Pro-Biz California Democrats Emerging?

FEB. 21, 2012


The intent of California political redistricting has been to attract more centrist candidates who might reduce the notorious political dysfunction in the state Legislature. A candidate has entered the race for the newly created State Assembly District No. 41, centered in Pasadena, who may signal just such a shift in the Democratic Party.

Victoria Rusnak, a 43-year-old owner of 11 auto dealerships, a lawyer and an environmentalist, doesn’t meet the stereotype of a Democrat, or a Republican for that matter.  Rusnak is a late entrant into the race, which already has two Democratic Party candidates and a Republican Tea Party candidate.

Rusnak formerly worked for the Sierra Club legal defense team, for a Washington D.C.-based gun control group called Ceasefire and for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.  She apparently knows how government works as well as how to run a chain of auto dealerships with more than 700 employees.  Rusnak took over the running of the dealerships founded by her father, Paul Rusnak.  Rusnak’s platform is “a new approach to running things,” focusing on the economy and job creation.

Under Proposition 14, the top two vote getters in the primary election will proceed to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. If the top two vote getters in the primary are Rusnak and a fellow Democrat, the Tea Party vote, normally Republican, could shift to her.

The realignment of registered voters for the newly formed Assembly District 41 looks like this:

Assembly District No. District No. 44 District No. 41
Democrat 46.5 percent 43 percent Minus 3.5 Pct.
Republican 26.8 percent 33.7 percent Plus 6.9 Pct.
Other 22.5 percent 18.9 percent Minus 3.6 Pct.
Net Change to Majority Party Minus 0.2 Pct.

Source: California Citizen’s Redistricting Commission 

Rusnak Challenging Democratic Party-Machine Candidates

Rusank will be challenging Democratic Party machine candidate Chris Holden.  Holden is a current termed-out city councilman in Pasadena and the son of Nate Holden, a long-term Los Angeles City councilman and State Assemblyperson from South Central Los Angeles.

Holden has been the beneficiary of gerrymandering – the geographic configuring of political districts to gain an advantage.

Holden has already been endorsed by the California Democratic Party and has a reported war chest of $255,000.

The other Democratic Party candidate for Assembly District No. 41 is Michael Cacciotti, a South Pasadena city councilman and attorney with the State Department of Justice and a member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

But Cacciotti has recently lost his campaign manager, Ramon Miramontes, to none other than Victoria Rusnak after she threw her hat into the race. Miramontes is a member of the Pasadena Board of Education. So Rusnak has already stolen the campaign manager of one Democratic Party candidate and established a foothold in the local Hispanic community. 

Tea Party Dilemma?

Republican Donna Lowe, founder of the Tea Party in nearby Claremont, has announced she will run against Democrats Rusnak, Holden and Cacciotti.  If she fails to make the runoff election, Tea Party voters may end up voting for Rusnak, given her pro-jobs platform.

However, if Rusnak and Lowe end up the two run off candidates, then it would eliminate both political insiders within the majority Democratic Party, Holden and Cacciotti. Whoever wins under such a scenario would not be either an incumbent or majority party candidate previously elected elsewhere.

This might signal the end of the Democratic Party nomenklatura — a select list or class of people from which appointees for top-level government positions are drawn especially by unions in California.

Incumbent Portantino Termed Out and Pushed Out 

Whoever wins the race for Assembly District No. 41 will replace incumbent Anthony Portantino, who is both termed out of office and pushed out of his old district by redistricting.  Portantino has no district to run in unless he moves into one of the newly created districts along with his $900,000 political war chest.

Despite portraying himself as a “political maverick,” Portantino has voted nearly a straight party ticket in his four years in office. He voted No on just 3 percent of bills advanced in the Assembly in the 2011 legislative session:

YES — 1,296
NO — 43

Portantino’s major financial contributors have been unions, the liquor industry, Indian tribes, lawyers, lobbyists, gambling and casinos. And his largest individual contributions are from the California Faculty Association (professors), the Professional Engineers in California Government, the District Council of Ironworkers, the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California and Pacific Gas and Electric.

