The little girl in the commercial is called Emily. She smiles infectiously as a doctor in a white coat listens to her heart. Her blond hair bounces across her back when she reaches up to give him a high-five.
In real life, the girl’s name is Seneca. Her mom is a lobbyist and her dad is a political consultant. And the man depicted as her doctor is an assemblyman who spends more time in the Capitol than the exam room.
The ads promoting Richard Pan are hitting televisions and mailboxes across the Sacramento region as he competes in a three-way race to replace Sen. Darrell Steinberg in the state Senate. The Democrat who has long represented Sacramento in the state Legislature must leave office at the end of this year due to California’s term limits.
Pan is running for Steinberg’s seat against fellow Democratic Assemblyman Roger Dickinson and a Republican pastor named Jonathan Zachariou. Dickinson has held elected office in Sacramento for more than 20 years. Zachariou is a political novice who has never won an election. Yet the advertising blitz Sacramentans are seeing in the run-up to the June 3 primary focuses almost entirely on Pan, who worked as a UC Davis pediatrician for a dozen years before being elected to the Assembly in 2010.
That’s because Pan has raised more money than his opponents and is also benefiting from big spending by outside interest groups who are sending out mailers and airing commercials. Labor unions representing health care workers, university professors, school employees and construction workers – as well as groups that represent doctors, dentists and real estate agents – have poured more than $600,000 into independent campaigns to support Pan and slam Dickinson.
“Because Roger has been a public figure a whole lot longer, he may be ahead in the race,” said Democratic consultant David Townsend, who manages a business-backed political action committee that has given to Pan.
“The Pan supporters may have felt they needed to do more to make sure that Pan is the second candidate in that race.”
In California’s open primary system, the top two vote-getters – regardless of party affiliation – will advance to the November runoff. That means both Democrats, Pan and Dickinson, could continue duking it out for months to come.
So far, most of the ads promoting Pan highlight his career as a pediatrician before he joined the Legislature. And Seneca Mitchell – the little girl who gives him a high five in the TV commercial – is featured in many of them. Now 5 years old, she was Pan’s patient for about a year and a half before he was elected.
Seneca’s prominent role in his campaign – she also appears in at least four mailers, and Pan’s website features more than two dozen pictures of her – is part of a broader strategy that is downplaying Pan’s experience as a politician in favor of an image as a working doctor. It also illustrates Pan’s close ties to groups that lobby on health care matters.
Pan’s professional relationship with Seneca’s mother goes back several years, before he was elected and before Seneca was born. As a UC Davis pediatrician, Pan was an active member of the group that lobbies for doctors in the Capitol, known as the California Medical Association. Seneca’s mother, Jodi Hicks, was the association’s chief lobbyist.
When Hicks became pregnant and started searching for a doctor for her baby, she said she turned to Pan, whom she already knew through the medical association.
“At that point he never was thinking of being a candidate. It was a very normal patient-pediatrician relationship,” Hicks said. “We put a lot of trust in him.”
When Pan ran for Assembly in 2010, baby Seneca appeared in one of his ads. Hicks said the family still has the billboard in their house.
“Seneca thinks it’s very cool,” she said.
Now Pan chairs the Assembly’s health committee and Hicks is a partner in a Sacramento lobbying firm called DiMare, Brown, Hicks & Kessler. She routinely seeks Pan’s votes as she lobbies for clients that include associations representing family physicians, eye doctors and podiatrists. Those three groups have together given more than $20,000 to Pan’s campaign.
When Pan sought patients to appear in his campaign ads, Hicks said her daughter was excited to participate at the chance to wear make-up and ham it up for the cameras. And Hicks said she thought it was a good opportunity for the family to demonstrate its civic engagement.
“I think it’s common to have volunteers in your commercials and mail. Volunteers tend to be people who are more active in politics,” Hicks said.
“I don’t think anyone other than a few of us here in Sacramento know it’s a lobbyist’s daughter.”
State law forbids lobbyists from making donations to politicians seeking offices they work to influence. But it doesn’t stop lobbyists from volunteering on those campaigns.
Gary Winuk, chief of enforcement for the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, said he couldn’t comment specifically on Pan’s ads. But speaking generally, he said, there would not be a problem with a lobbyist’s child volunteering for a lawmaker’s commercials.
“Lobbyists can’t donate anything of value,” Winuk said. “But personal services like walking or phone banking are not valued monetarily under the (Political Reform) Act.”
The Bee asked Pan why he chose a campaign tactic that so obviously demonstrates his relationship with a lobbyist.
“It’s more my relationship with Seneca, who is a former patient of mine. That’s what it’s really about,” he said.
Pan said he is highlighting his work as a doctor in his campaign for state Senate because it demonstrates his practical in-the-trenches approach to policymaking. Even though he’s been a full-time member of the Assembly the last four years, Pan remains a licensed doctor and volunteers most Fridays seeing patients at a health clinic in Oak Park.
“I’m someone who spent time and continues to spend time on the front lines,” he said.
“In the beginning of the week I guess I help shape the rules as an Assembly member, chair of the health committee. At the end of the week, I have to live by those rules, and my patients do, too.”
While Pan has support from major business and labor interests, Dickinson has the backing of the California Democratic Party. He’s been endorsed by Steinberg as well as several unions and Democratic clubs. And a group that lobbies for trial lawyers has recently stepped in to help him, spending $43,000 on a mailer opposing Pan.
Dickinson is framing the race as one that pits his grass-roots support against Pan’s big-money backers. He said he enjoys a good reputation with many voters after serving 17 years on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors before being elected to the Assembly in 2010.
“I am fortunate that I don’t have to spend an exorbitant amount of money in order to be successful in June,” he said.
“I run as a ground-up community activist who became an elected official at the local level and spent three and a half decades trying to publicly serve the community where I live. I am running against someone who has had his political fortunes largely driven by the support of state-level organizations that have funded him and promoted him. I just think that’s a dynamic.”
Zachariou, the Republican pastor who heads a congregation in Davis, said he is fighting an uphill battle in a largely Democratic district, where his rivals have more money and more name recognition. Zachariou has raised just $6,150 for his campaign.
“I am not politically connected. I am still virtually unknown,” he said.
“What I’m finding in California politics is that (for) people who donate money, especially if it’s a significant amount, there is a hesitation to get behind an underdog.”