Sydney Kamlager wants to speak ‘truth to toxicity’ in Washington
The California state senator and congressional candidate has pulled together a diverse cadre of Democratic supporters in her bid to replace Rep. Karen Bass
LOS ANGELES: It was earthquakes that tested Sydney Kamlager’s patience as an Angeleno. Born and raised in Chicago, the California state senator has lived in Los Angeles for more than three decades except for a brief period in Pittsburgh, where she attended graduate school. The devastating 1994 earthquake in the San Fernando Valley made her reconsider, briefly, her Golden State dream.
On the mild May evening she sat for an interview with Jewish Insider at a coffee shop near the South LA neighborhood of Crenshaw, it was hard to imagine why anyone would choose to live anywhere besides Southern California. And since she returned from Pittsburgh in 1996, Kamlager has remained loyal to her adopted hometown.
“I had fallen in love with the city and all of its flaws, but all of its opportunities,” Kamlager, who is 49, said over green tea and a chocolate-tahini pastry. After a career rooted in local arts activism, Kamlager, a Democrat, is now running for Congress as what some have described as the heir apparent to Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA). “I was also really intimidated by the shoes that Congresswoman Karen Bass will leave, to have to fill — but then really empowered by my record,” said Kamlager. Bass, who was chair of the Congressional Black Caucus from 2019 to 2021, is running for mayor of LA after 12 years representing the city in Washington.
In her bid to represent California’s 37th Congressional District, Kamlager has been endorsed by a who’s who of California Democrats: Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Reps. Bass, Adam Schiff and Brad Sherman, among others. Kamlager raised $257,000 in the first quarter of 2022, while former LA City Councilmember Jan Perry brought in $238,000.
Kamlager has pulled together an ideologically diverse cadre of national Democratic supporters, ranging from the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC to Democratic Majority for Israel. The 37th District is one of the most Democratic congressional districts in the country, as well as a diverse one: The newly redrawn district, which includes many communities west and southwest of Los Angeles, such as Culver City and Inglewood, is 36% Black, 39% Latino and 7% Asian.
“The goal of an activist is to get their own outcome, their win,” Kamlager said of the earlier part of her career. “And my goal is, how do I make sure that the people in the 37th are safe, and are able to live with dignity and have shelter and feel like they’re able to live a life that is free and full of possibility?”
The daughter of an actress and activist parents, Kamlager has a flair for the dramatic. She danced in her seat to the café’s music while talking about her work bringing funding to underserved communities in LA. Her email signature includes her preferred gender pronouns: “she/her/hers/fire.”
“I do find ways to still sort of be an activist. I think I say things that are much more honest and authentic, but I think they’re also what people are thinking,” Kamlager said.
This inclination toward saying what’s on her mind was inspired by her parents, an interracial couple who created a family in a deeply segregated Chicago.
“They both raised me to be unapologetically Black,” said Kamlager. “They both raised me to be vocal, but to also be really empathic and to be unafraid to talk about race, because they had to be unafraid to love each other.”
Like many in her generation, Kamlager’s eyes were opened to racial politics in LA during the 1992 riots. The unrest came after jurors acquitted three Los Angeles Police Department officers who were on trial for using excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King. During the riots that followed the beating, which was caught on video, National Guard troops were housed at USC, where Kamlager was an undergraduate.
“They would eat in the commissary, and you could go up to the top of the dorms and you could see these plumes of smoke where fires were popping up,” said Kamlager.
Her father, a social worker, lived in Los Angeles, and before the riots she would see him frequently. But he was white, and during the riots, they needed to talk about their racial differences. “He and I had conversations about making sure that he was safe, making sure that I was safe, if it would be safe for us to be together,” she recalled.
In the aftermath of the riots, Kamlager volunteered with the L.A. Festival, an international arts festival — the beginning of many years of civic engagement through art. (Kamlager admits she is not particularly talented in fine arts: In a drawing class in college, her professor prepared to question her about what Kamlager described as a “hot mess” of a drawing. When she told him she was a political science major, “he said, ‘OK, never mind, don’t worry.’”)
The festival’s budget had been slashed, leading to more of a local focus than its typical global reach. “It was about sort of building bridges post-riots,” said Kamlager. “We would have, for example, African drummers play a concert at a Greek Orthodox Church, or we would invite a Jewish choir to come to a Chinese temple and perform. So it was using culture and place and art to build bridges.”
She stuck to that creed. In the 1990s, she worked at a nonprofit that creates public murals around the city, and then at an archive that documents American social movements. This passion for building new, representative public art and archives was inspired by seeing her mother act in plays, which are “all about telling stories about people that you wouldn’t really know about, and using that to either heal or to educate, but ultimately, hopefully, to inform,” Kamlager explained.
Acting was never for her, but growing up in a dynamic home with a mother who was an actress and a teacher — and a father who was a social worker and a sometimes-music producer — gave Kamlager “opportunities to engage in new things or uncomfortable things, because I think the arts can bring that out of you,” she said.
