May 17, 2006 - From the May, 2006 issue

Political Newcomer Jonathan Levey Offers 41st Assembly District Both Talent & Ideas

Assembly District 41, which includes the mansions of Malibu, the suburbs of the Valley, and the strawberry fields of Ventura, poses a challenge to even the most seasoned politician. Yet, college teacher, attorney, and non-politician Jonathan Levey is the district's fundraising frontrunner in this year's primary election. MIR spoke with Mr. Levey about his ideas for building the district's infrastructure, managing growth, retaining local character, and bringing a fresh perspective to the Capitol as described in his book at

Jonathan Levey

You have chosen this time in your life to run for an open seat in the Assembly. MIR does not usually cover political races, but you've come out with a position statement in the form of a book that addresses policy issues of region import. What about this book is relevant to voters?

The 41st is a spectacular district that goes from Santa Monica out the coast, Pacific Palisades, Malibu, Topanga, all the way to Port Hueneme and across the San Fernando and Conjeo valleys and Encino across to Oxnard. The book is an attempt to enhance the civic debate, to give people a better sense of what I would work on if elected. I think voters have a right to know a candidate's platform. I also think that we ought to have a little more accountability in politics, and the book is a road map of things that I would be working on if I am elected.

The book itself is part narrative but also an attempt to address some of the issues and challenges that we face on education, the environment, traffic and congestion. There's a chapter on seniors, a chapter on health care, and a chapter at the end about some things that we can do to address the architecture development and some of the dysfunction in the legislature to make Sacramento work a little better. By work better, I mean things that we can do to make government more responsive to not just the communities in my district, but to issues that voters care about throughout the state.

How difficult is it to campaign in metropolitan Los Angeles leading with substance?

The biggest challenge is reaching voters in an election when a lot of people unfortunately are not paying attention, at least not yet. The book, I think, has done a great job of injecting some substance into the issues. The response has been fabulous. People are very impressed or very excited that a candidate would take the time to do it, and I'm very encouraged by that.

I think it also points out that a lot of the issues that we are trying to deal with are regional in nature. Certainly transportation and infrastructure and improvements to our school system are issues that don't necessarily stay within a particular city or a particular assembly district's borders.

Several months ago MIR interviewed Coastal Commissioner Sarah Wan, who warned that oil companies are continuing to seek permission to drill off the coast, and more recently MIR interviewed George Minter, who represents a firm that wants to anchor an LNG terminal off the coast of Oxnard. How should the state and the Coastal Commission best respond to these prospects? Obviously, the citizens of District 41 have an interest in these issues and policies.

They are absolutely a great concern to the voters in my district. I think we had a process in place by which we would learn a lot more about what's involved with the LNG technology, and what's involved with storing it off the coast, and I am very concerned about efforts by Governor Schwarzenegger and others to circumvent that process.

If we are going to have LNG or other technology, we need to take the time to make sure that it is as safe as possible and that we're not unduly burdening the citizens or the voters in my district, and that we'll start be addressing some of the energy issues in the state. Part of the book talks about what I believe to be a great need to invest in alternative energy technologies and renewable resources, and I would like to see the Los Angeles area and my district in particular be one of the leading destinations for companies that are working on innovative technologies, because I think we would all agree we need to reduce our dependency on foreign oil and fossil fuels.

Some have suggested that the Legislature is dysfunctional at the moment. A few years ago you served as counsel to the Robert Hertzberg's Speaker's Commission on the California Initiative Process. Based on that experience, what can one possibly do as one of 80 Assembly members to make the capital work better? What then can one Assembly member accomplish?

People ask and they almost assume that you can't change the world from one Assembly seat, and that may be the case. But I'm also of the view that even if you can't change everything, that's not an excuse not to start. I look at what's gone on in our state government, and my service as counsel to the Assembly commission was an introduction to state government, and my concern is that through a lot of well intentioned initiatives we are, unfortunately, taking away from the representative government that people in this state have a right to expect. We talked about it in the commission report, which I hope people will take the time to read at, and we talked about some ways to improve the initiative process.

