This is an expanded version of a story cross-posted at FrontiersLA.com
(Editor’s note: I’ve known Betsy Butler through West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran since 2008 during the fight against Prop 8. We’ve never had coffee or dined together, though we’ve occasionally spoken on the phone. Last year, when it appeared Equality California might change their long-standing policy of automatically endorsing good pro-equality incumbents if an LGBT person vied for the seat – I asked what kind of message that would send to EQCA’s straight allies. EQCA didn’t change its policy and endorsed EQCA board member Betsy Butler for re-election, but it’s a question I think the LGBT community should still tackle. – Karen Ocamb)
Assemblymember Betsy Butler seems always on the move. During the span of several days when Frontiers tried to interviewed her for longer than three minutes, she was walking precincts in the new 50th Assembly District, in the car driving to the airport to fly back to Sacramento after a gala at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in between committee hearings or late at night after several events.
In the June 5th Primary, Butler is running against lesbian community organizer Torie Osborn, Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom and gay Republican attorney Brad Torgan. Though several pundits have suggested that the Democratic candidates seeking to represent this progressive district are very much alike on policy issues, the differences in experience and leadership styles suggest they may be worlds apart in execution and enforcement of those polices.
Butler, who was born in Sacramento and graduated from San Diego State University and from the Executive Program in Management at UCLA, has spent her career working on environmental issues. She’s worked with the California League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Fund to develop carbon emission standard changes, water conservation and habitat protection policies. She also worked at the Department of Commerce on trade policy during the Clinton administration and worked with and learned a lot from California Lt. Governor Leo McCarthy. In 2006, Rep. Hilda Solis recognized Butler for her activism and commitment to working families. Butler has also raised tens of thousands of dollars as an Equality California board member, including during the heated battle over Prop 8.
Butler’s most important piece of legislation so far is her Toxin-Free Infants and Toddler Act, AB 1319, which will ban the use of Bisphenol-A (BPA) in baby bottles and sippy cups. Until the ban goes into effect, Butler is suggesting the use of sippy cups made in Mexico, which does not use the same toxins in manufacturing.
“I applaud Betsy Butler’s leadership in passing this landmark law to ban the toxic chemical BPA from products that are used by infants and toddlers every day,” says state Sen. Fran Pavley, who tried successfully to pass a similar bill for years. “Betsy’s unmatched tenacity and commitment has ensured that California children will finally be adequately protected from dangerous chemicals. Working together, Betsy and I overcame significant adversity from special interests to pass this law. Its success shows that Betsy Butler is among our most effective fighters for consumers, our environment and our children.”
Butler says such hard work is the sign of an incumbent – one of the criticisms leveled at Butler by Osborn, who believes the 50th AD is an open seat. Butler points out that both the California Democratic Party and the Secretary of State recognize her as the incumbent.
“How am I on the ballot as a member of the Assembly if I’m not the incumbent?” she asked rhetorically. The bottom line is – I’m in Sacramento, doing legislation.
This is what incumbency is. I’ve had to take hard votes in the last year that [Osborn’s] never had to take. I’d like to know how she’d vote on Diastat because she’s got two organizations spending $100,000 in mail to support her and they’re not supporting me because of one vote of mine.”
The difficult Diastat vote involves Senate Bill 161, authored by State Sen. Bob Huff (R-Walnut), that calls for volunteers to train in how to give emergency medication to nearly 94,000 children who suffer epilepsy and gran mal seizures. According to information on Huff’s website, “Diastat Acudial is a pre-dosed preparation of diazepam gel and is currently the only standard, out-of-hospital treatment that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to successfully treat prolonged seizures, in a fast and safe way. If not administered “within a matter of minutes following the onset of a seizure, children can begin to suffer severe brain damage and even death.”
“I had families coming in this office from February on with their children who were slumped over in their wheelchairs and it was like they were 18 when actually they were in their late 20s or 30s because they had a gran mal seizure and suffered from brain damage when they were six,” Butler said.
