In Laura Friedman’s eyes, the road to politics is paved with land use policy, especially here in Southern California where it is part and parcel of every major issue that troubles the region.
It’s how she got into politics to begin with, and it represents the starting point of much of her legislation, which tends to be focused on three key issues: environmental sustainability, protection of vulnerable populations and her own district. Friedman, who is kicking off her third term representing the 43rd Assembly District, said that the three issues for her merge to end in a singular goal very much in the same manner that they begin.
“Land use is the bread and butter of local government,” she explained in a recent interview. “Even going back to my days on the Design Review Board, it was very much about development, growth and balancing what people want in their communities — private property rights and all of those issues — and I find all of that very fascinating. Having had that background and that experience, I bring that interest into the Assembly.”
BLOSSOMING LEADERSHIP IN SACRAMENTO
Beginning in this legislative session, Friedman was tabbed as chair of the Assembly’s transportation committee, a role she saw as anything but exclusive of her other political passions.
She also holds the gavel for the Assembly’s select committee on urban development to combat climate change and is chair of the environmental caucus, a group of legislators from both the Assembly and Senate that plots policy on a bicameral level. Friedman also sits on the Assembly’s committees for arts, entertainment, sports, tourism and internet media; natural resources committee, which she previously chaired; and water, parks and wildlife.
“I’m really excited to be in the center of those conversations,” she said. “We use way too much land for cars and parking. It’s inefficient. We have a lot of sprawl. We don’t have walkable-bikeable communities in a lot of places and we’re working on legislation for that right now.”
According to her office, Friedman has authored 50 bills that were approved and signed into law, including measures to bolster water efficiency standards, to improve access to higher education, health care and transit, and to broaden the options to whittle away at the affordable housing crisis.
Given the geography of her district, wildfire prevention and defense has been paramount to Friedman’s agenda, she said. In the Assembly, she authored AB 3164 dictating fire protection planning and risk assessment and AB 3074, which enhanced defensible space and fuel-reduction rules for structures within mountainous or forested lands.
Moving forward, Friedman — who was on the City Council here during the Station Fire in 2009 — said she plans to push for updates to fire codes that reflect current data on firefighting and also to write bills to ramp up prescribed burns and fire mapping.
“This whole area” — she gestured toward the Verdugo Mountains behind her, at Casa Adobe de San Rafael Park — “is a high-fire severity zone,” she said.
Additionally, Friedman had helped to secure $20 million in funding for the Glendale Narrows Riverwalk Bridge, which would help marry active transportation with environmental revitalization. Another of her bills, AB 2995, allowed Glendale and Burbank to consider the safety of equestrian riders by reducing speed limits in their Rancho Master Plan. Funding for Glendale’s tech incubator also came in part thanks to Friedman’s advocacy for her city.
“That’s something that has to be admired,” said Glendale Mayor Vrej Agajanian. “It’s not an easy thing to get $20 million.”
Agajanian, who succeeded Friedman on the City Council after she went to the Assembly, said in his estimation, Friedman has always been a leader willing to listen to ideas and who pursues her political goals with passion.
“She’s very proactive and she’s on top of the issues and matters that I have concerns with,” he said. “All this time, she has been ready to listen and act based on our concerns for our area. She’s a strong advocate of Glendale.
“I’m very happy to have her on the Assembly,” Agajanian added. “She’s become a very influential person. Hopefully one day she will become speaker of the Assembly.”
KEEPING CORONAVIRUS IN CHECK
The coronavirus fight won’t just address the emergency in real time, but also work to alleviate those problems that were exacerbated by the outbreak of the pandemic.
In focusing on the effects of the coronavirus, Friedman said that legislation will encompass another passion project of hers, which is to improve the lives of vulnerable populations. She said the pandemic has “accelerated” several negative trends that have developed in recent years, including a growing wage gap and a shrinking middle class.
“This has shown a lot of those cracks in the system that we knew existed, but has made them many times worse,” Friedman said. “Now we see what happens when you take away that paycheck from tens of thousands of people at once.”
She was a coauthor of AB 3088, which imposed a targeted eviction moratorium in California and later would support bills opening up more than $2 billion in rental assistance for state residents. Friedman also has lent her hands to various food drives, helped advocate for eateries to sell produce and food products in the early days of the crisis and, perhaps most frustratingly, has sought resolution to the reportedly endless problems with the Employment Development Department, which processes unemployment insurance here.
“My staff spends almost all their time helping people with EDD, staff not just in the district but in Sacramento,” she said. “When I walk into my office in Sacramento, my chief is always on hold with EDD while she’s trying to work on legislation and run the office and everything else she needs to do. EDD has been as much of a nightmare for us to deal with as it has been for the public.”
Friedman said she’s been frustrated with the issue — a disaster, she called it — because it’s not as though checks haven’t been written for the agency. In fact, in her eyes, the sheer amount of funding the agency was expected to shoulder from federal relief efforts only set EDD up to fail, she contends.
“There was no way that an agency could all of a sudden deal with 10 million more claims than what they had the day before,” Friedman said.
The state has an interest in doing what it can to keep residents under roofs, she added, because the homelessness crisis has shown that getting people back on their feet, into treatment or rehabilitation programs and back into housing is much more expensive.
