Steve Glazer's fight with Democrats might be a footnote to the 2012 election, except for what it shows about the dominant party in California and the new political order of the top-two primary.
Hardly a reactionary, Glazer started as an aide to Gov. Jerry Brown when he was a college kid, and campaigned in 1986 to save the late Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, though voters ousted her.
After helping Brown again in the 2010 election, Glazer became a consultant for the California Chamber of Commerce, hoping to elect moderate Democrats. That's when he crossed Speaker John A. Pérez and labor.
Six months after the election, charges fly of unethical practices. Some people involved have lawyered up, anticipating a Fair Political Practices Commission investigation. Although parts of the story are murky, here's what is known:
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Early in 2012, with Glazer's aid, the California Chamber of Commerce's political action committee, Jobs PAC, targeted two Assembly Democrats – Betsy Butler from the Santa Monica area, and Michael Allen from Marin and Sonoma.
Allen and Butler were liberals in a house dominated by liberals. But they stood out because they faced challenges from other Democrats – Richard Bloom, then Santa Monica mayor, and Marc Levine, then a San Rafael city councilman.
The Chamber of Commerce sought to seize an opportunity by showing that the right type of Democratic challengers could knock off incumbents who cross business.
Pérez, trying to protect incumbents, told power players including the Chamber of Commerce to butt out of the Butler and Allen races. Not wanting to anger the speaker, the chamber and Glazer stood down, or so it appeared.
But instead of directly attacking the incumbents, Jobs PAC gave its polling and research – raw material of mailers – to another business group, Western Growers Association, which proceeded to pummel Allen and Butler.
One mailer accused Butler of defending sexual predators who are teachers, by voting to kill a bill that would have made it easier to fire pervert-teachers. Another mailer accused Allen of taking "hundreds of thousands in campaign cash from special interest unions."
Though brutal, the attacks would have been within bounds if a Republican firm had produced them. But Western Growers disclosed that its mail firm had the same Virginia address as Kevin Mack. Mack was partners in a Democratic mail house, Mack-Crounce Group, whose clients included labor and Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.
Mack evidently didn't know his partner, Jim Crounce, was responsible for the mail. Confronted with evidence gathered by an aide to Pérez, Mack split from Crounce. The matter of retribution remained.
The California Labor Federation plans to meet on May 23 to consider placing consultants who helped defeat Allen and Butler on labor's "do not patronize" list. Glazer could be among the blackballed.
"You can't be taking labor money with one hand, and with the other hand be bashing us with a stick," federation spokesman Steve Smith said.
Facing pressure from Democrats, the Chamber of Commerce recently amended its 2012 campaign reports, acknowledging that although it didn't pay for the attacks, it gave information worth about $100,000 to Western Growers, which in turn amended its reports to reflect the contribution.
Chamber and Western Growers executives are hardly neophytes. It's hard to believe they didn't know the reporting requirements.
"Someone or some group of people went to extraordinary lengths to hide the true information of what was going on in those two contests," said Democratic strategist Gale Kaufman, who represents the California Teachers Association.
The fight is sure to spill into 2014. Glazer, an Orinda city councilman, is running for a Contra Costa Assembly seat. Kaufman represents his opponent, Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti, a leader in the California Teachers Association's political operation.
Glazer is unrepentant, saying in an email: "We need to elect courageous Democratic leaders who are challenging pay, pensions, privileges and perks."
Levine and Bloom, the beneficiaries of the machinations, are not proving to be squishy Democrats. Levine is pushing to ban smoking in apartments. Bloom wants to ban smoking at state beaches. Each is carrying legislation to regulate fracking. The Chamber of Commerce calls them "job killer" bills.
The entire matter is hardly a footnote. It illustrates a new reality, and an old story. The party and labor used to handpick candidates. The top-two primary system alters that equation. However, people with power don't willingly cede it, as it always has been.
Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.