California 30: Scuffle for Schiff’s Seat

by Jacob Rubashkin March 9, 2023 · 3:37 PM EST

When Los Angeles Democrat Adam Schiff announced his Senate bid last month, he became an instant frontrunner in the race to replace long-time incumbent Dianne Feinstein. And while the contours of that battle royale have already taken shape — with fellow Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee rounding out the field — the fight for Schiff’s old territory in the 30th District is just beginning.

A number of prominent Democrats have already announced bids for the seat, and several more could join them over the next year. But given the district’s extreme Democratic lean, it’s possible that California’s all-party primary system will produce a general election contest between two Democrats. So the final outcome could be uncertain until November of next year.

The Lay of the Land
The 30th District sits entirely within Los Angeles County. It includes all of Glendale, Burbank, and West Hollywood, as well as several City of Los Angeles neighborhoods including Hollywood, Sunland-Tujunga, Edendale, Silverlake, and Echo Park.

Most of the district’s votes come from the City of Los Angeles, which cast 58 percent of the votes in the 2022 general election. Glendale accounted for 19 percent, Burbank accounted for 15 percent, and West Hollywood for 7 percent, with the balance coming from Pasadena. 

By population, the district is 56 percent White, 23 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Asian, and 5 percent Black, with concentrations of Hispanic residents in Hollywood and East Hollywood. The district is also home to a significant Armenian-American population; roughly 15 percent of residents report Armenian ancestry (compared to 0.5 percent nationwide). 

Politically, the district is heavily Democratic. In 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom carried it, 75-25 percent, while Sen. Alex Padilla won it, 77-23 percent. In 2020, Joe Biden would have won it, 72-26 percent. 

The Democrats
Eight Democrats have announced bids for the seat so far: former L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, state Rep. Laura Friedman, state Sen. Anthony Portantino, Los Angeles Board of Education member Nick Melvoin, West Hollywood Mayor Sepi Shyne, Silver Lake Neighborhood Councilmember/2022 House candidate Maebe A. Girl, actor Ben Savage, and software developer Joshua Bocanegra. 

Feuer, 64, was Los Angeles’ top lawyer from 2013 to 2022, and before that served six years in the California state Assembly (2006 to 2012) and seven years as a Los Angeles city councilman (1994 to 2001). The Harvard (1980; J.D. in 1982) graduate most recently ran for Los Angeles mayor, but dropped out before the primary. That was the second electoral defeat of his career — he had previously lost the 2001 race for City Attorney narrowly, 52-48 percent.

But Feuer’s decision to drop out of that race could give him a boost now. He endorsed eventual winner Karen Bass for mayor, helping the progressive congresswoman consolidate support against former Republican Rick Caruso. Now Bass has endorsed Feuer’s campaign for Congress.

Feuer’s campaign team includes general consultant John Shallman of Shallman Communications, who is also handling direct mail. The media consultant is Mark Putnam of Putnam Partners. The campaign has not yet hired a pollster but Feuer has previously worked with EMC Research and FM3.

Portantino, 62, currently serves in the state Senate. His 25th District overlaps with the 30th Congressional District in Glendale, Burbank, and the Sunland Tujunga neighborhood in Los Angeles, though he lives just outside the 30th District (not a legal barrier to running). A state senator since 2016, Portantino previously served as a state assemblyman from 2006 to 2012, and La Cañada city councilman from 1999 to 2006. 

The Albright College graduate (1983) works in film production, and had a career as an art director and production designer that included work on several movies and TV shows.

Unlike the other competitors, Portantino already has access to a federal campaign account. In 2011, Portantino explored a run for Congress against then-Rep. David Dreier, a Republican. While redistricting scuttled his plans (and those of Dreier, who retired) he still has $180,000 in a campaign account he is able to draw from immediately. 

Friedman, 56, represents the 43rd state Assembly district, which includes all of Glendale and Burbank as well as the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Park neighborhoods of Los Angeles. She took office in 2016, after seven years on the Glendale City Council.

The University of Rochester graduate (1988) had a career as a film executive prior to public service, and has production credits on five films released in the 1990s. 

Friedman’s campaign team includes general consultant Parke Skelton of SG&A Strategies. Skelton’s firm, which also works with Schiff, is handling direct mail and media production. Goodwin Simon Strategic Research will conduct the polling.