“It makes, of course, all the moral sense in the world,” Friedman said, “but it also makes financial sense for the state to keep them housed while we can rather than try to deal with them after they’ve been on the streets for six months or a year.”
To be sure, however, relief for renters also has to help those who own the rental properties, especially those small-scale landlords whose entire livelihoods are in renting out their handful of properties.
“We can’t put 100% of it on the backs of the really small landlords,” she said. “One of the fears is that the mom-and-pop landlords do foreclose and they get purchased by those big hedge funds and corporations and then continue to consolidate housing into fewer and fewer hands, which would be very counterproductive to the goal of keeping rents low. Corporate consolidation of housing would be the worst result of all of this.”
A non-native Angeleno, Friedman said she did not have politics in mind when she relocated here. Rather, she came here for show business, a career path she settled into as a producer for television series and films at Rysher Entertainment.
“I came out here for the film industry. I had a really good career for over 20 years as a development executive and a producer, and in my mind, that was my track,” she said. “I was doing well, I was climbing the ladder, I was going down that pathway, and I never thought that anything would pull me away from that.
“And then I moved to Glendale,” Friedman quipped.
A renter at the time, Friedman said she found herself in need of a new home when her landlord sold that Los Angeles property. Glendale fit the bill of safe, charming, affordable and, importantly, close to work in Burbank’s collection of studios. At around this time, Friedman said she also became involved in the L.A. Conservancy’s efforts to promote historic preservation and she began to apply this perspective to what she was seeing in her new city.
So she applied for the Design Review Board, where she hoped to push back against “mansionization” and other developments she deemed incompatible with Glendale.
“I think I got appointed because no one knew who I was,” she joked. “I did have this design experience with the Conservancy and they were just starting to think about historic preservation in Glendale more seriously, just starting to think about [historic] districts.
“A lot of times people apply to boards and commissions who want a stepping stone to City Council,” Friedman added, “and I think they thought I was never going to do that because I was never involved politically in the city before that.”
The more she became involved, the closer she paid attention to the Glendale City Council and the more she realized that though she often respected its work, she would probably have made some different decisions. Friedman said she later found the urgency to take the big leap to politics in the wake of a breast cancer diagnosis, an event that followed the death of her mother months prior.
“I had thought that I would run for council years down the road, but after that experience, I thought, ‘You never know what’s going to happen; you don’t know how many years you have left, and if it’s something you want to do, you should do it,’” she explained. “You shouldn’t put things off that you’re passionate about.
“When the assembly race was opening up, I kind of went through a lot of the same equations,” Friedman continued. “I think it’s harder for women, a lot of times, to believe they can win, but I was like, ‘Oh it’s going to be really hard, but I don’t want to regret it one day and think if only I had tried.’”
WORKING WITH DISTRICT 43
Friedman could hardly contain herself when asked about the district she represents.
“I have an amazing district,” she beamed. “I have communities that have strong senses of identities. We’ve got a lot of different communities here and it can make it a challenge to be able to do the kind of outreach we need to be able to do, but it’s what makes this community so rich and wonderful. It’s why I live here.”
Outside of Glendale, Burbank and La Cañada Flintridge, District 43 also encompasses La Crescenta, Atwater Village, Los Feliz, Little Armenia and portions of Silver Lake, East Hollywood and Hollywood Hills. She touted the creative capital, variety of industries and myriad amenities that the area has to offer.
“Griffith Park is in my district. How cool is that?” she said. “NASA JPL, several film studios. I represent Disney, Warner Brothers, part of Universal, DreamWorks, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network. It’s just a really, really fun district to represent.”
The diversity of the district was truly on display in June, Friedman said, when the March for Black Lives brought about 2,000 people demonstrating through downtown Glendale as part of the nationwide protests over police brutality and institutional racism. Among other things, Friedman said the moment afforded her a good opportunity to broach the topic with her 7-year-old daughter, who is Black, while they joined the proteste rs at the march.
“She liked the idea of people coming to ‘support people who looked like her,’” Friedman explained.
The one-time Glendale mayor added that she was proud of the steps that city leaders had taken to acknowledge, learn from and move forward from past racism and discrimination, including through its presentation on being a “sundown town” and for backing the “Reckoning” series by the library system’s ReflectSpace gallery.
“Over the years, Glendale has definitely made intentional choices to address those concerns, and I hope the city continues to do that,” she said.
Friedman also said the district remains ever engaged, with a generally high voter turnout and a population that isn’t shy.
“That’s the best kind of district to have,” she said. “Some people think it’s great if you’re in a district where people aren’t paying attention because they’re too busy working, so you can do what you want. I don’t believe that. I love having a district that is responsive, that is engaged, that comes out to the town halls that we do, that isn’t afraid to shake their fists and stomp their feet and let me know, because it makes me a better legislator.”
Friedman said she will continue running for her Assembly seat until she terms out. Beyond that, she wouldn’t say what’s on her mind besides conceding that she wants to continue serving in some political capacity.
“I get more excited every day to wake up and go to work than I ever did in my previous jobs, and I love that [in politics] you have a real, tangible effect on the world,” she said. “That was the thing when I was sick, I was thinking, ‘One day, you’re going to be lying on your death bed and you’re going to be thinking back on your life.’
“I do love to serve and I love the policy work,” she added. “I feel like I’ve found my niche in life and I’d love to have the opportunity to keep doing it.”