California legislative races often seem to be foregone conclusions, even in the primaries. Not so AD 5, which features a noted anti-gay marriage crusaders, a former “porn lobbyist” and a well-known pediatrician.
Those are just some of the characters in a race that highlights some of the demographic and voter trends taking place around California. Republicans had a 44 percent to 38 percent registration advantage in 2002. But declining Republican registration in the district has made the race a top target for Democrats, with some strategists suggesting it may be easier for Democrats to pick up this seat next year than hold on to others currently held by Democrats.
The suburban Sacramento seat is currently held by Roger Niello, R-Sacramento, and before that by now-Sen. Dave Cox, R-Sacramento. While both are definitely conservatives, neither has the fire-breather reputation of some in their caucus.
The current front-runner on the GOP side is Andrew Pugno, an attorney who helped draft Proposition 8, the measure that outlawed same sex marriage in California. If Pugno wins, Democrats will try to portray him as a right winger too conservative for an increasingly moderate district. But Niello doesn’t think that will work.
“Because of his association with Prop.8, he is viewed to be potentially pretty far right wing,” said Niello, who has not yet endorsed anyone. “The fact of the matter he’s is not. He’s a conservative, there is no doubt about that. His philosophical leanings are not unlike mine or Dave Cox’s.”
Pugno said that he’s not running on Prop. 8, but noted that there will be difficulties in using it against him.
“We seem to forget that a majority of voters passed it,” Pugno said. “They will offend more voters by portraying supporters of Prop. 8 as extremists. Are they saying that seven million Californians are extremists? That really falls flat.”
Allen Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, notes that Prop. 8 passed in the district by 10-points, nearly twice its margin in the rest of the state. This might be part of what has helped Pugno pull in about $180,000 from a large number of small donors, giving him a significant financial lead.
Pugno has also loaned his own campaign $100,000. It has been reported that Pugno received about $200,000 for the Prop. 8 campaign, but he said some of this was money he loaned to that campaign in the early going that was later repaid.
Hoffenblum said that if Pugno is the nominee, he could get volunteers who liked his work on Prop. 8. But any Democrat running against him might get even more.
“There will be 10,000 people knocking on doors to defeat him,” Hoffenblum said. “This is not a safe Republican seat.”
“I don’t think that busing in volunteers from San Francisco would be particularly effective in the suburbs of Sacramento,” Pugno said.
There is also another well-known candidate on the Republican side, Robla School Board member Craig De Luz. Only 40 with a racially-diverse background—he and his brother were born of African-American and Italian ancestry, then adopted by a Portuguese-American father—De Luz said he offers a different face for the party to go along with more traditionally-conservative positions. He is also the chairman of the California Black Republican Council.
“I have been a person who has constantly worked to challenge my party when it comes to working with non-traditional Republican voters,” De Luz said. He added, “The demographics in California are changing in such a way that we (must) be engaged in these communities.”
This includes the demographics of AD 5, which has been getting younger and more racially diverse. The state Democratic Party has conducted a major voter drive in the area over the last several months. This effort was led by Kenneth Burt, political director of California Federation of Teachers. Niello said that Republicans have been countering with their own large voter drive in recent weeks.
“We’ve reached a tipping point,” Burt said of the district. The voter registration efforts are aimed squarely at AD 5 and the Third Congressional District seat currently occupied by Dan Lungren. The current leader on the Democratic side is Ami Bera a young doctor of East Indian descent.
The California Medical Association has joined labor unions in throwing resources into the area, to benefit both Berry and AD 5 candidate Richard Pan. Pan is a UC Davis Medical Center pediatrician, heads the Center’s residency program, and has been politically active with many different groups, including the First 5 Commission. He cites cuts in Medi-Cal, Healthy Families and other programs as driving his campaign.
“The main reason I’m running is problems in the state house have been interfering with my ability to practice pediatrics and the abilities of my patient’s families to take care of their children,” Pan said.
Another well-known candidate is Larry Miles, a business attorney and board member of the San Juan Unified School District. Miles said he’s been involved in the community for 20 years, coaching “everything from girls’ softball to boys’ basketball. He portrayed himself as both a political outsider and the most experienced.
“I’m just running on my own background and experience,” Miles said. “There are a number of good Democrats who are running. But I’m the only one who’s held elected office.”
Two other Democrats, both under 40, are also getting some attention. Matt Gray is a lobbyist and former Capitol staffer. He represented the Free Speech Coalition, and adult film industry trade group, from 2007 to 2008.
While Gray worked for Democratic former legislator John Vasconcellos and plans to run as “moderate Democrat,” he is currently a decline-to-state. Gray said this makes him a good fit for a district that is so closely divided, but it drew questions from Devin Lavelle, communications chair for the Democratic Party of Sacramento County.
“We’re looking forward to getting to know Matt and learning about his ideas for the region,” Lavelle said. “With several strong Democrats in the race, though, voters will expect Matt to address why he deserves the Democratic nomination if he is not a registered Democrat. Our top priority, though, is to ensure that the district is represented by a thoughtful moderate that reflects its values, not an extremist ideologue, like Andrew Pugno.”
Finally, there is Andrew Sheehy, director of the Sacramento Muscular Dystrophy Association. A virtual unknown to most voters, Hoffenblum said Sheehy has gotten some traction for a popular YouTube video proclaiming his reasons for running.
In most races, candidates like Sheehy or even Gray might not have a chance. But in a suburban area with no big city councils to provide for a candidate farm team, plus a swing block of former Republicans who got “disenchanted” with the party, Hoffenblum said anything could happen.
“It’s wide open,” Hoffenblum said. “It’s gonna be money and who runs the better campaign.”