Melvoin, 37, has served on the LA school board since 2017, when he defeated the incumbent board president while running on a pro-charter platform. The Harvard (2008), Loyola Marymount (a masters in education in 2010) and New York University (a J.D. in 2014) graduate worked briefly as a teacher in L.A. through Teach for America after college. His father is Emmy Award-winning TV showrunner Jeff Melvoin, who was the executive producer of Designated Survivor and also won multiple Golden Globe awards for Northern Exposure.

Melvoin’s campaign team includes general consultants Mike Trujillo and Bill Burton of Bryson Gillette (who will handle media and direct mail) and pollster Amy Levin of Benenson Strategy.

Shyne, 46, has been a member of the West Hollywood city council since 2020, and currently serves as mayor (a rotating position among the board). Born in Iran, Shyne and her family fled to the U.S. in the 1980s. The San Jose State University graduate (1999) has a law degree from Golden Gate University (2002) and practices as a lawyer as well as a Reiki-trained energy healer. 

Maebe A. Girl (also known as G. Pudlo) is a 36-year-old drag queen and member of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. This is her third run for Congress. She previously ran against Schiff in 2020, placing third in the primary with 12 percent, and again in 2022, when she advanced to the general election against Schiff but lost, 71-29 percent.

Savage, 42, is best known for his starring role on sitcom Boy Meets World in the 1990s. This is the Stanford (2004) graduate’s second foray into electoral politics. Last year he ran for a seat on the West Hollywood City Council, placing seventh out of twelve candidates with 6 percent of the vote.

The Primary
California has consolidated all of its primaries into one date, which will be March 5, 2024 (Super Tuesday in the presidential primaries). 

Though the field is expansive, there are at most four, and perhaps just three, contenders with the political base and ability to raise money to compete seriously, say California Democratic strategists watching the race: Feuer, Friedman, Portantino, and potentially Melvoin.

Melvoin is the youngest of the bunch, and has the least political experience; school board-to-Congress is a less common path, and he begins with less of a voter base than the three other major candidates. But he has assembled a network of wealthy donors, through his family and education connections, and his allies hope that by flexing early financial muscle he can attract more attention and ultimately, support. 

Given how expensive and saturated the Los Angeles media market is, a candidate’s ability to fundraise will be critical to their success. One strategist working on a campaign estimated their candidate would need between $1.5 and $2 million to make it out of the primary. Another operative on a different campaign estimated higher, at $2 to $3 million.

Friedman could benefit from her status as the only woman in the race’s top tier, though at the moment that distinction doesn’t look like it will come with financial support from groups such as EMILY’s List, for whom this race is a lower priority.

Friedman’s allies also believe she begins with a geographic advantage as the only major candidate from the Glendale/Burbank portion of the district. Feuer lives in Hollywood Hills, and prior to being elected citywide represented West Hollywood and Hancock Park. But Melvoin’s school district includes those same areas (though he doesn’t live there) and Shyne is from West Hollywood as well. So is Savage, but his seventh-place finish for local office has strategists skeptical he’ll be much of a factor in this race (despite the national coverage his bid has already attracted).

Portantino may have a slight geographic disadvantage. While his state Senate district includes Burbank and Glendale, his base of political support is also in Pasadena, nearly none of which is in the 30th. He did, however, roll out his campaign with a raft of local officials from Burbank who endorsed him.

Portantino, whose early messaging focuses on his long legislative career, particularly his support for the state’s entertainment tax credit and public schools, also has strong support from the district’s Armenian community. He secured an early endorsement from the Armenian National Committee of America — Western Region. For Portantino, leveraging Armenian support could be especially important against Friedman, who in 2017 defeated a fellow Democrat, Ardy Kassakhian, who was backed by the Armenian-American political establishment.

Feuer, meanwhile, has deep ties to the district’s Jewish community dating back to his time leading Bet Tzedek, a public interest nonprofit law firm, in the 1980s. His old city council district was significantly Jewish, and his high-profile role protesting Trump’s 2017 Muslim ban earned him praise from Jewish groups.

The former city attorney is also expected to lean heavily on his lengthy political experience and the large portfolio of issues he has worked on since first winning office in 1994. Feuer will style himself as the natural successor to Schiff in terms of his depth of legal knowledge and his fights against the Trump administration. To that end he’s assembled a bevy of endorsements from current members of the delegation such as Reps. Julia Brownley, Salud Carbajal, Mark DeSaulnier, and Jimmy Gomez.

Overall, strategists say there isn’t much ideological daylight between the top-tier candidates, but that their issue focuses are different. Melvoin is prioritizing education. Feuer is a longtime gun control advocate who wrote several pieces of firearms legislation while in the state Assembly. Friedman has deep ties to environmental groups, and when the MeToo movement swept through Sacramento, Friedman put in a well-regarded term as the chairwoman of the state legislature’s Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response subcommittee. 

Friedman is also making a play for the district’s more progressive voters, and is touting an endorsement from LA City Councilwoman Nithya Raman, a Democratic Socialist from Silver Lake. But she’ll have competition for those voters from Shyne, the West Hollywood mayor, and one strategist cautioned to not underestimate Maebe A. Girl’s ability to win some of the most ideologically left voters in the district. In her 2022 run against Schiff, she secured endorsements from Ground Game LA and the L.A. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which have robust organizing networks.

Multiple strategists say that housing policy will be at the forefront of the race, given the high cost of living and prevalence of homelessness in Los Angeles. Friedman in particular looks likely to lean into being pro-development, and her allies say she may target Portantino’s opposition to a 2019 bill (SB 50), though Portantino has since been called a “Housing Champion” by the California YIMBY group.

Another issue that could receive significant attention is charter schools. Both Friedman and Melvoin were supported in previous bids for office by wealthy charter school backers. In 2017, charter groups spent $6.6 million to support Melvoin in the most expensive school board race in American history. Similar groups spent more than $1 million supporting Friedman against Kassakhian.

Several California strategists caution that charter school groups such as the California Charter Schools Association Advocates would not get involved in federal races. But the donors behind those groups, such as Netflix founder Reed Hastings, investor John Scully, and businessman/2012 congressional candidate Bill Bloomfield, could spend on the race themselves.

In addition to potential financial impact, the charter issue could be a political cudgel for other candidates. While Friedman has taken steps to distance herself from charter interests by touting her high score from the California Teachers Association union and their endorsement of her in 2022, Melvoin could be more susceptible to those attacks.

His allies, though, say he can both use his battle against the unions as an appeal to more moderate voters and even some Republicans, while appealing to the most progressive voters by pointing to his part in the school board’s decision to slash $25 million from its police budget and reallocate it to a program for Black students.

Feuer will have to contend with lingering suspicion regarding a sprawling federal investigation into L.A.’s Department of Water and Power. Feuer’s office was raided by the FBI in 2019, and several of his deputies pleaded guilty to crimes, but Feuer himself was not under investigation as of August 2022. 

The General Election
Because all candidates run in the same primary, and the top-two vote getters advance to the general election regardless of party, it’s possible that two Democrats ultimately face off in November, with Republicans shut out of the process.

That’s what happened last year, when four minor GOP candidates combined for just 21.2 percent in the primary. The best-performing Republican, Ronda Kennedy, won just 8.5 percent, placing third overall. She is running again.

In 2022, Republican candidates averaged a combined 21 percent across the nine statewide primaries within the 30th District. In the gubernatorial race, the eventual GOP nominee actually placed third, behind Newsom and a Green Party candidate, with just 7.4 percent.

The counterpoint: with so many Democrats running, if a single Republican can consolidate close to all of the GOP votes, there is a path to the general election with a share in the mid-to-high teens. But open seats attract lots of candidates, and heavily Democratic seats aren’t appealing to the kinds of GOP contenders who can clear fields easily. 

The Bottom Line
There’s still a long way to go in this race. The filing deadline is not until December 8. In such an expensive and saturated media market, candidates who can’t raise the resources to compete or rely on outside backers to support them may feel pressured to drop out of the race entirely. And a self-funder from the wealthy area could always jump in later and shake things up. Several strategists involved in the race expect that to happen, though there aren't specific hopefuls laying the groundwork yet.

With a narrow Republican majority, the House majority is on the line in 2024. But while this race won’t be a part of that discussion, in a closely divided chamber every individual member matters.