When Terry B. Friedman and Burt M. Margolin became college chums in 1970, their friendship was cemented by an intense interest in politics. Both were leaders in the California Federation of Young Democrats. Both had liberal Jewish backgrounds. And both spoke of becoming politicians one day.
Margolin realized his goal in 1982, when he was elected to the Assembly. Observers say Friedman is likely to follow him in November, thanks to the backing of a powerful and controversial Democratic alliance that grew out of those early years.
The alliance is known as the Berman-Waxman organization. It wields considerable influence in Westside and San Fernando Valley politics. And Margolin, a leader, played a pivotal role in securing its support for Friedman when 43rd District Assemblyman Gray Davis dropped out of the race on March 7.
"I was immediately for Terry," said Margolin (D-Los Angeles), who described himself and Friedman as best friends since their UCLA days. "He has a long history of commitment, so it was easy to make the case on his behalf."
The 36-year-old Friedman, who has never run for office before, was also well known to other leaders of the political coalition.
'Obvious Choice' for Backing
Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) have been close to Friedman since their college days. Waxman said Friedman, who serves as director of the Fairfax-based Bet Tzedek Legal Services, was an "obvious choice" for the endorsement.
"Some of us have known him since his days at UCLA," Waxman said in a telephone interview from Washington, "and he's greatly admired."
The 43rd District, which includes Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Brentwood, Encino, Sherman Oaks and Studio City, is considered a Democratic stronghold. Howard Berman held the seat for 10 years before moving on to Congress. Davis was his successor. Politicians covet the seat because of its high-profile constituency and because of its fund-raising potential. Davis collected more than $1 million in campaign funds as the 43rd District representative, second only to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.
The fact that Friedman, an owlish public-interest lawyer who drives a 9-year-old Toyota, is widely considered the front-runner for the seat so early in the race says a lot about Berman-Waxman, a coalition of progressive Democrats known for sophisticated, well-financed and successful campaigns.
"Every candidate in the race would have wanted their endorsement," Friedman said. "I have been fortunate enough to receive it."
Berman-Waxman critics agree that Friedman is fortunate. But many are seething over the choice. Some Assembly Democrats have complained that Berman-Waxman stepped in with an endorsement too soon after Davis' sudden departure, leaving other prospective candidates insufficient time to organize bids for support. Others have questioned the choice of Friedman, who is unknown to many legislators outside of the Westside-San Fernando Valley area.
Jim Blatt, a leader of the San Fernando Valley Democratic Club, said his organization was not consulted. He called Berman-Waxman a "Westside" group. "Members of the San Fernando Valley don't appreciate others making decisions for them," Blatt said, "especially the Westside."
Friedman's two opponents in the June 3 Democratic primary are also critical of Berman-Waxman's election endorsement. Bruce Margolin (no relation to Burt Margolin) and Rosemary Woodlock, who are both attorneys, said the organization is attempting to anoint Friedman as Davis' successor before the vote.
Bruce Margolin called the endorsement inappropriate and unfair. "We expect our politicians to represent us," he said. "We don't expect them to choose who will fill an open seat."
Added Woodlock: "I don't think Mr. Friedman would be in the race if it weren't for the Berman-Waxman machine."
They have also accused Friedman of moving into the 43rd District too late to meet residency requirements. Friedman denied the charge, and the secretary of state's office backed him up last week. But Woodlock said she will take her case to court this week in an effort to force Friedman out of the race.
Woodlock said Friedman is a 43rd District "carpetbagger."
Friedman and others, however, contend that he is well established in the community as the head of Bet Tzedek, a $1.6-million-a-year nonprofit agency that provides free legal advice to the poor, elderly and disabled. As director of the agency since 1978, Friedman has worked with many of the Westside-San Fernando Valley legislators now backing him. He has also supported their campaigns.
"Terry Friedman has paid his dues," said Santa Monica City Councilman Alan Katz. "He has been a part of the . . . community for years. He is not just earning people's support because of the Berman-Waxman endorsement."
"On the basis of what he has done for the community, I think he would make a very good legislator," said Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica).