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Democrats Battle Over a Safe Seat in Congress

Jane Harman and her primary challenger, Marcy Winograd, go head to head over war, peace and the direction the party should take.

May 24, 2006|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

Could this be -- hang on -- an election fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, a spirited thrust by the antiwar movement into the backyard of Southern California's defense industry to define just what shade of blue is blue enough these days in confronting the prolonged conflict of Iraq?

Or is it merely a distraction while Democrats here and across America await the November elections to see if they can capitalize on voter discontent and reclaim Congress?

In beach communities between Venice and San Pedro, a Democratic congressional primary has residents wondering: Has a sleeper race emerged right in front of them? Or are they witnessing only boisterous daydreaming by those who have polished up their peace symbols and want to move from street protest to the floor of Congress?

Democratic Party voters who live along this strip of the coast will settle things June 6, choosing between veteran congressional powerhouse Rep. Jane Harman of Venice and upstart English teacher Marcy Winograd, who moved into a Marina del Rey apartment from her home in Pacific Palisades to be a resident of the district for the election.

The 36th Congressional District is so solidly Democratic that the GOP hardly pays it any mind. Two years ago the district went 59% to 40% for John Kerry over George Bush. Jane Harman supported Kerry; Marcy Winograd was a volunteer activist who worked to get out the Kerry vote.

Then, you'll remember, Democrats nationwide lapsed into a loser's funk, wondering where to go next.

Winograd sided with those who called for a left turn to the party's supposed roots. Harman assumed what she said was the pragmatist's role in opposition to Republican control of Washington. Since then, the intraparty quarrel has receded from headlines. Bush's declining popularity provided a unity blanket for Democrats, who answered their own question about where to go by going after him.

But that didn't settle things here, not in this crazy-quilt congressional district that takes in a chunk of Los Angeles' liberal Westside, Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach as well as working-class San Pedro and, in between, the aerospace and defense belt of Torrance and part of Carson.

Winograd, a onetime "L.A. Democrat of the year," the president of the Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles and the daughter of lifelong peace activists, embraced the antiwar cause. In turn, the cause embraced her.

If she has her way, the upcoming vote will be a referendum on the war in Iraq and whether to pull out now.

Nonsense, says Harman, who has become a high-profile spokeswoman for House Democrats on national security matters by virtue of being the ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee. It's a race about experience, not protest.

Idealism versus realism? In the argument about the meaning of being a Democrat in 2006, nothing is so charged as one's choice of words and language. Both of these candidates are "progressives," as they describe themselves. Both agree on equal rights for gays and lesbians, both support abortion rights, both emphasize environmental protection. Indeed, both pretty much agree on what's important in this primary, wherein the victor becomes the odds-on favorite in the November finale.

They part, however, on the essential question of how Democrats should confront U.S. engagement in Iraq.

Winograd: "My exit strategy is this: We announce a pull-out. Starting tomorrow. Region by region ... then we support reconstruction."

Harman: "I don't know a living Democrat anywhere who supports the president when he says, 'Stay the course.' " But, she adds, "despite colossal postwar planning failures, we have a moral obligation to leave the country in better shape than we found it, with a stable government and adequately trained security forces."

Winograd says she will refuse campaign contributions from the district's defense and aerospace industry except from companies engaged in "peace or alternative energy conversion," perhaps a symbolic stance since she could expect to receive few anyway.

Harman shakes her head. The industry, she says, "is important to our district and to our national security."

Winograd is harshly critical of the administration's domestic surveillance efforts. She needles Harman relentlessly for not being quicker and more emphatic in standing up to the administration, particularly given that the incumbent is one of the few members of Congress briefed on the government's controversial actions.

Harman supported the basic intent of the administration's surveillance -- to track calls between U.S. phones and Al Qaeda suspects abroad. She also deplored leaks that brought the issue to public attention. But she said her support never included wiretaps without court approval.

More recently, as further leaks pointed to much broader mining of everyday telephone records, Harman denounced "a lawless White House, out of control."

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