By Kurt Gonska on May 28, 2014
By James Nash. Originally published in Bloomberg Businessweek.
Sandra Fluke is six days from finding out if her fame as the woman Rush Limbaugh branded a “slut” translates into political currency in California.
Fluke, denounced by the talk-show host for testifying in favor of requiring employers to cover birth control, is trying to capitalize on the incident without being defined by it in her first run for office. Voters are surprised to learn she’s the daughter of an evangelical pastor, she said, “because that’s not the Sandra Fluke of the Rush Limbaugh situation.”
One of eight candidates in the most contested of any of the 20 state senate primary races in California, the 33-year-old lawyer is campaigning for environmental protection, affordable education and the repeal of part of the tax-limiting Proposition 13 law. Like her opponents in the Los Angeles-area district, which hugs the coast and stretches inland to Hollywood, she’s an abortion-rights advocate.
Three of the other contenders are current or former elected office-holders and all but one, a lawyer who declined to state an affiliation when he registered, are Democrats, as Fluke is. Going into the last week of the contest, Fluke had the second-largest campaign war chest with $439,000, according to Secretary of State data, compared with the $544,000 raised by Manhattan Beach Mayor Amy Howorth. Fluke’s campaign counts two endorsements among the 11 local Democratic Party clubs that have picked a favorite.
“Sandra Fluke really upends the race,” said Marta Evry, a Democratic activist in the beachside neighborhood of Venice who hasn’t decided for whom she’ll vote. “She has really high name recognition that other candidates don’t.”
It was her experience on Capitol Hill and her subsequent run-in with Limbaugh that nudged her to seek public office after years as a behind-the-scenes activist for women’s rights and victims of domestic violence, Fluke said in an interview at Bloomberg News’ Los Angeles office.
“To me it felt hypocritical that I was walking around talking about how important it was to have women in leadership, women running for office,” and to not run herself, she said. “We don’t have enough women in elected office. We do need a new generation of progressive views and champions.”
Fluke (it rhymes with book) was a third-year law student at Georgetown University in February 2012 when she testified to the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee about requiring religious-affiliated institutions to include birth control in insurance plans.
After the Republican-controlled House Oversight and Government Reform Committee rejected Democrats’ request to allow Fluke to speak (she was in the audience as an all-male lineup of religious leaders addressed that committee) she was invited to appear before the Democratic panel.
In her testimony, she said she used contraceptives and that without coverage from Georgetown, a Jesuit institution, it could cost a student like her as much $3,000. Limbaugh told the 13 million listeners of his radio show that she was asking taxpayers to subsidize her sexual habits. “She wants to be paid to have sex,” Limbaugh said, calling Fluke a prostitute. He later apologized.
At first, Fluke considered vying for the seat being vacated by U.S. Representative Henry Waxman, a Democrat. Instead, Fluke said she decided that, with Democratic majorities in both statehouses and Democrats in every statewide office, Sacramento is more fertile ground for progressive legislation.
“I’m a strong progressive. I’m proud of that,” she said. Fluke grew up in what she called the “one-stoplight” town of Saxton, Pennsylvania, where her father was a machinist before becoming a minister and her mother was a schoolteacher. Her conservative upbringing, she said, makes her a well-rounded candidate who can appreciate “notions of self-sufficiency.”
Fluke says her positions place her in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. During a recent candidates’ forum, only Fluke advocated the legalization of marijuana for recreational use without conditions. She also argued for striking down parts of Proposition 13, the 1978 law limiting annual increases in property taxes and requiring two-third legislative majorities for tax increases; Fluke advocates removing commercial property from the caps and changing the tax-hike requirement to a simple majority. Other candidates also called for changes to the law.
Fluke has the potential to nudge the Democratic majority in the state senate to the left, said David Graham-Caso, who led the Los Angeles County Young Democrats from 2010 to 2012.
“She’ll provide a necessary shakeup in the state senate and provide leadership on progressive issues,” said Graham-Caso, who supports Fluke.
As an undergraduate at Cornell University, Fluke majored in policy analysis and management and feminist, gender and sexuality studies. After graduation, she worked in New York for Sanctuary for Families, which provides services to victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking.
In 2007, Fluke and her now-husband, comedy writer and producer Adam Mutterperl, moved to Southern California and later bought a house in West Hollywood; she said she would have gone to law school at the University of California, Los Angeles, if it had offered a better financial package.
Fluke passed the California Bar in December 2012. Since then, she’s been a consultant for Planned Parenthood and a fellow for the political group Young Invincibles, and has represented victims of human trafficking.
In the state senate race, Fluke hasn’t been shy about trying to leverage her time in the limelight. Two campaign mailers mention Limbaugh, including one that declares, “Sandra Fluke Fought Rush Limbaugh, and Won. Imagine What She Will Do in Sacramento.” Her website includes a photo of her addressing the Democratic National Convention in 2012 and a video of President Barack Obama calling her “generous” and “brave.”
At the same time, she said both she and voters have moved past 2012. “It used to be that if I was introducing myself at an event, people would say, ’Oh, you’re the one,’ and Rush Limbaugh and that kind of thing,” she said. “Now they say, ’Oh, you’re running.’ The message is getting through.”
Fluke’s campaign is still leaning too hard on the Limbaugh notoriety, said Cara Robin, the president of the West Los Angeles Democratic Club, which has endorsed a former state assembly member in the race.
“When you see her message, ‘I’m going to stand up for you,’ you have to ask who she’s going to stand up to,” Robin said. “There’s no Rush Limbaugh in California.”
To advance to the November election on June 3, Fluke will need to come in first or second place. Under a ballot measure approved by voters in 2010, the top finishers in a non-presidential primary face off in the general election regardless of party affiliation. There have been no independent opinion polls conducted in the race, which drew no Republicans.
The Torrance-based Daily Breeze, one of the district’s main newspapers, endorsed Fluke and Ben Allen, a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Board of Education, in that order of preference. The weekly Argonaut, based near Marina del Rey, endorsed Fluke. Allen has raised almost as much as Fluke: $396,000.
Fluke’s campaign treasury includes $100,000 that she loaned to herself, along with more than $45,000 from people with the last names Fluke and Mutterperl. Attorneys were the largest category of donors with $31,000 in contributions. Other contributors include the National Abortion Rights Action League’s political-action committee and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs.
As for Howorth, she gave her campaign $100,000 and loaned another $100,000. Manhattan Beach-based apparel company Skechers USA Inc. gave $4,100 and its president, Michael S. Greenberg, added $8,200. Political-action committees for landlords, insurers and sheet-metal workers also gave to Howorth. Attorneys chipped in $32,500.
Allen loaned his campaign $50,000 and reported a $4,100 contribution from Powell Jobs. Attorneys accounted for more than $85,000 of his contributions.
Manhattan Beach developer Bill Bloomfield has backed Allen with $440,000 in expenditures not coordinated with Allen’s campaign, and Howorth benefited from $116,000 in independent expenditures from the business-backed Alliance for California’s Tomorrow, filings indicate. Fluke hasn’t benefited from independent expenditures.
She was endorsed today by U.S. Representative Julia Brownley, a Democrat who represented the area in the assembly.
Fluke’s best strategy over the next week is to drive turnout among core supporters, such as younger women and abortion-rights activists, said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant who lives in West Hollywood. That may explain her campaign’s references to Limbaugh in mailers sent as people began filling out vote-by-mail ballots.
“It is a real smorgasbord of candidates,” he said. “The bottom line is, those with name ID have a real advantage.”