When voters here elect a new state legislator Tuesday, they will be making a decision likely to reach far beyond the 7th Senate District’s East Bay borders.
Whether Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla of Concord or political consultant and Orinda Mayor Steve Glazer wins, Democrats will extend their dominant majority. But a fierce, nasty and extremely expensive campaign is nevertheless taking place in the East Bay, as powerful political interests jockey for a more favorable position in the Capitol 75 miles away.
Outside groups have spent about $7 million on the race in the past two months – unions, doctors and dentists to support Bonilla, and business interests, charter schools and Los Angeles businessman Bill Bloomfield to elect Glazer. Negative mailers flood the homes of voters still recovering from a bruising partisan battle in the overlapping 16th Assembly District last year.
“It’s become sport,” veteran Democratic strategist Gale Kaufman said. “When you count up what’s been done last year and what’s been done this year, it’s just dramatically higher than we’ve ever seen in a legislative race.”
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Facing that level of independent spending, candidates are outmaneuvered in every way and face difficulty in getting their message out, added Kaufman, who oversaw an unsuccessful bid for the Senate seat by former Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan during the primary. “You’re not running your own campaign.”
$7 millionIndependent spending to date in the 7th Senate District special election runoff
The money represents an opportunity to shape the debate on important issues forthcoming at the Capitol, including new taxes and efforts to overhaul teacher job protections.
JobsPAC, the political arm of the California Chamber of Commerce, has spent more than $850,000 against Bonilla, who the group views as too tied to organized labor and unsympathetic to the chamber’s annual list of “job killer” bills it opposes.
Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant working on JobsPAC’s campaign, said Bonilla’s desire to follow Proposition 30 with another temporary education tax and a sense that she would undermine Proposition 13’s limits on property taxes also raise concerns.
“The business community would like to know what she would like to tax,” Stutzman said.
JobsPAC is coordinating with the California Charter Schools Association and EdVoice, which hope to elect candidates more supportive of nascent legislative efforts to alter teacher tenure and dismissal laws. The state’s powerful teachers unions vehemently oppose those efforts. The two organizations have spent almost $1.1 million to elect Glazer and about $400,000 against Bonilla, a former high school English teacher.
“If (teachers unions) have Susan Bonilla in the Senate, they have one more” vote against the changes, CalChamber executive vice president Marty Wilson said. “She’s tied to every union. She hasn’t found a union she won’t vote for.”
Organized labor has spent more than $2.7 million on Bonilla’s behalf and to oppose Glazer, who worked for JobsPAC in 2012 to elect more centrist Democrats to the Legislature over union-backed opponents.
Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio, who is spearheading the anti-Glazer operation, said labor resents that Glazer is “pointing a nuclear warhead” at core union values, campaigning on pension overhauls and a ban on Bay Area transit worker strikes that have no chance in the Legislature.
“He simply can’t be trusted,” Maviglio said, and his combative relationship with unions will make it difficult for Glazer to get anything done. “He will be an island in the Senate.”
Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who may pursue an oil-extraction tax on the 2016 ballot, also recently pitched in $150,000 to elect Bonilla, stating that she would stand up to oil companies, even as Chevron and others have donated to her campaign.
Bonilla’s opponents point out that the industry groups supporting her, such as doctors and dentists, have legislation passing through the Assembly Business and Professions Committee, which she chairs.
Bonilla and Glazer have expended much effort to combat the business-vs.-labor storyline, even as they engage in many of the same arguments splashed across the torrent of leaflets.
At their only televised debate in late April, the candidates sparred over Bonilla’s 100 percent rating from the California Labor Federation. While Glazer argued that Bonilla couldn’t name a single issue on which she diverged from organized labor, Bonilla pointed to her votes for pension overhaul efforts at the state and county level.
“I think I’ve been mischaracterized completely,” she said in an interview following the debate. “I’m a moderate Democrat.”
Bonilla likes to discuss her “coalition of supporters,” her committee chairmanship, and her successful deal last year to insure drivers at ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft. At an event later hosted by the Pittsburg Chamber of Commerce, she touted small-business workshops she had brought to her district and criticized overly burdensome state regulations.
“I’m very proud that I got the endorsement of the California Small Business Association,” she told the crowd of about 20 people.
But many of her positions put Bonilla on the left. She wants to follow Proposition 30 with another funding measure focused entirely on education, including additional money for preschools and universities. She also would not support banning public transit workers from striking, an issue that still fires up passionate debate in the district long after a BART shutdown left the East Bay gridlocked in the summer of 2013.
Bonilla said she has received labor’s support because “I have really worked hard to develop collaborative, respectful relationships,” and she said she is getting caught in the middle of a personal rivalry between unions and Glazer.
“They have their issues, and I’m here running for state Senate, “ Bonilla said. “It suits my opponent’s purpose to associate me with that.”
Glazer similarly strenuously objects to his portrayal as anti-worker by organized labor, which stretches back to the brutal 16th Assembly District race, in which he lost in the primary.
Speaking in the sparse back room of his campaign office in Orinda, Glazer said he identified as a progressive Democrat who had crossed unions with his conservative perspective on fiscal matters like pensions and the BART strikes. Mailers have also slammed him for consulting with JobsPAC.
“They’re exacting what they demand of their loyal subjects,” Glazer said.
Glazer has committed to a set of governing principles – no gifts from special interests, no per diem on weekends and holidays when he’s not at the Capitol, hold the line on taxes – and offered opinions on issues like high-speed rail and the Delta tunnels, both of which he opposes. But he won’t name any subjects that he wants to focus on should he be elected.
“I don’t answer to hypotheticals,” he said.
He does, however, consider himself the underdog – despite years of experience behind the scenes in Sacramento, including leading Gov. Jerry Brown to a third term in 2010.
Ever the strategist, Glazer waited to file his statement of intent until an hour before the deadline. He said he wanted to see who else was running and whether there would be a path to victory for him under the top-two primary system. Glazer presents himself as an open-minded centrist who will have to draw in independents and Republicans to overcome opposition from outside groups.
“The Sacramento establishment is firmly behind Susan Bonilla,” Glazer said. “She’s the insider.”
Whether those independents and Republicans – or Democrats, for that matter – will show up to vote Tuesday remains a question.
Voter turnout is notoriously low during special elections; it was about 23 percent during the 7th Senate District primary in March. And local residents are increasingly turned off by the relentless campaign. They’ve got strong words for the slew of campaign pieces, as many as four or five a day, hitting their mailboxes: “obnoxious,” “disgusting,” “waste of money,” “unconscionable,” “smear campaign,” “mudslinging.”
Republican John Cadle, a 72-year-old retiree in Lafayette who said he prides himself on always voting, plans to sit this election out.
“I think it’s the most obscene use of money,” he said. “I have been so annoyed by both parties, especially by this guy Glazer.”
Others are still sifting through the conflicting messages coming their way. Democrat Claire Nelson, an 81-year-old retired teacher in Orinda, worried that Glazer “has been in the pockets of special interests,” but connected to Bonilla’s background in education and endorsement from former Rep. George Miller. Republican Paul Brown, a 54-year-old insurance executive in Danville, liked that the top-two primary system had elevated a moderate candidate like Glazer. Democrat Charlotte Salomon, a 56-year-old attorney in Pleasanton, fretted that Glazer was “sabotaging his own party.”
All of them said they’ve been tossing the barrage of fliers right into the garbage.
Kaufman said voters are happy to detail what issues are driving their opinions on the race, but “when there’s $3 million, it’s hard to say” what they’re truly voting on.