The previous time Cecilia Aguiar-Curry ran for office, the Winters mayor said, the low-budget campaign involved reusing lawn signs.
Her current race is on a different order of magnitude.
A torrent of outside money has flowed into the liberal 4th Assembly District, with groups that include education reformers, oil companies and real estate interests spending $1.9 million through Thursday to buoy Aguiar-Curry.
The cash cascade reprises an increasingly common interest-group strategy of elevating business-friendly Democrats in districts dominated by Democratic voters. Oil industry surrogates are playing in three races this year involving sitting lawmakers. In this case, the lack of an incumbent lawmaker presents a wide-open opportunity to elect a new lawmaker who shares their views.
The law forbids candidates from coordinating with independent expenditure groups. Aguiar-Curry said she had no idea “why anyone has given me money” and stressed she was “not beholden to one single person.” But she acknowledged that the spending surge has reconfigured the race.
“This is a new arena for me, and I am learning as I go, and it has been an eye-opener,” Aguiar-Curry said. “I must admit,” she added, “I feel pretty much out of control.”
In the end, a Democrat will almost certainly become the area’s next Assembly member. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a nearly 2-1 ratio in the 4th District, which encompasses six counties but draws the most constituents from Yolo and Napa.
So the contest has come to center on what type of Democrat will win. Aguiar-Curry’s opponents, both staunch environmentalists, argue that self-interested groups are artificially propping up a more centrist candidate in defiance of voters’ liberal leanings. Aguiar-Curry lags behind her Democratic opponents in direct donations but has vaulted far ahead in outside support.
“What we see is a full-scale effort to create a candidate,” said Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor, one of Aguiar-Curry’s opponents. “We are seeing a new way for big-money interests to influence the outcome of elections and that is alarming to many people. … They’re not doing it as a matter of charity. They’re doing it because they think there’s an aligned interest with the candidate.”
That dynamic echoes the outcome in 2014, when groups funded by a panoply of business interests, from Realtors to insurance firms to oil and tobacco companies, spent around $538,000 to propel the more centrist Bill Dodd into a general election runoff over now-Davis Mayor Dan Wolk.
“I think it’s par for the course,” campaign consultant Andrew Acosta, who briefly advised Saylor last year, said of the deluge. “There was a ton of money that moved last time.”
Wolk, who is again seeking the seat now that Dodd has vacated the post to run for state Senate, downplayed the similarities. But, like Saylor, he condemned the outside influence.
“They’re really trying to buy the Legislature, to ensure they have Assembly members and senators sitting in those chairs that are going to be strong on their interests,” Wolk said.
Seeking to counteract the influx, more traditional liberal allies have begun spending for Wolk. A committee funded by nurses and consumer attorneys has since spent more than $60,000 to advance Wolk and hit Aguiar-Curry. School employees have backed Wolk with another $18,000.
Even with that money, the Winters mayor has been the main beneficiary of outside spending. Around $680,000 of support for Aguiar-Curry, or opposition to Wolk, has come from EdVoice, a group that has clashed with the powerful California Teachers Association over issues like charter schools and how educators are evaluated. The CTA has endorsed Wolk.
“We look at folks who would be independent from the traditional status quo defenders in education,” said EdVoice President Bill Lucia, though he repeatedly rejected the notion that EdVoice was directly opposing the CTA.
More galling to some liberals in the district is the oil money.
A committee called the the Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class, whose money comes from Chevron, Valero and Tesoro, has spent almost $341,000 for Aguiar-Curry. Among other things, that money has bought $70,000 worth of potholders (the Wolk campaign responded with mailers depicting an oil-soaked potholder).
More than $321,000 has flowed to support Aguiar-Curry or oppose Wolk from a group called Keeping Californians Working, which has gotten $1.1 million from Chevron as well as funding from groups representing dentists and the apartment industry.
A spokeswoman for the Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class declined to name specific policy stances that earned Aguiar-Curry the organization’s support, saying only that it backs “leaders who protect California jobs and the middle class.” A spot funded by the group mentions Aguiar-Curry’s work promoting STEM education and alludes to support for education from “California’s energy companies.”
On last year’s signature environmental fight, Aguiar-Curry diverges from Wolk and Saylor. Senate Bill 350 initially mandated a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use. The oil industry launched a full-scale assault on that provision, cultivating support among moderate Democrats and ultimately forcing legislative leaders to abandon the gas reduction.
Both Wolk and Saylor say they would have supported the mandate. But Aguiar-Curry said she would not, voicing concerns about the impact on low-income Californians that were similar to the criticisms lodged by moderate Assembly Democrats last year.
“We’re talking about communities that are struggling. In this district, if I’m going to represent this district, we need to be sure we can continue to have business thrive, have agriculture thrive ... this all has to do with cost,” Aguiar-Curry said. “I have people that can’t get to a chemotherapy appointment because we have minimal bus access.”
Aguiar-Curry said she supports reducing greenhouse gases and imposing a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, qualifying her remarks in a recent debate that “the jury’s still out for me” on the technique.
But constituents have noticed the deluge of campaign activity, and some have noticed who’s paying for it.
“People are just getting bombarded,” said Yolo County Democratic Party Chairman Bob Schelen. The organization endorsed Wolk.
The race also includes a fourth Democrat, Elmer Mark Kropp, and a lone Republican, Charlie Schaupp.
While the blitz has likely pushed Aguiar-Curry’s name into peoples’ consciousness, Schelen argued that could backfire in a district with a strong environmentalist bent.
“She’s probably the least known of the three candidates,” Schelen said, but “people do pay attention to where the money comes from.”
“You have such a high environmental IQ that when you get something and people say, ‘Hey, this is from the oil companies,’ people stand up and take notice.”
The mailers and ads could be more effective in swaying voters closer to the middle of the spectrum, including some of the 54,000 voters without a party preference who reside in the district. If Wolk and Saylor split the progressive vote, Aguiar-Curry could capitalize.
“She’s been elevated by this huge expenditures of outside capital, which in the long run is going to hurt both Dan Wolk and Don Saylor,” said Davis Democratic Club President Stephen Souza. “If you asked me before this capital was spent who the top two were going to be, I’d say Don and Dan. … I’m not so sure now.”
Such twists have become a recurring feature of modern legislative campaigns, where independent spending can easily eclipse traditional fundraising.
“You show up to play soccer, you get your cleats on,” Acosta said, “and then two teams show up with football helmets and start tackling everybody.”
Jim Miller contributed to this report.