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High-stakes battle in the 3rd SD

Downtown Davis, population center of the 3rd Senate District. (Photo: Miles530, via Wikipedia)

In California’s 3rd Senate District, two colors stand out: blue and green.

Blue for water, green for money.

The water, because SD3’s southern portion includes a piece of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the estuary supplying water to about two-thirds of Californians and millions of acres of farm land.

The money, because in addition to conventional campaign donations, large sums from outside independent expenditure committees are fueling the race. The running total a week before election day: nearly $2.3 million.

Pro-Dodd funding totals some $1.8 million, out of the $2.3 million for all four candidates. Dodd’s single biggest backer is EdVoice, an education reform group which contributed $1.4 million on his behalf.

Seen from above, the eastern portion of the district shows the distinctive checkerboard pattern of agriculture, with the city of Davis and UC Davis at the center. Mariko Yamada, a former Assemblymember and Davis Democrat, a candidate in the June 7 primary, hails from this student-heavy, progressive region.

Moving west, the checkerboard gives way to sand-colored flat-lands and the runways and infrastructure of Travis Air Force Base. These are the stomping grounds of Gabe Griess — a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Democrat and first-time candidate for state office.

Further west still rise the mountains of the Coastal Range. A narrow, scenic, grape-rich valley runs north-to-south through the mountains, with Napa at its mouth. This is the home of Bill Dodd, a Democrat, the best-financed candidate in the primary and an incumbent lawmaker currently representing the 4th Assembly District.

According to The Money Trail, a data-tracking program of the Sacramento Bee, pro-Dodd funding totals some $1.8 million, out of the $2.3 million for all four candidates. Dodd’s single biggest backer is EdVoice, an education reform group which contributed $1.4 million on his behalf.

To the northeast along the I-80 corridor, nestled among the checkerboard fields, is the city of Dixon. The lone Republican in the race — Greg “Coach” Coppes — a small-business owner, lives in rural Dixon.

This geographical tour reflects the political divisions in the 3rd SD, a seat now held by termed-out Sen. Lois Wolk, a veteran lawmaker who has played a major role in shaping state water policy.

Water, in fact, is key to understanding the 3rd SD: The southern portion of the district is in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the nexus supplying water to about two-thirds of Californians and millions of acres of farm land. The Brown administration’s plan to build tunnels in the delta to carry northern water south is the single most controversial issue in the district. All of the candidates oppose it.

Since 2008, Lois Wolk – who earlier served three terms in the Assembly — has represented this area in the Senate.

There’s the Yolo County-Napa County divide, personified by Yamada (Davis) and Dodd (Napa). Griess’ turf sits in between the two and, politically, he sits between Yamada and Dodd.

The counties that make up the bulk of the 3rd District — Solano, Yolo, Napa —produce tomatoes and olives, walnuts and almonds, cattle, and of course, grapes and wine.

The district is a mix of rural and urban. It’s blue, but different shades of blue. Davis is home to students and, presumably, many young Bernie Sanders supporters, while in Napa Valley you’ll find older Democrats and an affluent, artsy vibe.

Outside the urban centers, the district is classically agricultural but with a distinct bent toward environmentalism.

Since 2008, Wolk – who earlier served three terms in the Assembly — has represented this area in the Senate. Before being elected to the state Legislature, she served on the Davis City Council and two terms as mayor of Davis (‘92-‘94 & ‘96-’98). She then served on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors from 1998 to 2002.

During World War II, Yamada’s parents were interned at the Manzanar War Relocation Center.

The four candidates representing diverse, but overlapping constituencies hope to take her place. The June 7 primary will narrow the field to two — and they will face each other in the November general election. A Democrat will likely hold the seat in this blue district, which voted 2-to-1 for Barack Obama in 2012.

With a bulging war-chest and the endorsement of the incumbent, Dodd of Napa is in a strong position. As of late May, he had more than $400,000 on hand. He has brought in $119,500 in so-called late contributions, according to financial disclosure documents on file with the state.

Dodd is a former business owner and a former Republican. From 1985 to 2003, he owned companies that operated Culligan water franchises in northern California, delivering water to homes and businesses. He also served on the Napa Country Board of Supervisors from 2001 to 2014. Dodd is viewed as a moderate Democrat.

Second in the money race is Yamada, who represented the 4th Assembly District before Dodd. She had $105,000 as of late May, and received $49,600 in late contributions.

