Politics & Government

Five-way fight for 7th Assembly District

Three city council veterans will square off June 3 in the heavily Democratic 7th Assembly District, vying to fill the seat incumbent Assemblyman Roger Dickinson is vacating to run for state Senate.

Steve Cohn and Kevin McCarty are both labor-friendly liberals from Sacramento. If there is a recent issue that has divided them, it is the question of a public subsidy for the new Sacramento arena promised as an incentive to keep the Kings in town. McCarty has been a vocal skeptic of the subsidy, while Cohn has aligned with Mayor Kevin Johnson in embracing it. Johnson has endorsed Cohn.

A group with ties to Johnson and a history of supporting moderates, Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, has spent thousands in favor of Cohn. So, too, has the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, indicating that business interests prefer Cohn to McCarty.

Experience should help with name recognition for both of them. Cohn is the longest-tenured member of the City Council, while McCarty boosted his public profile by running for the Assembly in 2010, narrowly losing to incumbent Dickinson.

The third Democrat in the race, West Sacramento City Council member Mark Johannessen, is better known to constituents living in the western part of the district. The 7th covers the entirety of West Sacramento, giving a power base to the second-term Johannessen.

The presence of three viable Democratic candidates in McCarty, Cohn and Johannessen raises the possibility that Democratic voters will split and allow one of the Republican candidates to capture a top-two spot.

The conservative contenders are teacher Ralph Merletti, who unsuccessfully ran for a school board seat in 2012, and legislative intern Oliver Ponce. Both face long odds, although Ponce has gotten some money from Republican super-benefactor Charles Munger Jr..

Steve Cohn

Party: D

Biography: Cohn, 60, has been a Sacramento city councilman for 20 years. He worked as an attorney for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District from 1992 to 2011 and for the California Energy Commission from 1979 to 1992. Cohn was a judge pro tem for the Sacramento Superior Court from 1984 to 1994.

Key supporters: Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce PAC, Peace Officers Research Association of California.

On the issues: He supports high-speed rail “in principle,” but wants to focus on upgrading existing rail routes such as the Capital Corridor. He wants a comprehensive water strategy that provides more storage “where environmentally appropriate.” Like many candidates, Cohn wants to see how recreational marijuana legalization plays out elsewhere before supporting it here. He wants to lower the two-thirds vote requirement for raising taxes for local schools and transportation.

Website: stevecohnassembly.com

Mark Johannessen

Party: D

Biography: Johannessen, 58, has served on the West Sacramento City Council for the past eight years and has been on the state Senate Advisory Commission on Cost Control in State Government since 2003, serving as chairman since 2010. He is an attorney and mediator for family-law issues. He is the son of former Republican legislator Maurice Johannessen of Redding.

Key supporters: West Sacramento Police Officers Association, Sacramento State College Democrats, former Senate leader Don Perata.

On the issues: Johannessen backs Gov. Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail project but opposes his water tunnel plan. He supports more surface and groundwater storage. On marijuana, he supports “cautiously moving forward with decriminalization, so as to regulate and tax its production.” He says voters should have the final say on tax increases.

Website: markjohannessen.com

Kevin McCarty

Party: D

Biography: McCarty, 42, has served on the Sacramento City Council since 2004, moving up after a four-year stint as an appointee to the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. He is a lobbyist at the Capitol for a preschool advocacy group, Early Edge California. Before that, he was a policy consultant in the Assembly and for former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

Key supporters: California Teachers Association, Sierra Club, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

On the issues: He supports the “vision” of high-speed rail but wants the initial focus on shorter intercity routes, such as Sacramento to San Francisco. He opposes the governor’s water tunnel plan and wants to increase the state’s surface and underground water storage capacity. He wants to see how recreational marijuana legalization plays out elsewhere before supporting it here. McCarty says voters should consider lowering the sales tax but apply it to more items.

Website: McCartyforAssembly.com

Ralph Merletti

Party: R

Biography: Merletti, a 68-year-old Sacramentan, is a substitute teacher at Gateway Community Charters and Yuba City Unified School District. From 2006 to 2013, he taught at Grant/Twin Rivers Unified School District.

Key supporters: None listed.

On the issues: Merletti says high-speed rail needs more study while the focus remains on highway construction and repair. He supports the proposed Sites reservoir in Colusa County. He opposes marijuana legalization. He says taxes are too high, opposes taxpayer-funded abortions and wants to see tax cuts or spending “that will encourage a return to traditional family values and a culture of life.”

Email: ralph_merletti@yahoo.com.

Oliver Ponce

Party: R

Biography: At 22, Ponce is by far the youngest candidate in the race. He is an intern in the Assembly, and on Saturday, he received his bachelor’s degree in government from Sacramento State.

Key supporters: Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, River City Republicans.

On the issues: He says high-speed rail is a “novel idea” but too expensive for taxpayers. He supports building more reservoirs and dams for water storage. He is neutral on legalizing marijuana for recreational use but believes over-regulation of it will promote a black market. He supports tax cuts.

Website: facebook.com/PonceForAssembly

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