San Ramon mayor an unlikely standard-bearer for Contra Costa GOP

Its voter registration has dipped. Its central committee is in shambles, its constituents restless. But Contra Costa County’s Republican Party – once the proud island of suburban conservatism in a sea of Bay Area liberalism – is heading into November’s elections with more hope and clearer purpose than it has had in a decade.

In a year when incumbency figures to be more of a hindrance than a help, Contra Costa Republicans feel they have something special: A strong, moderate candidate, San Ramon Mayor Abram Wilson, running against a vulnerable state Assembly Democrat in Joan Buchanan.

In a sense, Contra Costa County, stretching along the commuter roads of Highways 4 and 24 and Interstate 680 – from the moneyed suburbs of Walnut Creek and Lafayette east to Antioch and Brentwood – stands to tell a much larger story about the relevance of the GOP in what has become an increasingly independent era.

Wilson isn’t the only Contra Costa County Republican looking to win back a seat for the party. David Harmer, a far more conservative candidate, may well win his party’s backing in a bid to unseat Democrat Jerry McNerney in the 11th congressional district.  Wilson and Harmer represent different ends of the GOP spectrum, but the party, unusually pragmatic this year, will take victory either way.

If Abram Wilson is going to be the man to reclaim Contra Costa – to stop the Republican bleeding, as it were, he seems an unlikely successor to the likes of Bill Baker, who represented the district for decades, first in Sacramento, where he was known as one of the “cave men,” and later in Congress.

Wilson, a tall, lithe, and genial ex-banker, certainly didn’t match the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric espoused by his fellow speakers at an April 15 Tea Party rally, choosing to emphasize the need for wiser state spending.

In fact Wilson, who is black, says proudly that even his closest friends didn’t know he was a Republican until he first ran to represent the 15th Assembly District two years ago. He lost that race to Buchanan, who he will face again this year in what promises to be a tight rematch.

He listens to Wagner (he’s served as the San Ramon Opera’s tenor soloist), counts former longtime Democratic speaker Willie Brown as a political idol, and trumpets a pragmatist’s approach to reaching across the aisle.

“I’m happy to say that the party is supporting me,” Wilson said during a pre-rally interview. “But I really believe that to my constituents, it’s about voting for me the person – my ideals, my policies, what I’ve done.”

A District Divided
Wilson’s assembly bid is one of only a handful of contested state elections this year, and one sure to attract big-time attention (and big-time money) from each party. Buchanan edged Wilson by four points in 2008, aided in part by high voter turnout and general enthusiasm surrounding President Obama’s campaign. The state Democratic Party targeted the district as a potential pick-up after Republican Guy Houston termed out, and poured money into direct-mail campaign literature – much of it criticizing fee increases in San Ramon under Wilson’s watch. It’s a move Wilson says he’ll be ready for this time around.

“Politically, everything’s changed (since ’08),” Wilson said. “We were talking about a presidential election year, and I’d had a knock-down, drag-out primary that year – one of the most expensive in state history. Now I have my record, and she has hers. And we’ll both run on those.”

If Wilson can succeed in winning back a seat in the legislature for the GOP, he will be bucking a trend many years in the making. The 15th Assembly District, redrawn in 2001 as solidly Republican, has steadily seen its Republican voter registration dip.

By the time Houston termed out in 2008, Republicans claimed just 38 percent of registered voters in the district – a point behind the Democrats, and well off the 44 percent they claimed in 2001. As of April, Democrats have increased their registration lead in the district to 40-35, with nearly 20 percent of voters declining to state a party affiliation.  At the county level, Republicans have fallen from 32 percent of registered voters in ’01 to just 25 percent today – while decline-to-states have risen from 10 percentage points to 20 in the same time span.

“When you drop seven or eight points in a decade, there’s something seriously wrong with your brand name,” says Allan Hoffenblum, a political analyst and former campaign manager for Baker, who represented the district in the Assembly from 1980 to 1992 before his brief stint in congress.

Despite his loss in 2008, Wilson out-polled John McCain in his district (evidence, Hoffenblum says, that Wilson appeals to moderates and independents). More importantly, the party feels Wilson is running against a battered candidate in Buchanan.

Less than 100 days into her first Assembly term, Buchanan announced her candidacy in a special election to fill the 10th congressional seat vacated by Democrat Ellen Tauscher, who was appointed by President Obama to a position in the pentagon. But Buchanan trailed the entire race, upsetting state Democrats who’d helped fund her ’08 campaign – and polled third in the primary behind state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier and the eventual winner, former Lt. Governor John Garamendi.

Baker, now a financial advisor in Danville, who has contributed to Wilson’s campaign, said the San Ramon Mayor needs to take advantage of Democratic disenchantment with Buchanan. “The problem with (Wilson’s) first campaign was that it was lackluster,” Baker said. “He’s got to attack her on issues that matter to the public. She’s a job-hopper. In order to get anything done (in Sacramento), you have to gain some seniority, and she didn’t wait around long enough to find the women’s room.”

DeSaulnier, who represents the 7th Senate District in Northern and Central Contra Costa, downplayed the effect of Buchanan’s ill-fated congressional bid. The more relevant problem for Buchanan, he said, is one facing everyone in the legislature.

“The feeling in Sacramento right now is that if you’re an incumbent, you’ve got some explaining to do,” he said.

Wilson proudly points to the 50 percent budget surplus in San Ramon as evidence of his fiscal responsibility. Asked how he would differentiate from his opponent in the assembly, the mayor painted Buchanan as complicit in passing an unsatisfactory state budget that failed to close a $15 billion gap.

“For one thing, I’ll actually show up to vote,” Wilson said, criticizing Buchanan’s attendance record in Sacramento. He also chastised Buchanan for not using her leverage to secure added funding in her home school district. “She voted for the worst public education budget in history. If you’re going to play the game, you have to play. (Democrats) needed every vote (to pass the state budget), so why not push for better funding in San Ramon Valley?”

Both Wilson and Buchanan cast themselves as business-friendly fiscal conservatives. Both cite investment in education and water infrastructure as top priorities. With so few discernable political differences between the two, it appears Wilson is campaigning as much against Buchanan’s incumbency as her political views.

And in a year when many expect a Republican resurgence at the polls – and in a district where nearly 20 percent of voters are decline-to-state &ndash
; that may be enough.

The party certainly hopes so. Wilson’s 2008 primary opponents – Robert Rao, Scott Kamena and Judy Lloyd – have all endorsed his 2010 bid, and Lloyd is even helping run his campaign.

“Throughout that area, the party is going to be directing resources that will benefit both (Wilson and the eventual CD-11 candidate),” said Tom Del Beccaro, the vice-chair of the state Republican party, and former president of the county’s central committee. “There’s no question this is a priority to us.”

As for having so many Republican eggs in his basket, Wilson shrugged off the attention.

“Is it a pressure? Yeah, but it’s a positive pressure,” he said, with a chuckle. “Now I have people willing to pray for me, and willing to pay for me.”

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