Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

LA supervisors: HIV-positive and former addict, Duran is a rare candidate

West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran is among eight candidates vying to replace Zev Yaroslavsky on the LA County board of supervisors.  (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for GREENZYS).
West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran is among eight candidates vying to replace Zev Yaroslavsky on the LA County board of supervisors. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for GREENZYS).
Michael Buckner

Talk to just about any pundit and they’ll tell you the race to replace Zev Yaroslavsky on the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is a done deal. They’ll say former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver will face former State Senator Sheila Kuehl in a runoff after next Tuesday’s election.

Why? Because they are better known than the six other candidates and have the most money. Shriver has raised nearly a million dollars and poured another million of his own money into the campaign. Kuehl has raised $1.2 million.

But one candidate may have a shot at squeezing into the runoff and displacing either Shriver or Kuehl. He is John Duran, an attorney who’s served on the West Hollywood City Council for the past dozen years.

“I didn’t even know John Duran was in the race until Garcetti endorsed him,” said West L.A. resident Bob Arkin, echoing the sentiment of many other voters at a recent debate at Stephen Weiss Temple. “I will take a second look at him.”

The endorsements of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles Times have given Duran a boost. He’s also raised $400,000. That’s short of Shriver and Kuehl but far more than any of the other candidates, none of whom were invited to the last debate.

At that debate, Duran delivered an unusual answer to a question about providing rehabilitation to drug addicts caught up in the criminal justice system.

“There but for the grace of god go I,” he said solemnly. “Seventeen years ago I was at the end of a vodka bottle and the end of an extraordinary drug run and collapsed.”

Duran, 54, said he’s been clean ever since. Lori Arkin was unfazed.

“That’s the past,” she said.  “If he’s leading a productive life and doing good for people, that’s what we focus on.”

Duran argues his past would make him a better supervisor, a job that requires overseeing the county jails and mental health care system.

“I’d be a very strong advocate for rehabilitation and recovery,” he said in an interview after the debate.

Another part of Duran's resume makes him a unique candidate.

“There are four HIV positive elected officials in the United States today,” he said during the interview. “I’m one of the four.”

“It doesn’t make a difference to me,” said Bob Arkin. “I think it’s reflective of where we’ve come in our society that people are living with HIV and living productive lives.” He and his wife remain undecided in the race.

Duran grew up in what he described as a lower middle class Latino family in East L.A. Early in his legal career, he fought for the rights of HIV positive people and medical marijuana users. You might think an HIV positive gay former drug addict from West Hollywood and former American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California board member would be the most liberal candidate in the race.

But Duran seeks to portray himself as more fiscally conservative than his fellow Democratic contenders Shriver and Kuehl in an effort to attract Republican and independent voters in this non-partisan race. He pointed to his pro-development votes on the city council and his opposition to a county plan to hire more permanent full-time nurses – something both of his opponent support. County health officials say the new nurses would be able to provide better service. Duran argues it would be too expensive and continuing to hire private contract nurses.

“I think I’d be a very good centrist vote on the board of supervisors,” he argued.

“He’s got an outside shot to make the runoff,” said Raphe Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. “He’s in the conversation.”

Shriver, who is the nephew of President Kennedy, has said he worked to clean up polluted Santa Monica beaches and raised millions of dollars to fight AIDS in Africa. He’s also said he aims to follow in the footsteps of his father, Sargent Shriver, who started the Peace Corps and led President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

“I am a change agent,” Shriver declared at the last debate.

Kuehl, who has the backing of the L.A. County Democratic Party, called herself a “lifelong activist” and best prepared to serve as a supervisor because of her years as a state legislator.

“I represented this area for 14 years in the legislature,” Kuehl said. “I think it was the best preparation for this job.”

Duran maintained many voters remain undecided in this race. He knows he faces long odds, but that doesn't bother him.

“I’ve been in David and Goliath situations before in my life.”