“This district looks like an elephant balancing on a ball,” said Alyson Huber, sitting in Sacramento’s Temple Coffee House last Friday afternoon. “Whoever designed this district had a sense of humor.”
Or maybe a sense of irony. An elephant balancing on a rubber ball might be the perfect metaphor for an election where this seat wasn’t even supposed to be in play.
Assembly District 10 pits Huber, a 36 year-old Democrat who has never held elected office, against former Lodi mayor Jack Sieglock, whose political career began when she was 10 years old. Huber beat out an under-funded Jim Cook, the 2006 Democratic nominee. Cook was clobbered by incumbent Alan Nakanishi (R-Lodi) by a 27 point margin in 2006. Sieglock survived a larger field of more established candidates, including Rancho Cordova City Councilman David Sander and Paul Hegyi, chief of staff to Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Costa Mesa).
While Huber’s victory didn’t get much attention around Sacramento, people are paying attention now.“I know a lot of people looked at this seat and didn’t think a Democrat could win,” she said.
But that was before a down economy and an up swell of support for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama brought once-safe GOP seats into play across the country. Huber could also benefit from a narrowing of the Republican registration advantage, which shrank from six points to two since the last election. Even the old adage that registered Republicans are more likely to stick with their party once in the voting booth than Democrats is coming into question this year.
Labor unions agree. In recent weeks, $600,000 in independent expenditures have poured in on behalf of Huber from SEIU Local 1000, PORAC and other groups. Sieglock has benefited from only $50,000 in IE money, from the California Medical Association, spent a pair of mailers. Part of the emphasis, said Sieglock campaign consultant Tim Clark, is the belief among Democrats that they have an outside shot of getting to 54 seats—which would enable them to pass a budget without any Republican votes.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” Clark said. “It’s an unprecedented consolidation of big labor unions coming in and trying to influence the outcome of a race.”
The Huber campaign, being run by the Sacramento firm Acosta-Salazar, has also been hitting Sieglock hard for alleged inconsistencies in his record and campaign finances—even trying to use his 26 years in politics in the area against him. Sieglock has been a city councilman and mayor in Lodi. He then spent eight years on the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, where he was famous for his clashes with another supervisor, local ultra-liberal Dario Marenco.
The Sieglock campaign has been touting his record as a fiscal conservative and his endorsements from several taxpayer groups. He’s also claimed to have balanced 16 budgets—a claim the Huber campaign has challenged, and one they also say he’s backed off from.
Clark denies this, and also said the Huber campaign has been making spurious claims that Sieglock has illegally loaned himself more than $100,000. Sieglock originally loaned his campaign the money back in March, repaid $25,000, then loaned himself $25,000 again—never going over the limit, Clark said. A spokesman from the Fair Political Practices Commission confirmed that this is legal. But as the FlashReport’s Jon Fleischman and others have noted, Sieglock survived a closer, far more expensive primary campaign which left him at a financial disadvantage.
Huber is also trying to make an issue of Sieglock’s business dealings. Since leaving the Board of Supervisors at the end of 2006, he has run his own consulting firm, which has the same address as his home. In his statement of economic interest for the campaign, Sieglock listed only one client—Waste Management Inc. The firm recently signed a new six-year waste management contract with San Joaquin County. Clark said Sieglock “has multiple clients” that he may wish to disclose later.
While Clark admits that Sieglock has avoided the Republican brand in this campaign, he said that Huber has equally been running away from the Democratic label. The district hasn’t changed as much as the registration numbers, he said.
“They remain the basic conservative voters, but they’re turned off by party politics,” Clark said. He added: “She’s been mailing decline-to-state voters with Republican messages.”
Clark has been trying to help define the largely-unknown Huber as a “San Francisco trial lawyer” who has said she would raise taxes, including challenging Proposition 13. She is also on record opposition Proposition 8, which would reinstate the ban on gay marriage in California.
“She was forced to take some very left leaning positions in the primary that I think she would have rather not taken,” Clark said. “She’s a member of the San Francisco Bar, for crying out loud.” He added: “People in these parts don’t take kindly to that.”
“They’ve been running the same old Republican playbook,” Huber replied.
She compared her Assembly bid to those of two other young, female, moderate Central Valley Democrats: Assemblywomen Nicole Parra (D-Hanford) and Cathleen Galgiani (D-Tracy). In each case, she said, their opponents tried to portray them as raging liberals. This might come as a surprise to some liberal Democrats around the Capitol, who have complained frequently about the pair—especially Parra, who has essentially been escorted out of the Democratic Caucus after endorsing her 2006 opponent, Republican Danny Gilmore, to replace her when she terms out this year.
The only difference in the strategy, Huber said, is that no one has tried to claim she’s a lesbian, as was done to both Parra and Galgiani, mainly by people not directly associated with their opponent’s campaigns. Huber is married, with two school-age children and two college-age stepchildren.
Huber has been countering the “San Francisco trial lawyer” image with another one—Lodi trailer park. As in the one she grew up in with a big family on food stamps. She never took the SAT because her parents said she’d never go to college, she said. Instead, she went to Delta College then Chico State University, discovered competitive debate and parlayed that into a scholarship at Cornell and a degree at Hastings Law School.
Most of her legal experience, Huber added, has come “defending Fortune 500 companies from frivolous lawsuits.” Perhaps her biggest case was winning $4.8 million for a real estate firm against a European corporate that skipped out of a business lease and left the building contaminated with toxic waste. And yes, she still works from her El Dorado Hills home for the San Francisco law firm of Bartko Zankel.