Meet Wiley Nickel. Last year, his family donated $250 to his political
rival. His former boss recently resigned amid state investigations. And his
television ads in the primary were pilloried by ad watchers as the worst of
But despite his campaign’s inauspicious beginning, Nickel may be California
Democrats’ best chance to pick up a seat in the state Senate. In the world
of California’s gerrymandered legislative districts, where seven of the 153
legislative races–and only two of the 20 Senate seats–this November are
considered even remotely competitive, Nickel looks like a likely recipient
of statewide cash–perhaps on the order of millions of dollars.
“The race is high on the pecking order because it is one of two seats we are
going to be concentrating on,” says Art Torres, chairman of the California
Running in a Republican-held Central Valley district that was carved out
specifically to elect a Democrat, Nickel drew 2000 more votes in the June
primary than the man he is trying to unseat, Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced.
Boosted by that strong primary showing, the Nickel campaign is trying to
coax money from the state’s Democratic Party apparatus.
“If money is going to get poured in,” says Nickel political consultant Larry
Sheingold, “then there definitely is going to be a race.”
A 30-year-old Democrat who has never run for elected office, Nickel is
challenging incumbent Denham in a district that stretches from Modesto to
within miles of the Monterey County coastline. Drawn in 2001 as a Democratic
seat, Denham shocked the political establishment in 2002 by edging out
former Assemblyman Rusty Areias in a bruising $6 million campaign, then the
most expensive legislative race in California history.
The seat has been a top target for Democrats ever since.
The Democratic leadership leaned heavily on Assemblyman Simon Salinas,
D-Salinas, who beat Denham in 2000 in an Assembly race, to run. But Salinas
withdrew, leaving the party without a candidate.
It was then that Nickel, a former staffer to Rep. Dennis Cardoza, jumped in
A scion of western landowner Henry Miller, Nickel was born and raised in the
San Joaquin Valley. He graduated from Tulane, and then Pepperdine law
school, and served as White House advance in the administration of President
He went on to work for Cardoza and ultimately returned to California,
serving briefly as Merced County deputy district attorney. But last month,
Merced District Attorney Gordon Spencer resigned amid numerous
investigations–though Nickel had quit seven months earlier to campaign
Nickel insists that the cloud overhanging the Merced district attorney’s
office will not impact his candidacy. “No one really ever associated me with
Gordon Spencer because he is a very conservative Republican,” he said.
That’s not the only awkward situation Nickel must traverse. Last April,
Nickel’s own family business, the Nickel Family Trust, gave Denham $250,
albeit eight months before Nickel jumped into the race. His family company
has since donated $3,300 to Nickel’s campaign.
Early on, the Nickel campaign has struggled to find a central theme. In a
July interview, Nickel demurred when asked what his top priority would be in
“I don’t really have to have this sort of list of this and that because I
think all issues are important,” said Nickel. “But, you know, I think
economic development, I think education, health care, are really big
Nickel says he sees a general dissatisfaction with the direction of
government and thinks voters are ready for a change.
“I can be a much more effective voice for our area than Jeff Denham,” says
Using mostly personal loans, Nickel poured more than $250,000 into
television advertising in his unopposed primary–much of it spent in the
Sacramento media market–to draw the attention of the Capitol’s political
The ads failed to mention what district Nickel was running in or Nickel’s
Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat running for Senate in Sacramento, says he had
numerous people ask about his new mystery opponent.
“The ads did not identify what district he was running in or what political
party he was,” says Steinberg. “A lot of people came up to me and said ‘I
didn’t know you had an opponent.’ I told them, ‘I do, it’s just not Wiley
Local television station KCRA’s Adwatch gave the spot “across the board