Lobbyist enters race in 5th Assembly District

On Tuesday, Capitol Alliance lobbyist Matt Gray will throw his hat into an already-crowded race to represent a suburban Sacramento’s 5th Assembly District.

Gray, 37, is a former Capitol staffer who has been lobbying on free speech and prison reform issues for years. But he may be best-known around Sacramento for representing the Free Speech Coalition, a group representing the adult film industry, for a year from 2007 to 2008. He continues to represent the association that lobbies for strip clubs. Gray is registered as Decline to state, but plans to run as a moderate Democrat.

If he got the nomination, voters could be facing quite a contrast at the polls. The current favorite for the Republican nomination is Andrew Pugno, who directed the Proposition 8 campaign. This was the successful 2008 initiative to turn back same-sex marriage, which had been ruled legal by the California Supreme Court in May of last year.

Pugno appears to be a clear front-runner, but faces Craig De Luz, a member of the Robla School District Board of Trustees, and Donald Thompson, who challenged Niello in last years Republican primary. The Democratic side also features a pair of well-known candidates. Larry Miles is a member of the San Juan School Board, while Dr. Richard Pan is a pediatrician who has been politically active with several groups and has been endorsed by the California Medical Association.  Another young candidate who has gotten some attention is Andrew Sheehy, director of the Sacramento Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Gray said his association with the adult industry is something he plans to address openly and honestly with voters. He sees his role as a free speech advocate. 

“Everyone deserves to have input in a democratic process, and clearly I don’t shy away from facing the tough issues or standing my ground,” Gray said. “I took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. That’s what I do.”

He no longer represents the Coalition. Gray said that he chose not to renew the one year agreement after its term ran out, citing “differences” with the group.

The seat is currently occupied by Republican Roger Niello, R-Sacramento, who terms out next year. While Niello is known as a fiscal conservative from his time as Budget Committee, he’s widely seen as less of a hardliner than many of his GOP colleagues.

This fits the district. According to Allen Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, Democratic registration in the district has remained steady at 38 percent, since 2002. GOP registration, meanwhile, has fallen from 44 percent to 39 percent, with a corresponding rise in decline-to-state voters.

Hoffenblum said he doubted the adult-industry connection would hurt Gray in the crowded primary, but a general election may provide a different scenario. Many of the decline-to-state voters in the area—a broad swath starting in Sacramento, and running through the eastern suburbs past Folsom and just into Placer Country—are older, former Republicans.

These voters are likely to ignore a Democratic primary featuring a pair of prohibitive favorites in the two biggest seats—incumbent U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and likely gubernatorial nominee Jerry Brown—and instead vote in the more competitive Republican primaries.

In the general, Hoffenblum said, the Democrat will likely run to the middle and try to portray Pugno as a far-right voice. But it could be tricky for someone associated with the adult industry to win over older, “provincial” swing voters.

Any Democrat facing Pugno in a November general could also benefit from thousands of Prop. 8 opponents who would likely volunteer to help their campaign, Hoffenblum said. Though it’s also important to note that Prop. 8 passed in the district by 10 points.

“Pugno is just raising scads of money from the supporters of Prop. 8,” Hoffenblum said.

Pugno has about $280,000 on hand, and may not to spend that much to win his primary. But if well-funded, a Democrat could definitely win here, Hoffenblum added.

“That is not a safe Republican seat,” Hoffenblum said. He noted that Barack Obama won there last year, 51 percent to 47 percent over John McCain.

Gray said he is very much the moderate, especially on economic issues.

“I speak to a number of Democrats and Republicans who are looking for workable solutions,” Gray said. “I have lasting friendships on both sides of the aisle.”

Gray, as a 19-year-old community college student, first came to the Capitol as an intern for long-time Assemblyman John Vasconcellos when. He eventually joined Vasconcellos’ full-time staff, only leaving in 2004 when Vasconcellos finally termed out of the legislature.

Vasconcellos called Gray “bright” and “thorough.” “He really knows the building,” Vasconcellos said.

“Over the years we developed a friendship that is precious to me,” Vasconcellos said. “I performed his wedding ceremony seven years ago.”

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