Fluke, whose name rhymes with “look,” is a rock star among the volunteers. She was simultaneously all-business and affable – the mark of a seasoned politician. She’s a champion of women’s issues, a rising star in the Democratic Party who floors audiences with her speeches, and a warrior who stood up to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh while still in law school.
BONA FIDES MINTED ON THE NATIONAL STAGE
Fluke’s fame was made entirely in Washington, D.C. Her ascent began in 2012, when the Georgetown law school student and activist for women’s issues took center stage in the national debate over contraceptive coverage and the new health care law. Obamacare required religious institutions to offer the coverage; Georgetown, a Jesuit school, did not.
Fluke objected to her school’s policy and told a panel of Democrats on Capitol Hill that birth control could cost students a prohibitive $3,000 over the course of attending law school. She related the story of a law school friend who lost an ovary when she stopped taking birth control to help treat her polycystic ovarian syndrome because it was too expensive.
Limbaugh supported the university, citing religious liberty, and had a field day with Fluke’s testimony. Among other things, he called her a “slut” and a “prostitute” on his national show. Republicans and Democrats alike denounced his remarks. President Barack Obama called Fluke and thanked her for speaking out. An influential Washington public relations firm with close ties to the White House, SKDKnickerbocker, offered its services pro bono to help Fluke handle the newfound fame. They are still advising her.
Limbaugh apologized, and the furor made Fluke something of a household name. She went on to become a national advocate for reproductive rights, and was tapped as a featured speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
Now, the question is whether that D.C. fame translates into L.A. voter support, and a state Senate seat that could launch a political career.
VOLUNTEERS FUELED BY CANDIDATE’S EXAMPLE
The volunteers are on board.
“To see how strongly she was getting attacked motivated me to want to help her ... rise to power,” said Kaya Masler, a political science student at USC. “It was just one of the most amazing moments watching her DNC speech. I remember getting shivers from it.”
Masler, who has been volunteering for Fluke since the beginning of the campaign, said that the intelligent and passionate person who appears before crowds is the same when no one is looking.
“She goes at every single thing she does with that kind of strength, that conviction and that really keen intelligence that she brought to her DNC speech,” said Masler. “It’s not not just a turn on, turn off thing – she keeps it on all the time.”
Another volunteer had known Fluke for four years, having hired her as an intern while Fluke was attending Georgetown.
“Sandra was probably the most incredible intern I’ve ever had,” said Stephanie Richard, an Echo Park resident and policy and legal services director at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking. “And I’ve worked with 50-plus law students.”
“(Fluke has) worked (at CAST) ever since then,” Richard said. “She has really helped be our political eye in Sacramento the last three years and given me a lot of insight.”
NO EASY BATTLES IN CROWDED FIELD
But out in the district – which includes Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Redondo Beach and Rancho Palos Verdes – it’s a different story. Fluke has her work cut out for her, analysts say. The day prior to the April 6 volunteer kickoff, she lost the West Los Angeles Democratic Club endorsement to former state Assemblywoman Betsy Butler. Although Fluke came in second place, she only garnered five votes to Butler’s 38.
Still, Fluke’s national profile is a “net positive” as she campaigns in a district that is considered a safe Democratic seat, said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Obama won the wealthy, well-connected coastal district with 64.9 percent of the vote in 2012. It is considered a good jumping-off spot for those looking to build a political future.
“It’s helpful to her because she’s one of the better-known, if not the best-known candidate in the race,” Kondik said. “The flip side is, do people look at her as a celebrity candidate? Does she have to prove herself a bit more?”
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a public policy professor at USC, said Fluke’s national profile won’t translate into votes in a local state Senate race.
“I do not see her being able to pull the votes based on her name and her brief 15 minutes of fame a long time ago,” Jeffe said.
In addition, “there are people in that race that have far better local connections,” Jeffe said. She pointed to candidate Ben Allen, who serves on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board; Butler, the former assemblywoman; and Amy Howorth, mayor of Manhattan Beach.
An attendee at the politics forum, Susan Blanchard of Palms, said that Fluke matched up with the other candidates “better than expected,” and that she’d “definitely done her homework on the issues,” but was concerned that Fluke had not been in California very long.
Scott Lay, author of the popular California political blog Around the Capitol, said that Fluke has real shot of winning the primary, but it won’t be easy.
“Clearly, her star power and national network could translate to local support for local office,” he said. “The challenge, the unexpected challenge, was how crowded this race (has) become.”
Lay said the outcome is “anyone’s guess,” but that he could see a scenario where the better-known Democrats all split the vote, allowing a lesser-known candidate like Fluke to cruise to victory.
The analysts agreed that Fluke’s national name recognition likely will help her with fund raising, and that’s proving true in one area. Fluke has raised far more money from out-of-state donors than her competitors, according to the latest campaign finance data. However, she had just $121,000 on hand by March 17, less than four of her seven competitors. Notably, most of those with more funds have taken out loans, something Fluke hasn’t done yet.
Some of Fluke’s supporters wish she had aimed higher.
“She’s running in the wrong race,” said Marc Saltzberg, vice president of the Venice Neighborhood Council, and who attended the candidate forum. Saltzberg felt that Fluke’s national profile and access to donors was better suited for national office.
Prior to entering the state senate race, Fluke had flirted with the idea of running to replace retiring Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles. There were rumors that Fluke was asked to step aside to make way for other candidates in the congressional race. Fluke denied those rumors, saying that she’d be more effective in the state Legislature than Congress’ current stalemate.
“I’ve heard those rumors too,” Fluke said. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. I heard from a lot of people who wanted me to run for state Senate. I heard from a lot of people who wanted me to run for Congress. Ultimately, I looked at where I could get the work done that I wanted to get done.”
Besides reproductive rights, Fluke has advocated on behalf of human trafficking survivors and for the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2013. She favors raising the minimum wage and broadening access to early childhood education.
PUTTING DOWN LOCAL ROOTS
Fluke told the Register that she and her husband – and Mr. President – have been building a life in California for seven years.
Fluke’s husband, Adam Mutterperl, who is in the entertainment industry, lived in California full time, while Fluke split time between California and New York and then California and Washington, D.C., according to campaign spokeswoman Abigail Gardner.
Fluke became a full-time resident after graduating from Georgetown’s law school in 2012. She registered to vote in West Hollywood about 18 months ago, according to the county registrar.
“This is our home,” Fluke said.
Fluke is confident that the voters in the 26th Senate District will see in her what her supporters around the country see.
“I think the national profile has given people a chance to know what kind of advocate I am,” she said. “How I react to things, that I stand up, that I’m not going to back away when I’m publicly criticized, and that I will be a strong voice on these kinds of issues. So now it’s time to talk to people one-on-one about the work that I’ve done, the laws that I’ve helped pass, and get into the details more.”