Two Democratic Party candidates are vying for the vacant seat representing Santa Monica (and inland communities like West Hollywood, Hollywood and Beverly Hills) in Sacramento come this fall: newly-drawn Assembly District 51, roughly replacing current AD-50, now represented by the retiring Richard Bloom.
One of the candidates, Rich Chavez Zbur, has racked up a hefty swath of endorsements — everyone from CA Governor Gavin Newsom to U.S. Representative Ted Lieu and many hundreds of other politicians, unions, political organizations and community leaders. Zbur is an environmental lawyer and LGBTQ+ advocate.
The other candidate is a relative unknown. Louis Abramson, who holds a PhD in astrophysics and has worked for UCLA, has gathered his own endorsements, albeit fewer and more obscure, including a number of community organizers and more than a couple astronomers.
One endorsement that neither of the candidates has yet secured is that of the Santa Monica Democratic Club (SMDC), which has been hosting a series of forums to meet candidates ahead of announcing its endorsements later this month. So far this year, the SMDC has hosted Democratic candidates for LA County Sheriff and LA County Supervisor.
On Wednesday, the club invited Zbur and Abramson to a debate on local issues ranging from homelessness and housing development to policing, transit, climate action and more.
Beyond key regional issues, many Santa Monica voters — especially left-leaning Democrats who make up a large portion of the city’s voting block — are concerned about the city’s waning relevance on the regional stage. Currently, a Santa Monican (Sheila Kuehl) holds one of the most powerful local seats in the country, representing Los Angeles County’s Third Supervisorial District; another Santa Monican (Richard Bloom) represents most of LA’s westside in the CA State Assembly.
With no local contenders for either vacancy, SMDC President Jon Katz has been asking candidates “why you think you’d be the best candidate to reflect our Santa Monica values.”
“I have a record of already representing Santa Monica values,” Zbur responded Wednesday, highlighting his work on marriage equality, minimum wage increases, health care for undocumented workers and criminal justice reform, amid a range of Democratic talking points.
Abramson said he has had his “boots on the ground” working to combat homelessness as a volunteer in Hollywood, where he lives.
“Santa Monica has great public transportation; you have great buses, great bike infrastructure,” Abramson said. “I am walking with literature to make sure LA has that same infrastructure.”
The two candidates shared many views, including on diversity and LGBTQ+ rights.
When it came to combating climate change, Zbur emphasized moving away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy including offshore wind farms and additional vehicle charging stations, saying, “We need to electrify everywhere.”
Abramson zeroed in on transit, which he said was the No. 1 carbon emitter in the state, and bemoaned the current system that makes residents reliant on personal vehicle use.
“The more public transit there is, the more people take it, and right now, a lot of people don’t take public transit because of the wait times,” Abramson said.
When it comes to homelessness, Zbur said most issues stem from the fact that homelessness is a larger issue than any one town, but right now the only ways to combat it are coming from municipalities.
“One of the problems that we actually have is the fact that this is, in some sense, a regional, state and a national problem, and we’re expecting local jurisdictions that don’t have the tools to address it, and they, you know, they have incentives to basically move unhoused people from one jurisdiction to another,” Zbur said. “We really need to think about the government structures here. I think we just need to admit that LAHSA [Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority] is a failure, and we need to work with the Governor and the new Mayor, to have a regional strategy where we’ve got accountability and goals.” Zbur added that he thinks the State should sponsor an AmeriCorps type volunteer program to help fight homelessness.
Ambramson said he felt key elements to fighting homelessness were preventing residents from falling into homelessness and providing affordable housing and wraparound services for people with serious mental illness.
“I really want to stress that I am a volunteer that does homeless services — that should not ever happen,” Abramson said. “I really do believe that we need to get more people involved in doing this, but I want to move away from laying this on the shoulders of volunteers. We need massive amounts more outreach personnel, and we need a lot more interim housing to get to their clients.”
When asked about housing targets in Santa Monica’s rejected housing element, Zbur said he would need to speak to local elected officials to get their take on revised targets, but added, “Generally, though, I think that, you know, we need to have aggressive targets in jurisdictions and if we don’t have aggressive targets, we’re not going to actually build the housing that we need.”
For his part, the scientist Abramson said he was not prepared to answer the question without knowing more about the physical constraints of the areas being developed, including plumbing and electricity.
“In an absolute number sense, I’m not prepared to answer the question because I don’t know the physics behind it,” Abramson said. “Once I learned that, I’d be happy to [respond], but again, this is how I balance these issues.”
SMDC plans to make its endorsements for the June primary during its April 27 meeting, which will also include a judicial candidate forum and an update from CA Senator Ben Allen.
*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated Abramson works for UCLA; he is not currently employed by the institution.