For years, Pasadena-area Ass-embly and congressional elections have been pretty boring affairs — a foregone conclusion that the incumbent Democrat will cruise to victory with little or no viable opposition.

But this year, it’s different.

Three-term incumbent Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff faces an array of challengers, most notably Monterey Park Democrat Bob McCloskey and former Pasadena Mayor and Green Party candidate Bill Paparian, who are steering debate toward a possible referendum against Schiff’s pro-war and, at times, pro-Bush administration record.

In the race for Assembly, Democratic incumbent Carol Liu has stepped down due to term limits, leaving four Democrats to square off in a hotly contested primary in which, nonetheless, two Green Party candidates have surprisingly set the agenda, like Paparian and McCloskey, around opposition to the war.

Outranked by Democrats by more than 30,000 voters in each race since 2002 redistricting, it appears Republican congressional candidate Bill Bodell and Assembly hopeful Scott Carwile have little to gain — and so the race has emerged not as a battle between liberal and conservative, but as one between left and center.

“It leaves us with lefties who are still being careful [not to offend conservatives] when they don’t need to be,” said Green Party Assembly candidate Philip Koebel, who faces the Green Party’s Ricardo Costa in California’s first competitive primary for a seat on the state Legislature.

Rockin’ the party

That battle is not limited, however, to vociferously anti-war Greens vs. the more status-quo Democrats.

The Democratic primary race for the 29th Congressional District is emblematic of a party in crisis: Schiff supports the Iraq War and has more than $1 million in campaign funds, while McCloskey, with only $20,000 in his war-chest, has comparatively little more on hand than a steadfast belief that the war is wrong.

In 2001 Schiff, who represents Pasadena, Burbank, Glendale and parts of the San Gabriel Valley, cosponsored the House version of the USA PATRIOT Act and later called for Iraq reconstruction efforts to match the scale of World War II’s Marshall Plan, maintaining a position that military occupation should continue until the new Iraq is politically stable.

A retired union activist, McCloskey is opposed to the PATRIOT Act and wants the troops out of Iraq right now.

“It’s time for the Democrats to stand up and have some backbone, to stand up to the Bush administration and call for impeachment,” said McCloskey, 55 and a father of three.

That McCloskey may have more in common with Green Party opponent Paparian — who also supports peace and impeachment and has frequently campaigned alongside McCloskey — than with those in control of his own party is precisely the problem, and precisely why he is running as a Democrat.

“I want to take the party back,” he said.

The Democratic Party’s officially endorsed candidate, there are a lot of people counting on Schiff to nonetheless cruise to victory on Tuesday.

Among major donors are political action committees sponsored by military contractors such as Boeing, General Electric, Parsons Corp. and Raytheon, and media giants such as News America-FOX, the Recording Industry Association of America, Sony Pictures, Time Warner, Yahoo!, Viacom, Microsoft and Disney; and financial giants AT&T, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Capital One.

Schiff has also found $10,000 in support (half of McCloskey’s entire bankroll, including loans to himself) this year from the Blue Dog Political Action Committee — essentially spelling out his centrist leanings.

But for his part, Schiff has stayed away from directly challenging McCloskey’s assertions but says he is not apologist for the Bush administration, and is working to put the breaks on domestic spying by the National Security Agency.

During an April 6 House Judiciary Committee meeting, Schiff asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales whether the NSA had been monitoring domestic calls between American citizens

“The attorney general didn’t really give me a direct answer, said he wouldn’t rule it out. I think we were all a bit shocked,” said Schiff, recounting that hearing. “If they can’t rule that out, there’s truly no limit to what they can do.”

Schiff has since called for security officials to be subpoenaed for congressional hearings and co-authored the NSA Oversight Act, which would take a position against unwarranted wiretapping and require the Bush administration to give full disclosure of their wiretapping activities to Congress.

But for McCloskey, that’s not good enough.

“How can we expect a congressman who receives campaign money from corporations to use oversight on those corporations? Schiff continues to support the war-time budget, perpetual war in Iraq … It’s not right,” he said.

Setting the debate

In the race for Pasadena’s 44th Assembly District, Democratic candidates are racing to distinguish themselves from each other as Costa and Koebel contend they are more and more the same — all “soft” on the core progressive issue of out times, the War on Iraq, and all too willing to play politics as usual (see “Behind enemy lines,” page 9).

