SACRAMENTO (AP) — A special election Tuesday for state Senate is being pitched as a decision about who represents real Democratic values: the state lawmaker and former teacher endorsed by the California Democratic Party, or the Orinda mayor and longtime adviser to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
The answer has ripples beyond the east San Francisco Bay Area Senate district Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla and political consultant Steve Glazer are vying to represent. The contest has become a high-stakes game between wealthy organized labor and big business groups that have funneled most of the more than $7 million spent so far into nasty, name-calling campaigns.
At the heart of the fight is labor’s ongoing fury against Glazer after he worked for a Chamber of Commerce-funded committee in 2012 to unseat incumbent Democrats in the Legislature and replace them with Democrats considered friendly to business interests.
Now, union-backed interests including the powerful California Teachers Association, the State Council of Service Employees and a billionaire environmentalist have put a total of $2.6 million into a committee opposing Glazer, with mailers and attack ads asking “Is he for sale?”
The question refers to the nearly $1.5 million in independent spending made on Glazer’s behalf by wealthy Los Angeles developer Bill Bloomfield.
“Glazer’s agenda: Cutting public schools to pay for tax cuts for millionaires like Bloomfield,” says one ad.
There are 15 separate committees set up to defeat him.
The attacks against Bonilla are equally brutal, accusing her of being fiscally irresponsible, allowing predatory teachers to stay in the classroom and taking lavish junkets paid for by special interests.
“Think about it. Is this the behavior you want from your state senator?” asks one ad.
The candidates have no say in virtually all of the attacks being launched. The ads are funded by outside groups that cannot coordinate with the candidate campaigns — an example of the growing influence of wealthy special interests in California politics.
“This is actually a perfect example of how campaigns have been taken away from the candidates and they are now in the hands of special interests, the interests that are running the independent expenditures. That’s a sea change in California politics,” said Katie Merrill, a Bay Area Democratic political consultant who has previously done work for Bonilla.
Both candidates have urged voters to throw out the fliers cramming their mailboxes.
“It’s deeply frustrating,” Bonilla said. “I believe most voters prefer making their decision based on the reality and the real facts of what the candidates have already accomplished.”
She has authored legislation to help beginner teachers, allow local governments to shut down illegal massage businesses and brokered a deal last year requiring ride-sharing companies to carry more insurance.
Ironically, both candidates have pitched themselves as moderates in the mold of Brown, who has pushed fiscal restraint since he returned to Sacramento after Glazer ran his campaign in 2010.
Bonilla, of Concord, notes that she is a member of the ruling party’s moderate caucus and bills herself as business friendly, though labor unions are her biggest backers in the general election race.
Glazer angered those groups further when he called for a ban on transit strikes as Bay Area Rapid Transit workers threatened a walkout. Unions spent heavily to defeat Glazer when he ran for Assembly last year, leading to a Republican win in a district where Democrats held a registration edge.
This time, Glazer is appealing to the nearly 29 percent of voters in the district who are Republican and the 22 percent who are independents. Democrats have nearly 44 percent registration.
“I’ve talked about being socially progressive and fiscally conservative and my independence to take on my party interests as well as special interests,” he said. “They want to treat me the same way they treat a typical Republican, which is to demonize the Republican and attack them.”
His campaign platform includes a promise to reject gifts from special interests and refuse fundraising at certain critical times.
The race is expected to be close. Early absentee returns show a strong turnout from Republicans. The Democratic Party is sending hundreds of people to knock on doors for Bonilla this weekend.
One outcome is clear: Whoever wins Tuesday to fill the seat vacated when Mark DeSaulnier was elected to Congress will have to relive the ordeal next year, when the seat comes up for re-election.