During a Town Hall meeting in Orinda, one of the most affluent corners of her 16th Assembly District, Catharine Baker (R-Dublin) holds her own, leading the conversation and proudly explaining her votes and positions on the issues to a largely receptive audience made up of mostly older white constituents.
“She seems pretty malleable and works across the aisle with Democrats,” said Linda, an Orinda Democrat who declined to give her last name. “But, she might have been sugar coating it, because it’s a more liberal audience.” Linda, who voted for Baker in the last election, said she is open to supporting the right Democrat in 2018.
Democrats comprise 41% of the district’s registered voters, compared with 29% for the GOP. About 26% of the voters are independents, nearly on a par with the Republicans.
Orinda is a moderate area that leans left, largely around social and environmental issues, and reflects opposition to the GOP’s national agenda. Baker, a moderate Republican, tilts left on social issues but moves to the center on environmental and business issues, and is more in line with her Republican Caucus on tax and labor legislation.
Cognizant of her competitive and moderate district Baker knows every little bit helps, especially meeting constituents personally.
Democrats comprise 41% of the district’s registered voters, compared with 29% for the GOP. About 26% of the voters are independents, nearly on a par with the Republicans. Eight out of ten voters in the 16th AD are white.
“She is always at events. It makes me want to see more of what she is doing and she is humble enough to talk to anybody,” said Peggy Hall a Moraga Democrat.
Baker hears the same thing. “I’ve been told by constituents I am just glad you are working hard and you listened,” she says.
Baker understands that representing a competitive district requires a willingness to step out of the partisan box — and then get criticized for doing so.
“You have to be able to take heat when you are not toeing the party line and it is very strong heat and can be very biting, but you have to have that backbone,” she said.
It’s a Bay Area district where sometimes it’s not popular to admit you’re a Republican.
The registration numbers in the 16th AD reflect the Democrats’ edge, depicting a district that shouldn’t be hospitable to a Republican. Not true.
In November 2016, Baker defeated her Democratic opponent, former Pleasanton City Councilmember Cheryl Cook by a whopping 12 points, 56%-44%.
In fact, it has always elected a Republican, with the exception of Joan Buchanan, who held the seat prior to Baker. It’s a Bay Area district where sometimes it’s not popular to admit you’re a Republican, but this is also one of the most affluent districts in the state with some of the highest home ownership rates, according to data from Political Data, Inc., which markets campaign information to both major parties.
In sum, this is a pro-business district.
In the communities of Alamo and Danville, Baker defeated Cook-Kallio by a 2-to-1 margin, and in the more moderate-to-liberal communities of the area known as Lamorinda – Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda — Baker also defeated Cook-Kallio, although the margin was close.
In the Alameda County portion of the district, which includes Pleasanton, Dublin and Livermore, Baker defeated Cook-Kallio by more than 10 points. Only in Walnut Creek was Cook-Kallio able to receive more votes than Baker and it was close. All this in a district where top of the ticket Democrats usually receive about 60% of the vote.
Rich Cunningham, a Lafayette resident, registered Republican, but self-described Independent remembered the Baker – Cook-Kallio campaign well and said their campaign literature was so similar.
Baker’s voting record is decidedly moderate. Her scores from the League of Conservation Voters and California Chamber of Commerce put her very much in line with the Moderate Democrats.
In Cunningham’s opinion, why upset the applecart?
He’s fine with a Republican or a Democrat, as long as they are a pragmatic, independent, and moderate.
“Let’s suppose there was a Democratic Catharine Baker, same type of person, well thought out and governs from the middle,” said Cunningham. “What would be the point of disturbing that?”
Cunningham basically got his wish with independently-minded Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), who was first elected with the combination of Democratic, Republican, and Independent voters.
Baker’s voting record is decidedly moderate. Her scores from the League of Conservation Voters and California Chamber of Commerce put her very much in line with the Moderate Democrats, similar to Assemblymembers Adam Gray (D-Merced), Tom Day (D-Anaheim), and her fellow East Bay Assemblymember Jim Frazier (D-Antioch).
Planned Parenthood and Equality California each gave Baker a 100% rating, the only Republican to receive that.
One area where Baker tends to fall in more closely with her Republican Caucus are her ratings from the California Labor Federation and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. In a district with some of the some of the highest incomes in the state, working-class issues are not terribly important.
But taxes are.
“Whenever there are tax and fee increases a traditional Republican would say no, but if it matched with responsible spending and accountability, that’s okay and I fight tooth and nail against those increases in taxes and fees that don’t have accountability on how the money is spent,” said Baker.
Not surprisingly, there is a block of moderates in the 925 area code of the East Bay — Steve Glazer, Jim Frazier, Catharine Baker and Assemblymember Tim Grayson (D-Concord). These communities historically have been known to be more conservative than the rest of the Bay Area, especially the high-income areas in Baker’s district.
If Baker chooses to continue her career in the Assembly, she could be on the ballot four more times. Democrats, licking their wounds from 2016, are trying to figure out who should face her in 2018.
So far, two Democrats are interested in in challenging Baker: Rebecca Bauer-Kahan of Orinda and Tom Tarantino of Walnut Creek. Bauer-Kahn is an attorney and environmental advocate, who has taught law at Santa Clara University and Golden Gate University. Tarantino, a 10-year Army veteran and an advocate for veterans’ issues, is a member of Twitter’s public policy team.
Ed’s Note: Nik Bonovich is a political writer and regular contributor to The Target Book, which tracks and handicaps legislative and congressional races.