But her political career was launched, inadvertently, with a position she took managing public affairs for Crystal Stairs, a local nonprofit that helps families access childcare. When the organization’s CEO, Holly Mitchell, ran for the California Assembly, Kamlager helped run her campaign, and later joined her office as district director. She followed Mitchell through the ranks of California government: Kamlager ran for Mitchell’s old Assembly seat in 2018, and then ran for her state Senate seat last year when Mitchell stepped down to serve on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
In her time in state office, Kamlager has forged close ties with the Los Angeles Jewish community. “I actually have a bubbe,” she added, referring to an elderly Jewish friend who she thinks of as a grandmother figure. “I say that because it affords me an opportunity to have Shabbat with her and then talk about what’s going on in the community and to hear her side of things.”
Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, who chairs the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, has worked with Kamlager since both were elected to the Assembly in the same special election in 2018.
“She’s not one of these people that suddenly wants to develop a relationship with the Jewish community because she’s running for office,” Gabriel told JI. “She has a decade-long relationship with our community, and has been an ally and friend to our community going back for a pretty long time.”
Kamlager recently emceed a Jewish Free Loan Association gala that Gabriel attended: “I wouldn’t be the most natural emcee for that, because I’m not that funny or entertaining, but she’s perfect,” he said. “She’s not your cookie-cutter, boring politician. She’s going to say funny, entertaining stuff.”
Amid a wave of antisemitism last year that came in the wake of the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas, multiple institutions in the heavily Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood were targeted with vandalism. Kamlager attended a dinner recently at Pat’s Restaurant, where last year a window was broken when someone threw a cinder block through it.
“My husband’s grandmother was Jewish. I’m not Jewish. But I’m an ally, and I think as an ally, it is important to stand up to those kinds of hate crimes when you hear about them,” she recalled. “We had rabbis at that dinner who talked about being assaulted, being afraid to walk to the store to buy groceries, needing to take off their yarmulke — here, in Los Angeles”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center recently honored Kamlager alongside members of the state legislature’s Jewish caucus for helping to secure state funds for the center’s Museum of Tolerance, said Michele Alkin, SWC’s director of global communications.
If elected, Kamlager would represent an even more racially diverse district than she does as a state senator — with immigrants from Ethiopia, Myanmar, Korea, Iran and the Philippines, and religious communities of all faiths. Getting to know those immigrant communities has informed her thinking on foreign policy.
The climate crisis is a key issue for her, at home and abroad, but she also hopes to play a role in global diplomacy. “That’s part of the human condition… to coexist, but also to, you know, get into it. I’m very interested in that, because it’s volatile everywhere,” Kamlager explained. “I want to have a deeper understanding and play some role in the stabilization of this world and the healing of the planet.”
The U.S. is “fortunate,” Kamlager explained, to be allies with “really important countries, and Israel is one of those. And it is important, I think, for our allies to have the right to exist and be able to exist. And sometimes they also need aid to support them in those endeavors. I think that’s incredibly true and has been true for a long time with Israel. And so I also believe that it’s important that we maintain that kind of military aid to Israel.” Kamlager added that she would vote in favor of funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system.
“Their right to exist is routinely threatened, and they’re in a region that is incredibly volatile,” noted Kamlager. “The invasion into Ukraine has only amplified that, I think, in ways that many of us might not have understood.”
When talking about the turbulence in the Middle East, Kamlager pointed out Iran’s role: “Tehran has a plan that is really about the destabilization of the region and also us,” she said. Kamlager voiced support for reentering the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but expressed concern about the progress Iran has made toward building a nuclear weapon, especially following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018, a move she called “disastrous.”
“I think he withdrew us from the JCPOA without a plan, and I think there wasn’t any buy-in from our European allies, and I think that complicated our abilities on so many other fronts with regards to diplomacy and leadership and credibility. And so now, here we are,” she explained.
The U.S. has “an obligation to reenter into the agreement. I think that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good,” said Kamlager. “I think it’s also important for us to be walking into this room, I guess we’ve already walked into it, but to be negotiating eyes wide open with who all the actors are.” The ultimate goal, she said, is “something that will prevent Iran from having access to nuclear weapons and securing the existence of Israel.”
She hopes to see a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the U.S. as an “actively engaged ally” in those conversations. But, she added, “at the end of the day, the agreement must be between Israel and the Palestinians. I think self-determination is incredibly important.” It’s her support for a two-state solution, she said, that colors her opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “I don’t think it does anything to move the needle forward towards a two-state solution, and I don’t think it does anything to advance the continued security of Israel,” said Kamlager.
Gabriel said he is “very optimistic” that Kamlager will be a member of Congress who will “prove that you can be a really strong progressive and an outspoken champion on progressive issues and also be someone who is close to the Jewish community, works with us on our issues and supports Israel.”
Running for Congress has offered an illuminating education in global affairs to Kamlager, and she hopes to join the House Foreign Affairs Committee if elected. But the issues that matter most to her — and her would-be constituents — are at home in LA.
“People will talk about their own thing as it relates to a foreign policy issue. But ultimately, they go back to the issues that everyone else is also talking about: crime, affordability, climate, transportation, funding,” said Kamlager.
She spoke to JI the day after Politico published a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion overturning landmark abortion rights legislation. She serves on the board of the local Planned Parenthood, and the issue motivates her. (“California kind of operates in a bubble,” she said, and “we might have to be with Roe v. Wade right now.”)
“It’s time for a new wave of leadership,” Kamlager said, “who can really speak truth to toxicity and who can work to remind folks that government should be about solving problems, not creating them, and working to kind of upend this compromise of rights and freedoms that we’re seeing happening.”