Would Rusnak Vote Differently?

Whether Rusnak would pose a threat to these special interests remains to be seen.  If she is going to be just another hackneyed member of the status quo, there will be little real change in the state’s political dysfunction.

A revealing question to ask Rusnak might be if she would support re-opening oil leases in the Santa Barbara Channel, the revenues from which would go toward maintaining roads and bridges?  If California needs jobs and increased tax revenues, re-opening dormant oil leases off the California coastline might meet Rusnak’s platform of a “new approach to running things.” 

Why Auto Dealerships Died in Pasadena 

New Assembly District No. 41 includes Pasadena, which lost three auto dealerships after the Mortgage Meltdown and Bank Panic of 2008.  Auto dealerships are the most lucrative tax generators for local governments.

But it wasn’t the economic downturn that solely caused the three Pasadena auto dealerships to close.  Rather, it was failure of auto dealers to relocate adjacent to the new 210-Freeway after the western segment was completed in 1976.  Those auto dealers that remained along Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena — the famed route of the annual Rose Parade — mostly died for lack of freeway exposure.  The Housing Bubble artificially kept them alive for three decades.  But poor locations and bad management resulted in their ultimate closing when the economy collapsed.

Another contributing factor in the closure of auto dealerships in Pasadena was the failure of city planners to re-zone enough land to commercial use along the new 210-Freeway after 1976.

The Rusnak auto dealerships have been able to weather the lack of freeway exposure because they cater to a niche market of upscale autos: Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes Benz, Porsche, Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Volvo.

The nearby City of Arcadia stripped its redevelopment agency of the power of eminent domain to condemn more land for the Rusnak dealership in their city due to the popularity of a local mom and pop restaurant — “Rod’s Grill” — located on adjacent land.  Eventually, Rusnak was able to buy two acres of nearby land for expansion without having to use eminent domain.

Would Rusnak desire to restore redevelopment agencies that have been shut down by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature?  Or would she advocate re-opening redevelopment agencies at the expense of robbing property taxes from public schools?  There are no solutions in public policy, only tradeoffs.

Affordable Housing or Auto Dealerships?

One of the reasons that not enough land along the 210 Freeway was zoned for residential use, rather than commercial, is the State of California’s affordable housing mandate.  California requires each city to file a Housing Element, including zoning land for affordable housing. What California’s so-called affordable housing law does is require the building of brand new affordable housing rather than counting older housing stock as affordable.  Affordable housing mandates are a way that local communities get around NIMBY resistance — “Not In My Back Yard!”

Pasadena built out more than 1,000 units of new housing in its downtown commercial core since 2003, but lost three auto dealerships due to lack of enough commercial-zoned land along the 210 Freeway.  If public policy is going to shift toward jobs creation, then perhaps the misplaced priority on luxury affordable housing will have to be questioned.  Would a candidate like Rusnak be serious enough to take on the affordable housing lobby in the Legislature?

The city of Pasadena has an updated Housing Element and is compliant with its state affordable housing mandate. But the Business Element of its General Plan hasn’t been updated since 1987.  It is no surprise that Pasadena, and California, can’t find policies to generate more jobs.

Pasadena is in the process of developing a new Economic Development Strategic Plan that has been neglected for decades. But most of the commercial land has already been gobbled up for new housing due to the State’s Affordable Housing mandates.  There is little land left not only for auto dealerships but also for any re-industrialization.  You would think that cities like Pasadena had learned a lesson that it over-invested in housing in the last decade. Instead, it has recently reaffirmed its support for continuation of inclusionary housing.

Gerrymandering for Jobs, Not Politicians

Gerrymandering has been humorously defined as a process where “politicians get to pick their constituents rather than the other way around, which is the opposite of democracy.”   Will the new gerrymandering in California end the process where politicians get to dilute democracy?

Will a new political class of Democratic Party centrists arise?  Follow the race of Victoria Rusnak in new Assembly District No. 41 to find out.

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