EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Jane Harman, whose resignation from Congress became official Monday, was courting a candidate to replace her two weeks before announcing she was leaving Capitol Hill. She won’t officially endorse, but it’s clear she prefers Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, the woman she refers to as her little sister.
As the world watched President Barack Obama deliver his State of the Union address Jan. 25, Hahn was Harman’s guest in the House chamber.
Hahn told Roll Call during an interview at a local sushi restaurant that Harman had asked her that week about her future political plans and whether she would ever be interested in running for Harman’s 36th district seat.
“I said, ‘Of course it would be wonderful to be in Congress, but you’re not going anywhere.’ And so she just nodded,” Hahn said between sips of hot tea. “Then that early 7 a.m. call came two weeks later, and she said, ‘I’m resigning and I want you to run for my seat.’ And I had my website up by noon.”
Hahn knew she had to work fast, as California House seats rarely come open — especially one that includes as much beach area as Harman’s. Hahn had a campaign team of well-known consultants in place by the close of business that day.
A week later, she had earned the endorsements of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Speaker John Perez, as well as a slew of local labor unions and elected officials. The quick endorsements smack of her first attempt to win the seat in 1998. Harman, who was running for governor, urged her to run that time, too, joining President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who were all concerned about keeping the district for Democrats.
Minutes before her Thursday interview with Roll Call, Hahn secured the endorsement of El Segundo Mayor Pro Tem Bill Fisher and strolled with him through the local farmers market, which is held nearly every day of the week in a different city in the district.
Until 2012, when California’s independent redistricting commission will redraw the districts, this coastal district — which stretches from Venice Beach south along the Los Angeles County coast — leans Democratic. Neither of the national parties is expected to spend money on the race.
Despite winning the backing of many top elected officials in the state and area, Hahn will not have a free ride in the election. Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who was re-elected in November, represented the South Bay Area for six years in the Assembly and eight in the state Senate before being elected statewide in 2006.
Bowen, who built a wealth of goodwill with local voters over her 14 years in the Legislature, is counting heavily on that support. Speaking to the Beach Cities Democratic Club at a bagel shop in Manhattan Beach last week, Bowen assured the two-dozen club members that her work in the area was not forgotten.
“I have represented most of the people who live in the district,” Bowen said. “Now, it’s been a while. But they’ll remember.”
Two days later, sitting in one of her favorite Venice hangouts, Abbot’s Habit coffee shop, Bowen described her passion for the intersection between “technological developments and public policy, which always gives you issues that no one has thought about.”
Bowen’s first bill in the Assembly after her 1992 election was to put the Legislature’s business on what would later become widely known as the Internet. That led her down a path she never could have predicted, with a focus on tech policy.
“I’m a geek,” she said. “I’m not sure if there’s a geek caucus, but I’m definitely a geek.”
Hahn spoke to the Beach Cities club a few minutes after Bowen, as both are pushing hard for support among local activists. Members seemed impressed with both candidates, but club President Lorraine Geittmann, a former Congressional staffer, told Roll Call that Hahn “doesn’t have a lot of grass-roots support along this part of the coast,” which includes the independent cities of Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach.
A few members even knew the name of Bowen’s cat, Maplethorpe, and Geittman said, “Everybody has a warm feeling about her.”
The candidates will face at least two other opponents in the primary, which will take place eight weeks prior to the special election date Gov. Jerry Brown (D) must call within the next 14 days. The seat can be won outright by taking more than 50 percent in the primary. Otherwise, the top two advance to the general.
Anti-war activist and teacher Marcy Winograd (D) entered the race Saturday in Torrance, making this her third run for the seat in the past five years. She held Harman to 59 percent in last year’s Democratic primary, a slight improvement over her 2006 showing. Winograd founded the Los Angeles chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America and is likely to challenge Hahn and Bowen on their foreign policy stances.
The first indication of party support could come at the special endorsing caucus, which the state party chairman will call once the election date is set.
“The state and local delegates will get a vote,” Los Angeles County Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman said. “With these three candidates it will be very divided, because they all come with strengths and bases of support.”
State GOP Chairman Ron Nehring has already convened a meeting of local leaders and potential candidates, and he told Roll Call he is “preparing party infrastructure to be made available to the eventual Republican nominee.”
Redondo Beach City Attorney Michael Webb, a career prosecutor and father of six, is so far the lone Republican in the race. Webb was resting a fatigued voice box when he met with Roll Call on Friday at a Starbucks across the street from City Hall, as he juggles his day job with campaigning and family time in the evenings.
Webb said his top goal is to protect prominent area institutions, including an Air Force base, Los Angeles International Airport, the Port of Los Angeles, and defense and aerospace industry companies.
Webb conceded that Democrats hold a nearly 20-point edge in registered voters in the district but said there is an opportunity for a Republican to win. He cited the district’s Republican vote in the 2006 gubernatorial race, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was re-elected.
His chances rest partly on the insufficiency of the Democrats, he said, noting they “are clearly much more liberal than Harman, a nine-term Member who was a Blue Dog and strong on defense, and represented the district better than any of the three now running could.”
The district, connected by Interstate 405, has distinct issues that vary with each exit on the highway. Manhattan Beach, off the crowded Rosecrans Avenue exit, is what an outsider might picture a California beach town to look like.
Sprinkled with solar-powered parking meters and home to Sketchers shoes and half of the Los Angeles Lakers, the beach community has a balanced budget and is one of only a couple of California cities with a AAA bond rating.
Home of the Rose Bowl of beach volleyball tournaments, the most pressing issue in Manhattan Beach, which was named after the New York borough, is traffic congestion on the 405.
“We need federal help because California can’t afford to give us anything,” said Mayor Richard Montgomery (R), who endorsed Hahn and Harman before that.
Montgomery isn’t looking at party labels, he said as he walked along the city’s picturesque pier, gesturing to the dozens of volleyball nets on the beach below.
Hahn has angled to position herself as the frontrunner and is working to do something no one in her politically successful family has done.
Her father, Kenneth Hahn, served on the LA County Board of Supervisors for 40 years and helped bring the Dodgers to California from Brooklyn. Her brother, James Hahn, is the only person ever to serve as LA mayor, city controller and city attorney.
Hahn, not yet a member of the city council, lost her 1998 bid when it was a more Republican-friendly district. She lost her bid last year for lieutenant governor, but this time she has strong establishment backing and is prepared to spend close to $1 million.
“I’m working to get in the runoff,” Hahn said. “I’d really like to win the whole thing outright [in the primary], but I think with more candidates jumping in that will be more difficult.”