Despite raising only a few thousand dollars compared to the tens and even hundreds of thousands in the war chests of their Democratic competitors, Koebel and Costa have taken debate on a sharp left turn.

Both have also focused on such progressive issues as increasing affordable housing, establishing living wage increases for the poor, immigrants’ rights, civil liberties and universal health care.

So why are Greens picking up the torch on traditionally progressive Democrat issues?

Costa believes big-money politics have turned candidates ever-closer to the political center.

At best, “We’re running against stealth candidates. They’re progressives, but they have to hide how progressive they are… because ultimately the Democratic Party and its big-name candidates are getting money from corporations. And as progressive Democrats, if you stay stealth too long you wind up being indistinguishable from corporate candidates,” said Costa, a unionized film projector for Laemmle Theatres who, like other Greens, will not accept corporate donations.

When it comes to money, the Democratic frontrunner is former La Cañada City Councilman Anthony Portantino, who has spent nearly $350,000 this year reaching out to voters and still has $140,000 on hand, according to the most recent state reports. He also has more than $72,000 in an account set up by EdVoice, a philanthropic group that includes billionaire Eli Broad and encourages state spending on schools.

Portantino, 45, carries Liu’s endorsement to take over her seat and counts among his financial supporters several unions as well as Raytheon, Clear Channel, California Edison and several movie studios.

Pasadena Planning Commissioner Diana Peterson-More has spent $207,000 on her campaign and still has $137,000 left to spend, but she is on top when it comes to local contributors.

Contributors include developers Mike Balian, Jim Plotkin, Jayleen Mosley, Pacifica Services, Clarence Broussard and Associates and Marilyn Buchanan. Other notables are Glendale state Assemblyman Dario Frommer, Pasadena City Manager Cynthia Kurtz, City Council members Sid Tyler and Chris Holden and former LA City Councilman Nate Holden, School Board member Steve Lizardo, Housing Administrator Greg Robinson, All Saints Rector Emeritus George Regas, Vroman’s Bookstore owner Joel Sheldon, NAACP-Pasadena Area President Joe Brown, former Secretary of Education Shirley Hufstedler and Edwin Jed Fish Gould III (better known as KROQ DJ Jed the Fish). Parsons Corp. gave a healthy $2,500, and the Pasadena Firefighters PAC gave $3,300.

Brian Center, a 38-year-old adviser to the LA County Sherriff’s Department who lives in South Pasadena, has spent $44,000 and had $83,000 on hand at last count. His contributors include Merrick Bobb, who audits Sherriff’s activities for the county, Villa Sorriso owner Jack Huang and the Motion Picture Association of America.

Brian Murray — who has convincingly billed himself as the only true progressive among the four Democrats running — has spent only $27,000, but still had $177,000 left to spend at the state’s last count.

Murray, 36 and a father of two, is an attorney dealing with commercial litigation who teaches economics at East LA College, is president of the anti-discrimination Housing Rights Center and is a founding member of the Center for Progressive Leadership think tank.

His mantra during this campaign: Do more for the area’s poor and disenfranchised.

More choices…

In Glendale, the race for termed-out state Assemblyman Dario Frommer’s seat will ultimately feature Republican Michael Agbaba and Libertarian Steve Myers in the fall, but the first round of the battle will come Tuesday when Glendale City Councilman Frank Quintero and Burbank Board of Education member Paul Krekorian face each other in the Democratic primary.

While Krekorian supports government incentives for alternative energy use, stronger vocational and technical classes in the public schools and strongly opposes term limits, it is Quintero who has snagged the endorsement of Frommer.

“My main issue involves what I’ve done for 28 years of my life and that’s basically education, since I was director of Alliance for Education,” said Quintero. “Secondly, health care coverage, because we need to try to get all Californians insured. Thirdly, the environment and its attendant transportation issues since they go hand-in-hand in Southern California.”

Despite Quintero’s commitment to education issues, EdVoice has set aside more than $100,000 in independent expenditure funds to support Krekorian.

“I’ve helped to lead a school district, and I know from experience what California schools need to provide the best possible education for our children,” said Krekorian.

Reporters Justin Chapman and Carl Kozlowski contributed to this story.