Capitol Alert

Are Bill Dodd and Mariko Yamada headed for a November faceoff?

Assemblyman Bill Dodd, D-Napa, during session at the Capitol on March 26, 2015.
Assemblyman Bill Dodd, D-Napa, during session at the Capitol on March 26, 2015. The Sacramento Bee file

With an overwhelming registration advantage, it’s almost certain that a Democrat will succeed termed-out Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, in the 3rd California Senate District this November.

But which one? And could it be decided by the upcoming June primary?

While three Democrats and one Republican are competing to represent this district stretching from Yolo to Sonoma counties, attention has largely focused on the most well-known and well-funded candidates in the race: Assemblyman Bill Dodd of Napa and former Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada of Davis. If both of those Democrats finish in the top two and advance to the runoff, voters could see what thus far has been a staid campaign transform into an intraparty brawl spurred on by business groups, unions and other wealthy outsiders.

“Do we see Dem-on-Dem violence? Or is it the Democrat against the sacrificial lamb?” said David McCuan, a professor of political science at Sonoma State University.

The determining factor may be the third Democrat, Gabe Griess, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel running for his first political office. “He’s a one-town candidate,” McCuan said, but if Griess has a particularly strong showing around his home base of Vacaville, one of the district’s largest cities, it could siphon enough votes away from Dodd or Yamada to allow Republican Greg Coppes to slip through.

Griess “can be somewhat of a spoiler,” McCuan said. “This is a place where he could affect who the top two are.”

No public polling for the race has been done, but by any fiscal measure, Dodd is the overwhelming favorite. He has raised more than $1.82 million since Jan. 1, compared to about $263,000 by Yamada, $171,000 by Griess and $18,000 by Coppes. More than $2.25 million in independent spending has flowed into the district, all but about $45,000 of it in support of Dodd’s candidacy.

A former Republican county supervisor, Dodd switched party affiliations and was elected to the Assembly in 2014. Last July, only seven months into his first term, he announced his bid to jump over the state Senate, a move that Dodd says demonstrates his “sincerity in wanting to get things done” because he would lose two years in office under term-limit rules.

“The caucus is much smaller. You don’t have to have a leader who has to herd cats,” Dodd said in an interview with The Bee editorial board. “I really believe that I can get more done.”

Dodd said he would like to be a leader on water issues in the Senate. He is “totally opposed” to the controversial project to bore conveyance tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in order to transport water to Southern California, which he believes would be too costly to be worthwhile, and would rather see the state build more above-ground water storage sites.

He also seeks more of a balance between California’s aggressive environmental goals, which he said he broadly supports through policies like the cap-and-trade program, and economic considerations.

Dodd did not support a provision in last year’s priority climate-change legislation to cut consumption of transportation fuels in half by 2030 because he said there was no viable plan presented for how to achieve that reduction, though it was stripped out of the bill before it came to him for a vote. He held off voting for an ultimately unsuccessful measure mandating further reductions to California’s greenhouse gas emissions, which he said would have exacerbated the affordable housing crisis by driving up construction costs.

“I got more than 7,000 e-mails, phone calls and cards in my office asking me to vote yes,” he said. “There’s nobody else on my race, at least on the Democratic side, that would have the strength to stand up to that and take a pass.”

Yamada, who served in the Assembly from 2008 to 2014, said she wants to return to the Legislature to complete work she left unfinished because of term limits. Her focus is on aging and long-term care, an area she believes will be increasingly important in the years ahead as California faces a “silver tsunami” of retiring baby boomers.

Rising health care and pension costs must be addressed to keep the systems sustainable for the future, she told The Bee editorial board. “The message sent to this next generation is that they’re going to have to work longer, harder and stronger for less benefits, and I think it’s unfortunate.”

Yamada also opposes the Delta tunnels, which she calls “environmentally and fiscally unsound.” She said the state should take further conservation and recycling measures to fix its unstable water supply, explore options like desalination and “have an honest discussion about the kinds of crops that are planted and where.”

“It all needs to be on the table,” she said.

While acknowledging she would be one of the Legislature’s most liberal members if elected, Yamada insisted that she would be more independent than Dodd, whom she criticized for not supporting last year’s climate change legislation and other bills opposed by the business community. She pointed to recession budget cuts in 2008, when she was the only Assembly Democrat who didn’t vote to eliminate funding for a long-running program that covers farmers’ property taxes if they keep their land undeveloped, as an example of the “kind of strength of character” she does not think Dodd exhibits.

Yamada said the special interest groups that have overwhelmingly backed Dodd in the race do not want her to return to the Capitol, but she draws on the example of her first win in 2008, when she overcame a better-funded opponent in the Democratic primary: “Time and again, we’ve shown that we beat big money. We hope that we do it again.”

Outside interests have stepped up to boost Dodd’s chances. Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, an independent expenditure funded by Chevron, PG&E and other companies to elect more business-friendly Democrats, has spent more than $220,000 on mailers and media buys on his behalf.

David Townsend, a political consultant with the committee, said they are aiming to lift Dodd’s profile in the district so that he can capture enough of the vote in June to advance against a Republican opponent rather than a fellow Democrat, which would offer a more competitive race in November.

“He represents the whole district, not just the left,” Townsend said.

The biggest spender by far has been EdVoice, which advocates for school choice, incorporating student achievement into teacher evaluations and other policies to overhaul the public school system. The group, which draws big donations from wealthy philanthropists like Bill Bloomfield, Doris Fisher and Eli Broad, has poured nearly $1.4 million into the race.

President and CEO Bill Lucia said they support Dodd for not “defending the status quo” in education. Their huge investment, which has put the 3rd Senate District ahead of all other legislative races this year for independent spending, is because of the size of the district, he said, and has nothing to do with former EdVoice president Christopher Cabaldon losing to Yamada in 2008.

The backing of organized labor, both financial and on the ground, was crucial for pushing Yamada over the edge in that primary. A similar dynamic has not emerged this time around.

Many skilled trade unions endorsed Dodd, as did the California Labor Federation, the California Faculty Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The powerful California Teachers Association has not weighed in at all. Most of those labor groups that are supporting Yamada, including the Service Employees International Union, have not kicked in any independent expenditures to match the arsenal behind Dodd.

“Anyone who would draw a conclusion from money and spending alone is making a mistake,” said Don Nielsen, director of government relations for the California Nurses Association, which gave to an independent expenditure that has spent about $20,000 on pro-Yamada mailers.

Nielsen said his union endorsed Yamada for her work on health care issues, including defending the disabled community and nurses’ scope of practice. They’ve sent volunteers into the district for phone banks and to knock on doors.

“People power is a very significant thing,” Nielsen said.

Click here to go to The Money Trail.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff