By Gary Walker
No other political body in California wields as much power with as little oversight as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
The board’s five members represent 10 million people and control a county budget of more than $26 billion, including $3.4 million for each member’s office staff and discretionary spending, according to county reports. They oversee county health, public works, fire and sheriff’s departments as well as the foster care and juvenile probation systems, control residential and commercial development in unincorporated areas and sit on the MTA board.
For the first time since term limits were set for the office in 2002, supervisors are terming out of what used to be regarded as a lifelong job.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose third district includes Venice and Santa Monica, must leave office in November after 12 years on the board.
Now eight hopefuls are vying to take over the seat — and the $181,292 annual salary that goes with it — in the June 3 primary election.
Six of them have confirmed their attendance on Monday at a candidates forum sponsored by The Argonaut.
For most observers, the contest boils down to a horserace between two well-known Santa Monica politicians with the ability to raise significant campaign war chests — former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl and former Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver, nephew of President John F. Kennedy.
Kuehl, 73, had raised about $630,000 for the race as of March 17, the most recent campaign finance report available.
Shriver, who turns 60 this week, raised about $547,000 and kicked in an additional $300,000 of his own money.
The two other candidates with legislative experience are West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran, a civil rights lawyer who bills himself a “fiscal moderate,” and former Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich, also an attorney.
Duran has raised $44,000 and Conley Ulich has taken in $2,000.
Other candidates have not reported significant fundraising and include: Los Angeles resident Yuval Kremer, a tutor; North Hollywood resident Rudy Melendez, a Hollywood lighting technician; Eric Preven, a former television producer; and environmental activist Douglas Fay of Santa Monica.
Conley Ulich, 47, has denounced the role of money in politics and says she is using social media to offset the financial advantage that Kuehl, Shriver and even Duran have on her.
Fay recognizes that his chances of winning are slim to none.
“It’s going to take a miracle,” he said. “It’s a long shot because I don’t have the money that candidates like Shelia Kuehl and Bobby Shriver do.”
Despite its importance, debate surrounding the race has so far been relatively tame, though Kuehl and Shriver have traded barbs about the financing of their campaigns.
Shriver, who has worked as an attorney, journalist and film producer, has rejected voluntary campaign spending limits. The decision limits donations directly to his campaign but not to independent expenditure committees, which are prohibited from coordinating directly with candidates.
Kuehl has made Shriver’s ability to fund his own candidacy a talking point throughout the campaign.
“It’s very difficult to run against a person who can self-finance,” she said.
Shriver did not return calls for this story, but previously complained on radio that “I haven’t had the long-term name recognition that some others have had,” presumably referring to Kuehl.
Kuehl was a member of the California Legislature for 14 years, where she represented Santa Monica, Malibu and a western portion of the San Fernando Valley.
Shriver’s donor list, however, includes high-profile entertainment figures such as film directors Jerry Bruckheimer and Rob Reiner, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg and former Playa Vista Capital President Steve Soboroff.
Kuehl’s donors include attorneys, public employee unions and environmental organizations. A former child actress in the 1960s, Kuehl has also received contributions from the film industry.
Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based political consultant, said the ability to self-finance is a part of the political process and in some cases a necessary component of political campaigns.
“Without money, you’re mute,” said Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant who publishes the California Target Book, a nonpartisan political guidebook of state politics. “I think most people prefer that a candidate use their own money to money that comes from special interest groups.”
Then again, there’s the Meg Whitman effect. Whitman spent millions of her own money on the 2010 California gubernatorial campaign but was trounced at the polls by Gov. Jerry Brown.
“In California, people are much more discerning than in other states,” Kuehl said.
While it appears she is being outspent by Shriver, Kuehl said she is making up the difference by communicating face-to-face with voters.
“It means that you have to work a little harder to get your message out and it puts you in direct contact with more voters,” Kuehl said.
With competitive races for Congress, state Senate and state Assembly happening concurrently on the Westside, Hoffenblum said it appears Westside voters could have a larger say in the election of Yaroslavsky’s replacement than other parts of the district.
“I think the Westside could have much more of an impact than, say, the [San Fernando] Valley,” he said. “There does seem to be more interest in the Westside races.”
The Argonaut’s L.A. County Board of Supervisors Third District Candidates Forum takes place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Mar Vista Middle School Auditorium, 2224 Walgrove Ave., Mar Vista. Call (310) 822-1629 for information.