School-board member Allen battles women’s rights activist Fluke for District 26

They’re both young. They’re both Democrats. They’re both up-and-comers on the political scene.
October 30, 2014

They’re both young. They’re both Democrats. They’re both up-and-comers on the political scene. 

In fact, judging by their black-and-crimson outfits at a recent debate in Santa Monica, Sandra Fluke and Ben Allen — the two candidates vying to represent California’s 26th Senate District — even share a similar taste in color schemes.

It can be hard to pinpoint any difference of opinion between Fluke and Allen, who are both described as progressive Democrats in a race that has stirred an unusual level of interest among political heavyweights and the community at large.

Allen, 36, an attorney, lecturer at UCLA Law School and member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board, says he supports greater investment in early childhood and public education; environmental protections, particularly for the Santa Monica Mountains; improved public transportation infrastructure; gender equality; and campaign finance reform. 

So does Fluke, 33, an attorney and women’s rights activist, who in 2012 rose to national prominence by standing up to conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh following a virulent thrashing after she testified to members of Congress in favor of health-care coverage for birth control.

Fluke and Allen seek to replace current state Sen. Ted Lieu, who is running to fill the seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman. The 26th District extends from West Los Angeles and Santa Monica to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, taking in Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and most of the coastal South Bay.

“They’re very young, very strong, very eloquent,” said Margarita Valencia, 62, who like several district residents at a YWCA Santa Monica/Westside Town Hall debate between Allen and Fluke on Oct. 17, said they were having trouble deciding who to vote for. “They’re very good candidates.”

A Jew with roots in the district

Probably the greatest difference between Allen and Fluke is their backgrounds. Allen grew up in Santa Monica and has been heavily involved in district politics as a local school-board member. Fluke originates from rural Pennsylvania and moved to the district about seven years ago, although she spent some of that time at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C. She’s worked as a social justice advocate locally and at the state level, standing up for low-wage workers and domestic violence victims among others, but she comes to the district race as a political outsider.

Allen is Jewish, with strong ties to the Jewish community. Growing up, he attended Kehillat Ma’arav, a Conservative congregation in Santa Monica, although he is now a member of the Reconstructionist congregation of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. He went to public schools, graduating from Santa Monica High School in 1996, but also attended the supplemental Jewish education program at Los Angeles Hebrew High School.

While studying for his bachelor’s degree in history at Harvard University, Allen taught Hebrew and Jewish history at the Harvard Hillel children’s school. After graduating from UC Berkeley Law School in 2008, he returned to Santa Monica and was a member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ New Leaders Project and active in the Anti-Defamation League. 

Although sensitive to the nuances of Jewish life, Allen said he believes Jews in the district generally want the same as other constituents: vibrant schools, better transportation, a healthy economy. However, he said he’s been inspired by the long legacy of Jewish leaders in Los Angeles and credited his own background as steering him toward politics.

“Growing up in a Jewish family, you care about social justice, you care about good government, you care about ethics, you care about taking a thoughtful approach to decision making. It’s a part of our culture and a part of our heritage,” he said. “They’re values that got me thinking about working in government and working in public service.”

Earnest and thoughtful, Allen tends to offer detailed answers to policy questions reflective of years spent tackling the intricacies of government. 

“I’ve worked in the private sector, I’ve worked in the public sector. I’ve seen government work at various levels,” he said. “I’ve been really engaged in community-building for a long time now, and I’ve picked up a set of skills and experiences that will be very useful for me to be an effective legislator.”

Plenty of others seem to think so too. Allen has the endorsement of a slew of federal, state and local officials, including U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan. Supporters also include dozens of neighborhood and business groups, environmental leaders and labor organizations.

“He’s got a combination of ideals and ‘sechel,’ and he has both integrity and savvy,” said Donna Bojarsky, a behind-the-scenes political fundraiser and connector. “He’s one of these people who reminds me of the early Berman-Waxman days, the kind of caliber of young Jews who are willing to both idealistically and practically take on society’s needs.”

Grabbing the spotlight to seek political change

Fluke’s path into politics has been far less traditional. An unknown law student in early 2012, Fluke found herself thrust into the spotlight after Limbaugh’s misogynist attacks against her following her congressional testimony in favor of insurance coverage for birth control and women’s health. Instead of retreating from the public eye, Fluke stood up to Limbaugh, appearing on national news channels and talk shows to argue for women’s reproductive health rights.

Before being catapulted to national attention, Fluke said she hadn’t considered running for office. But calls from women’s activists and others prompted her to rethink.  

“They were looking for more women’s voices, more young people’s voices, more progressive voices in our elected officials,” she said. “I felt that I needed to honor those requests.”

Poised, confident and direct, Fluke is quick to acknowledge that a brush with Limbaugh doesn’t qualify her for political office. But she said her handling of the incident, her advocacy work and the values she stands for do. She said she is determined to fight for the interests of regular people, and her top priority is campaign finance reform. She emphasized her own campaign’s reliance on small-dollar contributions rather than deep-pocketed donors with special interests.  

“I have the independence to be able to be effective in Sacramento,” she said. “I will be a champion for working families.”

Fluke’s background is Christian — her father is an Evangelical preacher — but her husband, comedy writer Adam Mutterperl, is Jewish. Fluke said the two celebrate both traditions’ holidays and sometimes attend Temple Israel of Hollywood. She has also worked with local Jewish organizations, particularly the National Council of Jewish Women Los Angeles, where she chairs their Advocacy Training Project.

Like Allen, Fluke has also garnered an impressive list of supporters, including U.S. Reps. Julia Brownley and Judy Chu, and many labor and community organizations, civic leaders and activists.

Leslie Gersicoff, who works as the executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee Western Region, said she’s impressed with Fluke. Emphasizing that her opinion is personal, and not that of her organization, Gersicoff said Fluke is a refreshing change from male-dominated politics.

“She has an incredible sense of integrity. She’s not business as usual. … She has a true social conscience, and I think the work she would do in Sacramento would benefit a very broad spectrum of individuals, particularly women,” Gersicoff said. “She knows her issues, she knows her stuff, she’s not afraid, and she’s positive, absolutely positive. She’s got good energy for California.”

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.