Her vote in favor of the bill cost her the endorsement of the California Nurses Association and the California Federation of Teachers who opposed the bill because they think it should be administered by nurses on campus. The two organizations – that previously supported Butler – now support Osborn.
“We need to get nurses back on campus. Absolutely, positively. But with all the cuts to schools, I don’t know when that is going to happen,” said Butler. “It’s more important that kids get this drug, in my personal point of view, until we have money to put nurses on campus. So for me, I don’t see a strong argument for the other side….I’d like to know how Torie would vote on this bill.”
Here are excerpts from several interviews with Butler for Frontiers before the June 5 Primary:
Osborn says Butler is very proud of being born and bred in Sacramento, as if she was born into what Osborn calls the Sacramento political “machine.” Osborn also says Butler and her family were lobbyists, prompting a laugh from Butler. “They’re making up the same lies as in my first race,” she said, suggesting Osborn’s campaign is using the playbook of former 53rd AD Republican Tea Party candidate Nathan Mintz.
Yes, I am very proud to have been born in this state. I was born and raised in Sacramento and I left when I was 18 to go to college and I never lived in Sacramento again until I got elected to the Assembly. I have had a very broad world vision. I have lived in Los Angeles for 24 years. I lived in Washington DC for 9 years. Yes, I lived my first 18 years of my life in Sacramento CA. I didn’t have a lot of control over that. My father was a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force Reserve and a banker – he worked for Security Pacific. My mother worked for the California Teachers Association as a supervisor for Region One, which is in Northern California down to Bakersfield.
No, I have never been a lobbyist. You have to be registered as a lobbyist to be a lobbyist. These are the exact arguments they used in my first race. They said I was a lobbyist and a lawyer – we played all that out to be not true.
I’m very proud of the people I’ve worked with – those elected officials, President Clinton and Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy. And I’m also very proud of the organizations I’ve worked for. Yes – I’ve worked very hard to get people elected who represent their interests – like the environment. California League of Conservation Voters works really hard to make sure people who are fighting for the environment are elected. I worked for the Environmental Defense Fund, which is purely an environmental policy organization – they don’t do any politics whatsoever. I worked for the Consumer Attorneys who were all about access to justice – so every human being has access to justice in a fair court system. They are also concerned that they are electing people who make sure that everyone has access to justice. So I’m not ashamed of any of that. They are phenomenal organizations.
They are the reason why – based on what I learned as a child from my parents who – even though my father was a huge Republican and my mom was a big Democrat – that first and foremost everyone should be represented and have a voice. My father was Grand Old Party Republican. He was not one of the Republicans of today. The Grand Old Party Republicans were fiscally conservative and socially liberal. My father told me when I was 16 – he said, “You can bring home anybody you want. If you love them, we’ll love them.” Now at the time, I didn’t realize what that really meant. But I certainly know that now.
My father said, “Don’t marry someone until you’ve lived with them for two years.” He was very ahead of his time. He also did not have a prejudiced bone in his body…because he served in the military. And every single person who is watching your back and is next to you and beside you is working with you to stay alive, no matter what your color, your sexual orientation. My dad didn’t care. So those were the values that were instilled in me as a child. I believe that all children are born as innocent, accepting people and it’s only who and what’s around them that makes them who they are when they become adults. My parents were very tolerant. Every night at the dinner table we talked about how important it was to vote, that politics were affecting our household and the greater population in general and what it means to be an American and how lucky you are. I was born on Flag Day! I’m named after Betsy Ross! I had a 12 x 25 American flag in my bedroom. That’s how committed he was to the Air Force and serving our country. Those are my family values.
