Meet Laura Friedman, the pool-playing assemblywoman who'll likely succeed Adam Schiff

BURBANK, CA- MARCH 27: Assemblymember Laura Friedman gets a tour of the Valley Pumping Plant in Burbank, CA with Richard Wilson, asst. general manager of Burbank Water on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. Friedman is in a runoff against a Republican opponent for Rep. Adam Schiff's seat. She has the advantage in a heavily Democratic district. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Assemblymember Laura Friedman, pictured during a late March tour of the Valley Pumping Plant in Burbank, is heavily favored to win Rep. Adam B. Schiff's congressional seat in the November election. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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There are certain candidates who have lived their lives like perfectly calibrated political arrows, arcing ever upward through all the right stops toward higher office.

Not Laura Friedman.

The Glendale Assembly member, who will probably soon take Rep. Adam B. Schiff’s prized congressional seat, spent her 20s with a $600 custom pool cue stick in the trunk of her car.

It was her constant companion as she careened between an ascendant day job in the film industry and the chalk dust and late-night bravado of Los Angeles’ best pool halls.

Friedman fell in love with the game in the student union rec room at the University of Rochester, where she studied filmmaking, and later played semiprofessionally. She spent a year between jobs early in her career making her living entirely on script reading, that stalwart gig of many show business aspirants, and games of pool.

That double life — between a comfy job with her intellectual, liberal friends in the Hollywood set, and the desperate action of dimly lit pool rooms on the fringes of Los Angeles — was a theme she returned to in January, during the heated primary of her first congressional race.

In a digital ad shot in a more family-friendly looking downtown Burbank pool room, Friedman, now 57, leaned over the aqua green table and fired a careful shot.

“I’m Laura Friedman and I worked my way through college in a pool room. Sometimes people would underestimate me. Once,” she told viewers in a video that was privately mocked by some of her opponents but clearly resonated with voters.

The ad touted her record in the state Assembly on housing, climate change and abortion rights and declared that she would be a “ringer” for the people in Congress.

Friedman finished first in the March primary for California’s 30th Congressional District, a deep-blue Democratic stronghold that includes a good chunk of central Los Angeles, West Hollywood, Glendale, Burbank and several major Hollywood studios.

The Glendale resident came to politics in her 40s after a career in film and has a 10-year-old daughter with her landscape architect husband, Guillaume Lemoine.

Alex Balekian, the second-place finisher who will join her on the November ballot, is a little-known Republican physician. It’s a fact that — barring some earth-shattering upheaval — all but spells victory for Friedman in a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 3 to 1.

The Assembly member finds herself in a bit of a liminal space now, with more than six months to go until the election. She’s still fundraising, collecting endorsements like Cracker Jack prizes and has a race to run. But she’s also actively planning for her transition to Washington and occasionally greeted on the street with cheers of “Congratulations, congresswoman.”

Just a few months ago, she was one of 15 contenders vying to replace Schiff in a rare open L.A.-area congressional seat. Friedman was one of four current or former prominent Democratic elected officials in the running, all of whom raised more than or close to $1 million and had represented hundreds of thousands of constituents in districts that at least partially overlap with the 30th Congressional District.

Read more: Inside the crowded field of L.A. congressional candidates in the race to replace Schiff

Friedman was widely considered to be a front-runner among the crowded pack, along with Burbank state Sen. Anthony Portantino and former L.A. City Atty. Mike Feuer, both Democrats who were considered to have legitimate chances of facing off against Friedman in November. Pundits and political watchers spoke about an ugly fall battle between two well-funded Democrats as practically preordained.

Friedman — who has built a profile as a housing- and climate-focused urbanist — took some fire in the days before the primary with an attack mailer criticizing her for her support of a 2023 housing bill. The bill extended a soon-to-expire state housing law that let developers in some cities skip much of the bureaucratic process often blamed for blocking construction of multifamily projects; the mailer accused Friedman of gutting environmental protections and choosing developers and a “shady” union over constituents.

The mailer, which was paid for by an independent expenditure group supporting Portantino, spoke to the divide between growth-wary groups and the pro-housing YIMBY (“Yes, in My Backyard”) movement that Friedman is aligned with.

But overall the primary was relatively tame, with the expectation that candidates were holding their fire until the general.

“I didn’t think that a Republican was going to make the runoff. That was pretty shocking to me,” said Paul Mitchell, a Democratic strategist and political data expert.

Balekian, who describes himself as a fiscally conservative social moderate, was endorsed by local and state Republican groups, Burbank firearms store Guns LA and former Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian.

“Parental rights” as they relate to LGBTQ+ students have been a central tenet of his campaign and Balekian has weighed in on culture war issues such as school parent-notification policies regarding gender identity on Fox News.

Describing himself as "the candidate of law and order" who favors ideas over identity politics, Balekian has also repeatedly hit Friedman for her support of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, a favorite target of conservatives for his progressive views on criminal justice.

Balekian took in about 17% of the vote to Friedman's 30% share.

Mitchell thought that advertising for Republican Senate candidate Steve Garvey could have potentially helped down-ballot Republicans like Balekian and also thought Friedman's focus on abortion messaging as the most prominent woman in the race had probably solidified her position ahead of the Democratic pack.