During World War II, Yamada’s parents were interned at the Manzanar War Relocation Center. She grew up in Colorado, and received a master’s degree in social work from USC in 1974. Before serving in the Assembly, Yamada spent nine years on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, and she was also chair of the Yolo Country Democratic Party from ‘98 to 2000.

“For those of us who are activists, the worst thing that could happen is to have two Democrats running into the fall,” Bob Schelen said.

She is seen as a progressive Democrat.

The next two candidates have not served in the Assembly, and are running third and fourth in the money race, respectively. One thing they have in common: They are not well funded.

Griess is a Democrat with a military background. He served as a navigator on C-130 aircraft in Afghanistan, before spending 2 years at the Pentagon. In 2011, Griess transferred to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield. His political involvement includes serving on the boards of Rebuilding Together Solano County and the Solano Community College Education Foundation; and as a trustee with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

Griess had $12,000 as of late May. His late contributions total $39,100, though $30,000 of that was a self-loan.

Last in the money race is the only Republican running: Coppes of Dixon, another Air Force veteran. Coppes is a business owner, football coach, and citizen advocate, focusing on veterans’ issues. Coppes is also biker — he founded the American Legion Riders for Napa and Solano County

He reported $4,600 on hand as of late April, with no contributions reported since then.

Musical chairs and a family affair
Lois Wolk may be term-limited out of the Legislature, but her son Dan Wolk, the mayor of Davis, is hoping to make the jump to the 4th Assembly District, after a fruitless effort two years ago. 

He placed third in the 2014 primary by a narrow margin, behind Bill Dodd and Republican Charlie Schaupp. Dodd went on to win easily in the general election.

Now, Dodd is leaving the Assembly for the Senate, and he finds himself comfortably sandwiched between the Wolks.

Wolk the Elder has endorsed Dodd for the Senate while Dodd has endorsed Wolk the Younger for his Assembly seat.

The ideal scenario for the Wolk-Dodd alliance would be Dodd ascending to the Senate and Dan Wolk ascending to the Assembly.

In the race for the 3rd Senate District, Yamada hopes to be in a position to block Dodd. It is notable that Yamada and Lois Wolk are known rivals, and Yamada is no backer of Dan Wolk, either.

The race
California’s nonpartisan blanket primary, also known as a “jungle primary,” means the top-two vote-getters in June will face each other in November. In blue California, this often means Democrats must battle each other not only in the primary, but in the general election as well.

For Bob Schelen, the chair of the Yolo County Democratic Party, the prospect of a Democrat-on-Democrat battle in November is not appealing.

“For those of us who are activists, the worst thing that could happen is to have two Democrats running into the fall,” Schelen said. “My goal is to hope a Democrat wins the primary, and everybody gets together and everybody fights for whoever that Democrat is.”

There are different possible scenarios for the June 7 election. One is that Dodd and Yamada, the best-known and best-funded candidates will go through to November.

But Gabe Griess, a first-time candidate, has been “pretty impressive,” Schelen said, and could take votes from Dodd, Yamada — or both.

Griess’ role will be “more significant than people at first thought,” Schelen said.

This could open the door for Republican Coppes to “sneak through,” producing a Democrat-Republican race that the Democrat would easily carry.

A lot of money is pouring into this race. In a recent social media post, candidate Griess called it “the most expensive race in California.”

Indeed, there have been large amounts of independent expenditures in this race, largely in support of Dodd — a reported $1.8 million, a huge amount of money in a race that usually sees about $400,000 being spent.

In addition to EdVoice’s $1.4 million, there was nearly $250,000 from a group called Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, about $100,000 from a physicians group and $90,000 from the California Farm Bureau’s PAC.

According to Adrienne Hosek, political science professor at UC-Davis, that support has drawn Dodd criticism from more liberal groups. She also notes that Yamada has received a small amount of support from a Bernie Sanders-affiliated PAC.

Hosek expects to see strong support for Sanders in the 3rd Senate District, both from the UC-Davis area and from white, liberal Napa Valley.

“It is possible that Sanders supporters may also favor Yamada over Dodd,” she wrote in an e-mail, “although this would require a high level of political knowledge — something that most voters do not have.”

Ed’s Note: CORRECTS by deleting reference to blocking Democratic endorsement, 33rd graf.


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