8 Democrats vie for coastal 53rd Assembly District

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Brian Watt/KPCC

Mitch Ward, mayor of Manhattan Beach, at a 53rd assembly district candidates forum in Redondo Beach

One of the most competitive political races in the state is in 53rd Assembly District. Ted Lieu represents the coastal district that runs from the South Bay to Venice and Mar Vista. But the termed out Democrat is running for Attorney General, and more than half a dozen candidates seek the nomination to succeed him.

Democratic voters like Dency Nelson of Hermosa Beach have a tough decision to make.

"I wish I could say it’s getting easier as we get close to Election Day. It’s getting harder," said Nelson at a candidates’ forum sponsored by the Beach Cities Democratic Club in Redondo Beach. All seven of the Democrats who showed up to the forum impressed him.

"We have, as I’ve been quoted by one of the candidates many times, an embarrassment of riches of candidates down here," Nelson said.

One candidate, Mayor Mitch Ward of Manhattan Beach presented himself as the pragmatic owner of a tech-services firm who wants the state to create small business jobs. He focused on his tenure on a Manhattan Beach City Council that fought to keep its budget balanced.

"I know what it means that the Capitol wants to take moneys away from our local municipalities," Ward explained to the crowd. "That’s why 50 of our local mayors and council members have endorsed me. "

In a crowded field of candidates, endorsements can offer an advantage. Candidate Betsy Butler of Marina Del Rey boasts a list of supporters that ranges from State Controller John Chiang and Congresswoman Diane Watson to labor union locals and the California Nurses Association.

But her work as a fundraiser for environmental groups and the state’s trial lawyers association has made her some enemies. At the start of another candidates’ forum in a packed Mar Vista recreation center, Butler got a few laughs by acknowledging her enemies.

"I’m really sorry about all that mail," she said calmly.

All that mail is arriving in voters’ mailboxes from independent campaigns by groups like the Californians Allied for Patient Protection and the Civil Justice Association. They’ve spent more than a half million dollars on mailers that try to link Betsy Butler to Sacramento special interests. Butler has embraced the attacks.

"It’s my honor to have worked for people who are about accountability and justice. That’s what I’ve done my whole life," she insisted. "We worked really hard on environmental justice issues."

In a coastal district like the 53rd, environmental issues are important. But groups like the California League of Conservation Voters aren’t making an endorsement in a Democratic primary full of green-leaning candidates.

One of them, James Lau of Venice, helps to run an environmental education group. He’s also a former policy consultant and legislative director in Sacramento.

"We need to get our budget back on track," said Lau at the Mar Vista forum. "As a state, it affects our education, health care, the environment, and economy."

All the candidates agree there’s a lot off track in Sacramento.

Attorney Kate Anderson of Mar Vista is a former student body president at UCLA. She worked for Congressman Henry Waxman, and recently she convinced her downtown LA law firm to open a day-care center.

"I want to go to Sacramento right now, because I think the train wreck we’ve got up there right now creates a real opportunity to make some changes," Anderson told voters. "Changes that we’ve needed for a long time, and haven’t had the political will to make.”

Candidate Nick Karno has garnered the support of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the California Federation of Teachers, and some law enforcement unions. Karno works in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office; he’s also taught in Venice and Marina Del Rey public schools.

“The vast majority of the state budget is spent in two areas - in criminal justice, and in education. So as a prosecutor and as a former teacher, I’m the only candidate with real world experience in both of them,” Karno said.

The Democratic field also includes Edgar Saenz, a former field deputy to Congresswoman Maxine Waters; Diane Wallace, a former high school teacher, principal, and director of a statewide early literacy program; and attorney and community activist Peter Thottam, who ran unsuccessfully against termed-out incumbent Ted Lieu and is trying again.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 53rd district, but Republicans combined with decline-to-state voters could offer a formidable support base for two unopposed candidates: Lisa Ann Green with the Green Party and Republican Nathan Mintz, founder of the South Bay Tea Party. He’s already established the groundwork for an aggressive general election campaign.

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