The race for an Assembly seat in the East Bay has opened a deep rift in the Democratic Party and a rare opportunity for a Bay Area Republican.
Labor unions are backing Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti, while business groups are getting behind Orinda City Councilman Steve Glazer in the 16th Assembly District—which runs from Walnut Creek down the 680 corridor and into the Livermore Valley.
Sbranti and Glazer are the two leading candidates, and they’re fighting a heated campaign full of attack ads paid for by independent groups. But the two have a lot in common.
They’ve both served as council members and mayors of their respective cities, and both say they’ll make good use in Sacramento of their experience balancing budgets and keeping their cities debt free and friendly to business.
“The first night I became mayor, we made economic development our priority,” said Sbranti in an recent interview. “When I go to bed at night that’s what I think about … are we doing a good job to attract and retain jobs in our city?”
Steve Glazer starts just about every interview with this phrase:
“I’m a fiscally conservative Democrat that’s socially progressive.”
But these two lifelong Democrats come from opposite wings of their party, and they’re waging a political war that has drawn more than $3 million in spending, and left a third Democrat trailing far behind.
Glazer started the battle last October during the second BART strike, circulating a petition to convince state lawmakers to ban walkouts by BART workers. He said his position demonstrated the kind of leadership he’d bring to Sacramento.
“When all the politicians refused to acknowledge what we all saw,” he said in a recent interview, “which was a disaster for our economy, for our people … I was willing to stand up against the BART union and call it out.”
Glazer is a pro at finding hot-button issues. He ran Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, and managed various campaigns on behalf of business groups. His current campaign seems calculated to take advantage of voters’ growing unease about benefits for public employee unions.
Glazer noted that Orinda has a defined contribution program for city unions, with no pension or retirement obligations.
“We get pressure every year from our employee union to join the CalPERS system,” Glazer said, “And that’s a good example of being willing to stand up to powerful forces that want you to join a dysfunctional pension program, and you’ve got to hold your ground and say what can the budget support.”
But Glazer may have underestimated how hard unions would come after him for his stand on BART and for his record working for business groups.
It’s Business Versus Union Money
The Service Employees International Union, representing most BART workers, the California Teachers Association and other unions, has poured more than $1.6 million into ads, mailers and phone banks opposing Glazer, including a series of mailers claiming Glazer has worked for tobacco companies, with one showing Glazer’s head sitting on a pile of stubbed-out cigarette butts. “My favorite,” he said.
Labor’s preferred candidate is Tim Sbranti.
Besides his work as mayor of Dublin, Sbranti teaches at Dublin High School. He also used to head the California Teachers Association’s political involvement committee. No surprise, then, that Sbranti said he supports the right of BART union members to strike, arguing that it’s a bigger priority to find funds to help extend BART to Livermore.
Sbranti said his history at the CTA doesn’t mean, though, that he’s too cozy with unions to fairly represent the district.
“I think it’s part of the tired thinking in Sacramento, that really places you in categories that you can’t work with business and labor.” He said. “That you have to choose a side. And what I’ve been able to successfully demonstrate in my career is that you can work with all sides.”
Sbranti has also won endorsements from the state Democratic Party and environmental groups.
Still, business interests are spending big to defeat Sbranti and elect Glazer. The California Chamber of Commerce, real estate agents and charter school advocates are backing him with more than $1.8 million in independent spending.
Meanwhile, Glazer’s stance on BART strikes is still winning him supporters. He was campaigning last Sunday at the Walnut Creek Farmers Market.
“I’ve seen your signs,” a woman said as Glazer introduced himself. “You’re the person with the sign that says ‘No More BART Strikes.’ ”
“That’s me,” Glazer said..
And the woman’s male partner said, “I like that.”
Asked if he’s too close to business groups, Glazer said, “I’m proud of that business support, because I think it shows I’m a Democrat that can bridge the difference between various interests to make good public policy for our community.”
There’s one other Democrat in the race. Danville Mayor Newell Arnerich, an architect, said he’s the only truly independent candidate, but he has raised little money for his campaign and has generated meager support.
That three-way Democratic split, though, has opened the door for a Republican to be among the top two finishers.
That would be attorney and political novice Catharine Baker, who said she’s running because of two people.
“Their names are Kate and Alex.” Baker said in an interview in San Ramon, “They are my 10-year-old children. They’re going into middle school next year. They are twins, so if there’s one thing you can say about me, I’m very efficient, I had a boy and a girl all in one go.”
Baker said education reform would be her top priority. She’d like to change state rules that prevent teachers from getting financial rewards for good performance, and she’d like to give school districts more leeway with seniority rules that prevent them from retaining new promising teachers during layoffs.
“Right now they (the California Teachers Association) really run the show.” Baker said. “And that shouldn’t be that way. There needs to be much more balance and a stronger voice for parents and students in Sacramento, and not just the teachers union.
Baker has outside backing as well — $130,000 from Republican donor Charles Munger. And she’s raised enough money on her own to reach out to the 32 percent or so of the district that are registered Republicans.
But who might Baker face in November?
“What is not clear is whether voters consider union support is a plus or a minus in this election,” said Stephen Woolpert, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and professor of politics at St Mary’s College in Moraga.
Woolpert said Steve Glazer gets the edge if people are still mad about the BART strike, but Tim Sbranti wins if “labor can get the vote out for their candidate in an off-year election.”
But it’s not a given in an off-year election, where turnout is expected to be historically low.