March 17, 2015
By Matthew Artz
OAKLAND -- Orinda Mayor Steven Glazer and Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, appear headed for a runoff that could test the power of organized labor within the Democratic Party after they claimed the top spots Tuesday in an expensive, fiercely contested primary race to succeed Rep. Mark DeSaulnier in the state Senate.
With all precincts reporting but an unknown number of mail-in ballots left to count, Glazer, a Democrat who has drawn the ire of organized labor, led with 32.7 percent of the vote. In the battle for second place, Bonilla led her former Assembly colleague Joan Buchanan 24.8 percent to 22.5 percent -- a margin of 2,249 votes. Rounding out the field were Republican Michaela Hertle with 17 percent and Democrat Terry Kremin with just over 2 percent.
"It's a positive indication that voters want a fiscally responsible bipartisan problem solver who is independent from powerful special interests," Glazer said Tuesday as early returns showed him out in front.
Bonilla, who has received strong support from labor and local Democratic Party leaders, said she was "cautiously optimistic" about advancing to the runoff as the final precinct tallies were being reported.
The runoff election will be held May 19 for the district that includes most of East and Central Contra Costa County and the Tri-Valley region of Alameda County. Analysts are expecting another business-versus-labor slugfest with special-interest money flowing to both campaigns.
"This is going to be a big fight because on paper it's so close," said Republican strategist Richard Temple of McNally Temple Associates.
The race to replace DeSaulnier, who was elected to Congress last year, initially was anticipated to pit Bonilla against Buchanan, two respected veteran lawmakers who agree on most issues and focus much of their energies on education policy.
But the dynamic changed when Glazer entered the race. A political strategist who ran Jerry Brown's successful 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Glazer, perhaps more than any Democrat in the state, has rankled organized labor. First, he worked for the Chamber of Commerce in 2012 to elect more centrist Democrats. Then while running for state Assembly last year, he called for a ban on BART strikes and ultimately backed his former Republican opponent over a pro-labor Democrat in the runoff election.
More than $2 million in outside money paid for radio commercials and a steady stream of mailers. Business and charter school supporters primarily backed Glazer, while labor unions spent especially heavily on Bonilla and against Glazer.
Interest groups were fully engaged, but voters mostly stayed on the sidelines, the returns showed. By the end of Tuesday only 20 percent of registered voters had recorded votes.
The most cynical attack on Glazer came from the Asian-American Small Business PAC, which had historically backed Democrats, but spent $55,000 on mailers urging Republicans to vote for Hertle. The pieces failed to note that Hertle had already dropped out of the race and endorsed Glazer -- a move that potentially widened his appeal in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 15 percent.
"I think that backfired," Temple said. "In this district people don't take kindly to those kinds of things."
As the campaign took shape, Glazer staked out positions to the right of Buchanan and Bonilla on fiscal matters. He called for a cap on pension benefits, opposed tax hikes on oil companies and the wealthy, and reiterated his support for outlawing BART strikes.
Bonilla stressed that her collaborative approach in the Assembly she said had helped her pass key legislation including bills that overhauled the state's student testing regimen and required ride-share companies, such as Uber, to carry separate insurance policies for its drivers.
Her backers included DeSaulnier, former Rep. George Miller, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the powerful labor union, SEIU.
Buchanan benefited from about $150,000 in spending by the California Teachers Association, but found herself outgunned as the unions threw more of their support behind Bonilla. Needing to compete with her better funded opponent, Buchanan gave $75,000 to her campaign.
Election results will continue trickling in this week. Under a new state law any absentee ballot received after Election Day will be counted as long as it was postmarked by Tuesday.