern said.
But, he added, “The policymaking process is different than running a nonprofit or being a land-use environmental attorney.”
Stern promises a different kind of Jewish candidate. He styled himself as a “millennial Jewish man” in an interview with the Jewish Journal, saying because he is conversant in the ways of Sacramento politics, he can deftly represent his generation and their concerns in the capital.
As Pavley’s senior policy adviser, he wrote many of her bills, including the bulk of her environmental legislation, since he began working for her in 2011.
Both candidates’ appeal aims at the same political bases, and their support splits California’s Jewish community leaders.
Though Stern earned the endorsement of the California Jewish Legislative Caucus, Kamenir-Reznik boasts support from Sen. Dianne Feinstein — the highest Jewish officeholder in California politics — and many recognizable names in the local Jewish community, such as actress Mayim Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory”) and Abby Leibman, president and CEO of the nonprofit MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Stern, who along with his father, actor Daniel Stern (“Home Alone”), helped pass a statewide film tax credit in 2014, also has some backing from Hollywood circles, including Billy Crystal and “Homeland” creator Howard Gordon.
In large part, the race is animated not by the differences between the two candidates, but by their similarities, said Herbert Gooch, a political science professor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
“Both are very liberal; both happen to be Jewish and are very much tied into human rights,” Gooch said. “In fact, they’re very similar, which unfortunately has meant kind of a nasty tone that has been developing.”
Much of the tit-for-tat between Kamenir-Reznik and Stern focuses on money pouring in from outside the district.
Together, the candidates in the race have raised more than $2.5 million. Stern’s campaign leads the pack in fundraising at $890,396. As of May 26, Kamenir-Reznik, with less time in the race, comes in second at $685,007, according to filings with the California secretary of state.
But in addition to funds raised by the candidates themselves, money has flowed into the race from political action committees (PACs), which can spend for or against a candidate without the candidate’s cooperation.
Together, PACs representing the California Dental Association (CDA) and the California Apartment Association have spent nearly $300,000 to support Kamenir-Reznik.
Another $180,000 from the dentists’ PAC and a second real estate group has gone to opposing Stern without explicitly supporting any of his opponents.
Candidates are legally barred from communicating with such interests-spending on their behalf. But that hasn’t stopped Stern from suggesting Kamenir-Reznik is linked to oil interests via independent expenditure PACs supporting her.
A Stern campaign mailer features a picture of Pavley under the headline “A message from State Senator Fran Pavley.”
“Big Oil smeared me in 2012,” it reads. “Now they’re coming after Henry Stern, the most qualified candidate for State Senate.”
As evidence that the oil company is sneakily spending for his opponent, Stern’s campaign points to the relationship between the dentists’ PAC and a Chevron-supported group called Keep Californians Working .When it comes to dark money groups, Pavley said in an interview that what’s alarming is not “who or how much or which one.”
She told the Jewish Journal, “Money should come from people who know you and work with you in the district in which you live.”
Stern’s campaign charges in a second mailer that $17,300 was channeled to the dentists’ group by the Chevron-funded PAC, which also receives support from the insurance and real estate industries.
“I’m just saying you can’t wash clean that 17 grand from that PAC,” Stern said. “They play a shell game, the oil companies, and I don’t even think it’s Janice’s fault necessarily. My beef isn’t with her — it’s with the oil guys.”
However, a spokesperson for the dentists’ association said the $17,300 from Keep Californians Working was “a non-monetary, in-kind contribution” in the form of polling data, and that it does not accept money from that PAC. (The money goes the other way, though: The dentists’ PAC reported a $500,000 donation to Keep Californians Working on March 17.)
Nonetheless, the Stern campaign has doubled down on the charge that his opponent benefits from oil money.
In a Stern campaign video posted to Facebook on May 27, “Seinfeld” creator Larry David tepidly referred to the candidate as a “good guy,” saying he only endorsed Stern because his ex-wife “prevailed upon” him to do so. In the next frame, David’s ex-wife, Laurie David, calls the Jewish TV star to say, “Big oil is spending a fortune trying to defeat [Stern].”
Kamenir-Reznik called the Chevron money charge “a patent lie.” In an interview, she pointed out she openly opposes offshore drilling and favors an outright prohibition on fracking for natural gas, giving the energy giant scant reason to support her.
“He’s created this complete fabrication about the oil industry coming after him,” she said in an interview. “To me that’s the most obnoxious part of this campaign. He’s created a boogieman that doesn’t exist.”
In response to the accusation, Kuehl recorded a robocall rejecting it.
“There would be no reason for [Chevron] to invest in [Kamenir-Reznik] – and of course they didn’t,” Kuehl said.
She said the robocall makes a counterclaim, connecting Stern with money linked to SoCal Gas, the utility company responsible for the massive Porter Ranch gas leak that displaced thousands of residents in the 27th district.
Last June, Sempra Energy, the parent company of SoCal Gas, which administers the Porter Ranch gas storage site, donated $1,500 to Stern, and an employee of the utility gave $250. Seven months later, Stern’s campaign gave away $1,750 to the American Lung Association to offset those sums.
Stern has also received $9,000 from employees of a Washington, D.C.-based law firm where he worked for two years in 2009 on climate change, among other issues. The firm represents Sempra, a fact Kamenir-Reznik has brought up.
Of the Sempra claim, Stern said: “It’s silly season in politics, so I’m not surprised that things like this come out. In terms of my work at the law firm, I’m incredibly proud of that.”
The 27th district contest’s other candidates seem content to sit back while Stern and Kamenir-Reznik go after each other.
Shawn Bayliss, a top staffer for L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz, and David Pollock, a Moorpark city councilman, are also running for the seat, but they lag behind Stern and Kamenir-Reznik in fundraising. Bayliss has raised almost $530,000 while Pollock pulled in just over $180,000. Each stands to gain if the two top contenders drain votes from each other.
A fifth Democrat, newspaper publisher George Christopher Thomas, hasn’t reported any fundraising and is considered a long shot.
Bayliss called the trading of barbs between Kamenir-Reznik and Stern “the classic pot-and-kettle scenario.” But as far as he’s concerned, “They can beat each other up all day — go ahead.”