I think it is a critically important check on the Legislature for the people to have a voice is what goes on, but it shouldn't be the lawmaking apparatus of the first order. I talk in the book about ways that we could improve the initiative process. I know the Courage Campaign is also working on some ways to bring additional financial disclosures into the initiative process, and I support their efforts as well.


What benefits might flow for the 41st from passage of the state infrastructure bonds?

If the priorities are right, significant benefits could come from it. I have a two-lane road that I have to take to get in and out of campus at Cal State Channel Islands, and there are significant infrastructure needs to build more roads to accommodate the population growth. I think we need to be looking beyond that. Public transportation is a huge need. I support public transportation going back to my experiences working in Union Station with maps on the walls of my office of how far you can get in a half-hour by car and by train. Public transit ought to be part of an infrastructure bond.

I also serve on an advisory committee for Trust for Public Land's Parks for People Program, and I recall a conversation that we had about this infrastructure bond being perhaps the last opportunity for a generation to invest in public parks and open space and to help make sure, as the Parks for People Program advocates, that everyone can live within a quarter-mile of a park. So with this infrastructure bond, I hope that we can align not just the priorities of the people in my district, but with those of Southern California and surrounding area as well.

In February, MIR's sister publication, The Planning Report, interviewed SOAR Executive Director Karen Schmidt, who discussed Ventura's urban growth restraints, which may make it difficult for the county to accommodate its share of the region's growth. How can Ventura County maintain its character given significant demand for more housing?

The greatest challenge the state faces is the addition of 600,000 new Californians every year. It's easy to attribute that to immigration, but the truth is that a significant percentage of that is coming from births over deaths. If we don't make smarter planning decisions and smarter land use decisions, the questions that we're going to find ourselves asking is, who is going to have to leave, my children or yours?

Ventura County is one example, but I think the issues really transcend Ventura County and the burden is on us to do things like better clean-up of brownfield sites and better urban infill development to reduce the pressure that leads to sprawl and encroachment on the parks and open space that all of us enjoy. The transcendent feature of my district is the Santa Monica Mountains, and people, including me, love the parks and open space there, but the pressures to build there are not coming from people who are already within the district, it's coming from the 600,000 new Californians every year.

Are there policy solutions for the Ventura and L.A. county communities in the 41st District that are practical and realizable in the two, four, or six years that you might serve in the Assembly?

I wish I could wave a magic wand that would solve the traffic and congestion problems. There are certainly parts of my district where the number one issue is traffic, the number two issue is traffic, the number three issue is traffic, and the number four issue is probably traffic. In the longer term, public transit will help alleviate some of the congestion, but it will only work if we also take the time to put a little bit higher density along transit corridors. I recall when the Gold Line came on-line. That is outside my district, but people hoped that it would take pedestrian traffic through Union Station from 35,000 people per day to 70,000 people per day. What it's really going to take to improve public transit use are some projects along transit corridors that have a mix of uses, with ground floor, commercial, and also residential uses that allow people to use public transit without driving to the station. The same is true of the Orange Line busway. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and others have done a phenomenal job of getting that up and running across the San Fernando Valley portion of my district, but for that busway to work well it is also going to require some smarter planning about putting a little more density along the transit stops.

In the short term, there are a lot things-and I certainly was inspired by what Bob Hertzberg had to say in the course of his mayoral campaigning about his commuter's bill of rights. I've adopted a ten-point transportation action plan in the book that talks about some things that we can do, such as better synchronization of lights and make some improvements in the short term while we're waiting for some of the longer term transit improvements to take hold as well.

A person with your background is a rare candidate for public office. You are a university teacher, a Princeton and Harvard Law School grad, a former federal law clerk, and a former lawyer in private sector. What compels you to now seek public service when the predominant behavior of your generation is to shun such a career move?

I am flattered, but I also think that I am very lucky to be at a point in my career where I have the opportunity to do this. I have said several times that I got tired of criticizing and figured if I was going to criticize I ought to be willing to roll up my sleeves and make a difference. But even in the course of the campaign I have experienced wonderful personal interactions, professional development, and phenomenal experiences of being a candidate. It's an unbelievable way to meet people and hear their concerns and to be able to give something back. I look forward to being able to continue doing that as an assemblymember and feel very lucky to be at a point in my life where I have the chance to commit myself to public service.


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