Isaac Bryan declares victory in California Assembly special election. He wants to ‘move policy at a faster rate’

“Having millions of folks march in the streets of Los Angeles and around the country has allowed for us to really reimagine the role of some of our civic infrastructures when they exacerbate ... historical harms in our communities of color,” says Isaac Bryan. Photo courtesy of Isaac Bryan’s campaign.

A couple hundred ballots must still be counted, but it looks like Isaac Bryan will soon be on his way to Sacramento. The community organizer and educator has declared victory in the recent special election for the 54th Assembly District, which includes Westwood, Culver City, Leimert Park and more.  

Bryan is the founding director of the UCLA Black Policy Project and a big proponent of Measure J, which funds alternatives to incarceration. 

The special election comes as the nation marks one year since George Floyd’s murder, which ignited protests across the U.S. and inspired a new generation to get politically active.

Isaac Bryan joined KCRW on Monday night to share his reflections on the last year and his plans for the future. 

KCRW: As of Friday, elections officials said you had something like 50.8% of the vote. That’s more than double what your nearest opponent has. Is your campaign pretty sure there won’t be a runoff?

Isaac Bryan: “We're incredibly sure there's not going to be a runoff. We had some key folks down at the registrar watching those final ballots get counted. There was [sic] about 7,900 that were counted on Friday. We needed 51% of those to win outright. We picked up 55% of those. Of the couple of hundreds still left to count, if we lost all of them, we’d still have over 50% to win, and it doesn't look like we'll lose all of them.

It's a community victory. … This isn't a campaign about me, and I didn't do this by myself.”

Today marks one year since George Floyd’s murder. It sent millions into the street, shook up the presidential race, and launched a slew of racial justice reforms in LA County. One of those was Measure J. It reallocates at least 10% of county funds toward social justice efforts. And you were the co-chair of that campaign. Did your effort with Measure J spark your interest in running for this office?

“In part. Measure J gave me a lot of hope in the possible. Because what happened last year after the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor,  Rayshard Brooks and countless others is that we took to the streets in frustration. And the thing you continually heard is what is the policy solution? Measure J or ‘Measure Justice,’ as we aptly called it, was a transformative ballot measure that had repercussions across the entire country. 

The hundreds of millions of dollars that Measure J allocates will go towards alternatives to incarceration, small business support, job training, youth development, affordable housing, all of the community infrastructure we know supplant the role of the criminal legal system. So Measure J laid that framework. 

How it relates to me running for the State Assembly is I realized with Measure J that it's taking too long for good work at the local level to make it to the state level.”

The same week that Measure J passed, you said a family member of yours was in an encounter with police. Did that also contribute to your decision to leap into the political forum?

“Absolutely. I mean, it's all very personal. … I'm one of nine adopted siblings in a family of 15. I have loved ones who are incarcerated. I have loved ones who are unhoused. I have loved ones who lost their economic footing during the pandemic. I have loved ones who contracted COVID.  … Just about every way systems can fail, they have failed in my family. 

I'm the only one of my adopted brothers and sisters who made it to college, let alone a graduate degree. I see very real people and very real lives in some of our systemic failures. And when it comes to the criminal legal system, very much so. I see my baby brother, who is a joy to the world and a joy to society, who has never had a fair chance at opportunity. And instead of investing in development like we do for a lot of young people, we've invested in his criminalization. 

In LA County, we're a leader in the fact that we spend over $400,000 per year per young person to incarcerate them in the juvenile justice system. And what Measure J and many others are pushing for is to think more broadly about a youth development system and how we build communities of care and opportunity. And I think the state needs to think that way as well. And that's why I ran.”

How personal is this win?

“I think the people that are closest to the pain or the closest to the solutions, right. Those who have been failed by historic policy failures are the ones that can give you the most nuance as we come up with policy solutions and interventions. 

And so being someone who's been touched by many different systemic failures from education systems to child welfare systems and otherwise, but also has a graduate education in public policy analysis and …  and [has been] successfully crafting, implementing and driving policy change, I think I bring something to the Legislature that we've been missing. And hopefully as a young legislator, it also opens the door of what's possible for an entire generation that has been disgruntled and felt unseen.”

What do you think you'll be able to accomplish in the Assembly that you've not been able to do  as an organizer or academic?

“A lot of the work that I've done currently has impacted changes at the local level. We've impacted some statewide policy SB-439, which ended the prosecution of kids under the age of 12. 

But to be an actual legislator in Sacramento is going to allow me to take the skills of policy analysis, coalition building — all rooted and uplifting the community — and move policy at a faster rate. And I also know that there are just literal votes missing on some key changes. There was a decertification bill in the State Legislature last year that died in the Assembly because we didn't have the right champions. That bill is back this year.”

This is SB-2 — the bill to decertify rogue cops?

“Absolutely, and it's something that California is an outlier in terms of the rest of the country. And the fact that we don't already have this kind of a decertification system in place, the fact that it couldn't pass last year after the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, it's incredibly unfortunate. … We've got to have the right folks in the Assembly. 

So being there gives me a literal voice on a critically important issue. We've also got to think about qualified immunity and other components of the original language of the bill that may or may not make it to the final product.”

Some critics are saying that LA County's budget isn't dedicating as much money as activists had hoped in this first year of Measure J. How are you gauging this initial effort with the measure?

“I agree with those critics. Well, we mobilized … 10% of unrestricted county revenues, which is about $800-900 million. 

It's what voters knew they were voting on. It's what members of the Board of Supervisors had said during the campaign, only now to have that short changed to $100-300 million. The nuance of it being in this first year is critically important because if you don't get the right allocation in this first year, it makes it that much harder for [the] community to go back to the table next year and reclaim what we have already won.”

Do you have reflections on how the past year has impacted local politics and community organizing? 

“I think one of the things that we've learned, especially over this last year, is that a small, committed group of engaged and caring folks in the community can make a huge difference. And a much larger group can make an even larger difference. Having millions of folks march in the streets of Los Angeles and around the country has allowed for us to really reimagine the role of some of our civic infrastructures when they exacerbate … historical harms in our communities of color — Black, Brown, poor, Indigenous and otherwise. And so that's given me a lot of hope.”