Friedman, center, on the Assembly floor.
Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) with fellow lawmakers in March 2023. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)


Standing on the sun-dappled members-only portico just off the Assembly floor on a Monday morning weeks after the March primary, Friedman said that when she first decided to run for public office in 2009, Glendale City Council had seemed like it would be the be-all, end-all of her political career.

But Friedman — who served two terms on the council, as well as a yearlong stint as Glendale’s mayor — ran successfully for the Legislature in 2016 and held leadership roles chairing the Assembly’s transportation and natural resources committees.

She wrote the state’s 2019 so-called fur coat ban, along with laws that make it easier to build accessory dwelling units — known as casitas or granny flats — to ease the housing crisis, bar local governments from mandating parking spaces as part of most development near transit stops and allow a number of cities to run speed-camera pilot programs to reduce traffic deaths.

She also co-wrote a controversial bill — ultimately vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom — that would have allowed supervised injection site pilot programs in several California cities.

“I’ve been happy with every step,” Friedman said of her political career.

“I loved being on the [volunteer Glendale city] design review board. I loved being on City Council. I love being in the Legislature. But,” she continued, her voice sharpening a bit, “when you’re there you start seeing the possibilities too, like what else you can do.”

In recent years — as Schiff’s political star swelled and speculation on his next steps grew more frenzied — nearly every ambitious Democratic politician in the L.A. area appeared to have their eyes on his coveted congressional seat.

An affluent, politically active district that could double as a built-in major donor base, the 30th was seen as a rare prize. Schiff hadn’t had a truly competitive reelection fight in nearly a quarter-century; his successor would inherit a safely Democratic seat that she or he could easily hold for decades, or similarly leverage as a launch pad for a national political career.

Friedman, who could pass for an art school professor with her blue-framed statement glasses, slightly oversized suits and occasionally magenta-tinted long bob, is wonkish and deliberate. She savors the in-depth details of policymaking, particularly navigating and fine-tuning specifics with the various groups that will be affected.

She brought that same discerning eye to a Goodwill store a few blocks from the Capitol, a favorite Sacramento stop of hers when she has a few minutes to spare.

With her dotted blazer tucked under her arm, Friedman pawed through a rack of purses and fingered a few tchotchkes, occasionally pausing to dictate texts into her iPhone and inform the reporter by her side that all the drinking glasses in the Sacramento house she shares with fellow lawmakers Sen. Monique Limón (D-Goleta) and Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes (D-Colton) were purchased from this particular section of the store. As were her house lamps, and the sterling and crystal earrings she was wearing.

“Do you have a magnifying glass?” she asked the saleswoman behind the counter, now examining a series of bracelets and chains for markings.

She ultimately settled on a gold chain and a plain, silvery-looking ring, mouthing to the reporter that she would explain what made the ring special when they were outside the store.

“I’m pretty sure it says 14 karats on the inside,” Friedman said back on the street in the waning evening sunlight, positing that the $9 trinket was probably a white gold engagement band.

“I don’t know if you want to print that; it looks like I’m being predatory to Goodwill,” she added. “But they priced it.”

Friedman holds a microphone in a pink suit.
Friedman speaks during a congressional debate at Wilshire Ebell Theater on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles. (Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

An hour later in a slightly sweaty hotel ballroom bedecked with “Unionize California” signs, Friedman was being treated like the belle of the ball at the California Labor Federation’s annual awards dinner. Passersby pressed their hands into hers, proffering congratulations. A trio of beer-clutching graduate student organizers nervously approached to praise her transit policies.

California Labor Federation head Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Yvonne Wheeler, two of the most powerful women in Democratic state politics, circled Friedman, vying to have her sit at their respective banquet tables. (Both organizations had endorsed or recommended endorsing Portantino, Friedman’s opponent.)

Friedman ended up seated next to Gonzalez Fletcher, an old friend from the labor leader’s former days in the Legislature, and Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes, a former roommate in the shared Land Park house near the state Capitol, reminiscing about their “sisterhood” of female lawmaker friends.

Gonzalez Fletcher characterized Friedman, a white Jew from Florida, as “the token” in the otherwise all-Latina friend clique, which at one point had a group text jokingly dubbed the “tortilla caucus” — a riff on the policy debate around gas vs. induction stoves and their relative ability to cook tortillas.

Post-legislative evenings in the Land Park house often ended in pajamas watching telenovelas on the couch.

Her housemates Reyes and Limón would offer to translate, but Friedman would pass, citing her industry background.

“I was in development for years. I know what’s happening — that one’s in a coma, that one’s having a baby, and they’re related and they don’t know it yet,” she recalled with a laugh. “I don’t need translation.”

Friedman’s political roots actually predate her Hollywood career. Her mother, Carole Osman, founded the Broward County chapter of the National Organization for Women, and Friedman spent her childhood canvassing for abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment at her side.

Half a lifetime later, Osman, now 83, can scarcely believe her daughter will be fighting for abortion rights in Washington after all these years, amid a landscape Osman finds deeply discouraging.

“My mother saw her life’s work wiped away from one decision from an activist, corrupt Supreme Court,” Friedman told supporters at a pre-primary event. “And I will be damned if I stay here in California where it’s safe when my daughter, who’s 10 now, has less rights than I did at her age.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.