Sacramento-area candidates advance to the California Legislature

Dr. Richard Pan greets supporters at his election night party.
Dr. Richard Pan greets supporters at his election night party.

Two longtime Sacramento leaders lost their bids for higher office Tuesday, as the region voted in a trio of Democrat-on-Democrat legislative races that attracted millions in outside spending by business and labor groups.

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson and Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn – who have spent a combined 40 years representing Sacramento at the city, county and state levels – lost their respective races for state Senate and Assembly, sending Assemblyman Richard Pan to the state Senate and City Councilman Kevin McCarty to the Assembly.

In both races, voters chose the candidate with less political experience and more financial support from outside interests.

Pan, a doctor who has served two terms in the Assembly, benefited from about $4.1 million in independent spending by doctors, dentists, health care workers, real estate interests, oil companies and insurers who aired commercials blasting Dickinson and praising Pan. That was about eight times as much as the $500,000 spent by trial lawyers, environmentalists, nurses and optometrists to promote Dickinson or attack Pan.

“We had a broad range of people who supported me … from many groups that are not usually considered allies with each other,” Pan said Wednesday. “I think that does speak to the fact that people wanted someone who was focused on solving problems.”

Dickinson said his campaign was hurt by the “onslaught” of negative advertising that hammered on a crisis at Sacramento County’s Child Protective Services during his tenure on the Board of Supervisors. A grand jury report from five years ago said management problems at CPS had contributed to the deaths of some children.

“This is a case where you had a combination of the big money and the big lie. I think we could have beaten either one of them separately but we couldn’t beat them together,” Dickinson said. “The repetition of the false accusations in what happened with efforts to reduce child abuse and neglect were ultimately what changed the tide.”

McCarty benefited from about $340,000 labor groups spent to attack Cohn in a series of mailers that deceptively created the impression he had been jaunting to Paris on the taxpayers’ dime. Cohn, on the other hand, got no help from independent expenditures leading up to the general election and was trounced at the polls, garnering just 42 percent support.

“One day hopefully in this country we’ll learn to run campaigns that aren’t in the gutter,” Cohn said.

McCarty said California’s open primary system in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of their party has created some natural tensions between Democratic colleagues. He and Cohn served 10 years together on the Sacramento City Council, and McCarty said he felt they both ran a spirited campaign.

David Townsend, a Democratic political consultant who runs independent campaigns to support business-friendly Democrats, said the similarities between Cohn and McCarty may have kept some corporate interests from weighing in too heavily in that race.

“There’s not that much difference between them on the issues so there wasn’t willingness for people to step up and spend the kind of money that would be necessary for Cohn to prevail,” Townsend said.

Townsend helped round up corporate support for an independent campaign to help another Sacramento-area Assembly candidate in the race to represent a south-area seat: Elk Grove City Councilman Jim Cooper, who ran against Darrell Fong, a fellow Democrat who serves on the Sacramento City Council. Cooper won, buoyed in part by $1.2 million in spending largely by interests including energy companies, charter schools and the building industry.

“There is a major difference for many interest groups between a moderate pro-jobs Democrat and a progressive Democrat,” Townsend said. “A progressive Democrat is going to want to push a strong environmental agenda, strong government regulation agenda, strong lawsuit expansion. There are a lot of interest groups that don’t think that’s good for California so they’re more interested in people like Pan and Cooper.”

Cooper said the independent spending by groups like Townsend’s wasn’t the only factor that led to his victory.

“That was one piece,” he said. “But we walked a ton throughout the district and got to know everybody in south Sacramento, Greenhaven, the Pocket, Lodi and Galt.”

His opponent Fong benefited from about $433,000 in outside spending, largely by labor groups and real estate interests. In a prepared statement from a spokesman, Fong said it was hard to compete with the money outside groups spent to help Cooper.

The flood of big money in the same-party legislative races in the Sacramento region is a down side of the open primary system, said outgoing Sen. Darrell Steinberg. Pan is filling his spot in the Senate as Steinberg leaves the Legislature due to term limits.

“If you believe, as I think most people believe, that there is way too much money in politics and too much negativity ... then take your displeasure and multiply it by two,” Steinberg said. “Because in many of these races it’s … the same two people from the same party and the same interests are weighing in twice. I can’t see how that’s good for democracy.”