Fighting Back: Osborn and her surrogates slam Butler as a “carpetbagger” and most recently in a mailer, a “progressive pretender” who “”over and over again … voted to cut billions in education funding.” Butler fought back with statements from Kathryn Lybarger, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299, which represents University of California workers, and others (see the L.A. Weekly) in which Lybarger compares Osborn to Karl Rove:
The mischaracterization of Assemblywoman Butler’s support of education was taken right out of Karl Rove’s Republican playbook. This swift boat attack is false, misleading and says nothing about the fact that Republicans were responsible for the cuts in this budget and refused to let voters decide on additional revenues. Assemblywoman Butler has been the legislature’s top educations ally.
Even Gov. Jerry Brown entered the fray, saying in a press release:
“Assemblywoman Betsy Butler has made the tough decisions we need to balance our budget, protect Democratic priorities, and get our state back on track,” Brown said. “That takes political courage and integrity, and Betsy Butler has both.”
To which Butler responded:
“I appreciate Governor Brown recognizing my efforts to help solve the deficit during these tough times while making sure that schools, seniors and our most vulnerable Californians have protections. Governor Brown knows what it’s like to face a well-funded opponent willing to do anything to win, so I am grateful he is helping set the record straight in this election. I will work very hard in my next term to continue representing my constituents with the courage and integrity they deserve in an Assemblymember.”
Butler was working on LGBT issues before Prop 8:
Before I even got on the board of Equality California, I was doing fundraising and walking in the halls for Equality California on Lobby Days. So when we got to marriage, it was like ‘Yeah.” I raised tens of thousands of dollars, I walked precincts, I made phone calls, I did everything.
Former Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors confirms this:
Betsy has been a true leader in the fight to win LGBT equality and to defeat Proposition 8. She has spoken at countless events, brought in endorsements and raised over $100,000 from numerous sources, including, during the Prop 8 campaign, many donors the No on 8 campaign didn’t have direct contacts with – such as the consumer attorneys and leaders in the environmental community. Betsy traveled to Sacramento and lobbied for numerous LGBT rights bills including marriage equality bills that passed in the years before and after Proposition 8 was on the ballot. She did so much without needing to be asked; for her winning marriage equality was a priority and she went out and did what needed to be done. In her first term in the legislature, Betsy continues her the fight for full equality and is the author of a critical bill to protect LGBT seniors.
Osborn’s campaign also noted that, though she is on the EQCA board, she didn’t carry any EQCA bills. Butler said she doesn’t know why they haven’t asked before – but EQCA’s Alice Kessler asked her to carry an EQCA bill this year and is working with LGBT Caucus member Ricardo Lara on an audit of all bullying-related laws.
We’re limited to how many bills we can do. I had 19 bills going into this session. Last year I carried 13. A lot depends on how much work you have to put into them. Last year, because I had BPA, I knew that was going to take a lot of work and my veterans’ bill – so I was going to be focused on making sure those happened – I didn’t want to take on too much. This year – 19 bills is a lot of bills
I am carrying bill on EQCA bill that Alice Kessler thought would be a great bill for me to carry. AB 1700 would change how tax reassessments are done on a house when a husband or wife dies to make sure the assessment is done fairly for same sex couples as for married people. This will especially impact same sex surviving seniors who are at risk of losing the home they built with their partner by having to pay discriminatory property taxes.
EQCA Communications director Rebekah Orr explains Butler’s audit request:
Betsy is the co-requester (along with Lara) on our request to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to survey every school district in the state and conduct an audit to evaluate compliance with anti-bullying legislation previously backed by EQCA and others. As you know, we have passed a number of bills related to school safety, but those laws are only as good as the implementation and enforcement of them at the local district level. Some districts are doing a great job and may serve as models for implementation for school districts around the state. Others are not meeting their obligations to keep LGBT youth safe–whether willfully or because of a lack of proper resources or training–and need to be held accountable for complying with the law. The audit will help identify these compliance issues and result in a report with recommendations for ensuring compliance.
Last year, Gov. Brown signed six bills authored and carried by Butler, including BPA. This year bills she’s working on include: lifting the elder gag rule when someone sues or settles with a nursing home; preventing moving companies from stealing by having them licensed and registered with the Better Business Bureau so contracts can be checked and verified; ensuring that Cal OSHA makes sure farm workers have the same protections the law provides animals – to have adequate water and shade nearby– 24 people have died in temperatures that have reached 108 degrees with water and shade a 20 minute walk away.
Butler is also carrying an AIDS Healthcare Foundation provider-reimbursement bill; a domestic violence bill; and three bills to help veterans, including one focused on keeping vets out of the correctional system through help with mental health issues such as PTSD, addiction, and anger management, as well as helping vets go back to school on the GI Bill.
Comments from supporters:
Openly gay Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, who has been the target of many of Osborn’s “machine” attacks, said he is not taking the attacks seriously:
They’re completely shallow efforts by a candidate just to draw attention to themselves and some of the folks when they make those same attacks when they’re in office they say something completely different so it’s nothing more than shallow campaigning.
Regarding Osborn’s securing the Democratic club endorsements:
She did it within the rules of the clubs. People don’t have to like it. That’s why clubs re-evaluate their rules from time to time. I remember in 1994, when we first elected Sheila [Kuehl]. People did the same kind of shenanigans but they were able to buy membership up to the last day. Didn’t hurt us in that race – hurt us in other races. But unfortunately, that’s just part of the reality of how clubs operate and she operated within the rules.
His assessment of the race:
Betsy’s going to be fine. But Republicans are loving the idea of people challenging a Democratic incumbent who’s got a phenomenal progressive track record both in office and prior to being in office. And quite frankly, when you look at this – there’s not a single issue that somebody would take with the way Betsy’s represented her constituency in Sacramento. So Republicans are salivating to see us do this. And this is the unintended consequence – quite frankly, possibly the intended consequences of the Top Two primary. There are 20 districts throughout the state where there’s the potential of having Democrat-on-Democrat races. Only two where people have actually done this to an incumbent. There are only two districts where Republicans have the same vulnerability. So this is a distraction that Republicans are enjoying watching.
Openly gay LGBT Caucus member Assemblymember Ricardo Lara on Butler and Osborn:
I think Torie’s allegations [about Betsy] are completely laughable. And it’s indicative of the campaign she’s been running. I think instead of spreading rumors and being divisive, she should focus on running her campaign. The truth is – Betsy has proven to be a very effective leader within our Assembly Democratic Caucus. I just need to point out her BPA bill and taking on major, major opposition from the various industries that were opposing the bill. And she was able to handily get that through and as a freshman member.
That’s just one of many hurdles she’s been able to overcome in the Legislature. And the fact is – she is well-liked and she has grown to be a good friend to many members, me in particularly. I didn’t know Betsy before she got elected and she quickly became an ally through my work on behalf of English-language learner students, on behalf of immigrant rights and of course, needless to say, on behalf of LGBT issues. She’s one of our biggest champions.
She’s lead the way, in terms of having other allies – in terms of members, and help our LGBT Caucus move our agenda forward. So that cannot be taken lightly. So I support Betsy 100% and I support her positive campaign. And it’s unfortunate that other candidates aren’t sticking to the facts and are relegating the campaign to rumors and what we call in Spanish “chisme” – Spanish for “gossip.”
I’ve never participated in a campaign on the Westside before but it’s surprising to see how much lies and negative campaigning goes on there. It’s really unfortunate because at the end of the day, people just want to talk about the issues. Our state is in dire need of folks like Betsy that are getting things done and not focused on petty gossip and these allegations. Let’s focus on who’s delivered in the Assembly and that’s Betsy Butler. She’s got a trajectory of delivering for the people of California and that’s what she’s focused on and that’s why I support her and I’m going to work hard to make sure she gets re-elected.
Openly gay LGBT Caucus member Sen. Mark Leno:
I have great admiration for incumbent Assemblymember Betsy Butler whom I have endorsed for her re-election.