Jun 03, 2022
BROCKBANK POLITICAL REPORT
A Closer Look at the June 7th Primary Races for Marin and Statewide Offices
Jun 03, 2022
By Greg Brockbank
Note: The views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and are not intended to reflect those of MCBA nor is this column an endorsement of any candidate.
Primary elections are coming as I write this article the week before election day. By the time you read this, they will likely have come and gone and you may be discovering just how wrong I was…or perhaps admiring my prescience?
Before term limits, assembly members often served for decades, and they often started young in order to acquire clout and seniority and major committee chairmanships a decade or two later. Experience, albeit shorter, still draws voters, who also tend to go for the candidates with the most endorsements, the most mailers, the best platform, best record, best reputation, and it helps to be likeable too.
But voters sometimes do funny things, especially, perhaps, in Marin’s Assembly races. Voters threw out a one-term Marin assembly member in 1994 in favor of a challenger who then went on to serve the then-limit of three two-year terms. We’ve also had an assembly member I'm convinced would not have been elected had we had ranked-choice voting, because although he got more votes than anyone else, he was not the second or third or even fourth choice for the majority of primary voters.
This is a rare year where we have an (unexpectedly) open seat. California’s legislative term limits are now 12 years, so the scramble for Marc Levine’s seat was expected to begin next year after he won his sixth and final term. He changed that timetable by announcing last fall that he would not run for a final term this year, and instead would run for state insurance commissioner.
Marin County Supervisor Damon Connolly (also a former San Rafael City Councilman and Dixie School District Trustee) has always been ambitious and had his eye on the State Assembly. In fact, he ran for this seat once before, 22 years ago (before he was even a school trustee), but now he’s the apparent front-runner, having been an elected official the longest, as well as the highest-ranking one, and has raised the most money, although not by much. But the race looks closer than I might have expected a few months ago.
Kentfield attorney and California Coastal Commissioner Sara Aminzadeh was unknown to even local political junkies until she jumped into the race. But she had apparently been making plans (and contacts) in Sacramento, as her endorsements from a surprisingly large number of incumbent legislators attest. She also has enough friends with enough money who apparently like her enough to help her raise even more money than Connolly initially, although now he has passed her just slightly in that department. She even has some local elected officials behind her, perhaps some of whom are former supporters of Susan Adams, the incumbent Supervisor Connolly beat eight years ago.
Former Sebastopol school trustee and organic farmer Steve Schwarz, who also founded two nonprofit organizations, may well be a strong candidate in Sonoma County, and as the only one of the four from that county (which accounts for nearly half the district’s population), he could do well. But we in Marin hear almost nothing from him, and he hasn’t attended the local candidates’ forums I’ve seen for this race, so I’m beginning to think he’s not an active candidate and won’t do well.
Sausalito-Marin City School District board member Ida Times-Green seems to have attracted a few significant progressive activists to support her, but my impression of her views is that while she’s progressive, I don’t see that she’s significantly more progressive than the other three. All their views on major issues seem very similar when you first read an article about them, although they’d probably deny that and point out their differences (and why they think they’re the best).
So if you can’t decide who to vote for based on policy positions, what do you look for? Experience? As mentioned, Connolly has a significant edge in years served in public office, and in recent years, a “higher” office than the others, but the other three, again, would point out the value of their own experience. Similarly with endorsements, although Connolly probably has the most local elected officials, Aminzadeh has some, and even more legislators than he does—perhaps because she started more than a year ago planning to run against Levine, while Connolly wasn’t, I’m guessing?
I’m also seeing something I think is a little new, which is candidates appropriately admitting that they don't have all the answers (although voters often expect them to), but touting an impressive network of people who can find and/or develop the answers, if they don't have them already. Of course, all candidates, especially for high office, know lots of people who know lots of things, but it's pretty hard for a voter to evaluate a vague category like a network of experts, even if you've worked for other elected officials, as some have.
Another factor to consider in various races is the degree of what I call “anti-incumbent fervor,” meaning how badly voters want to throw all (or most of) the bums out. When it’s high, incumbents can be beaten, especially if they are personally unpopular and one or more challengers are appealing. In this Assembly race, Connolly probably seems like an incumbent because he’s served, sequentially, on three different publicly-elected boards, a total of 18 years, making him probably at least the perceived frontrunner. But that can cut both ways, as some may consider him too “established politician” for their tastes.
My call on this perhaps-most-important race is Connolly by a more comfortable margin than some may expect after so many were impressed with Aminzadeh initially, and/or her website, endorsements, positions, environmental fervor, or whatever, despite Connolly possibly being perceived as too “establishment,” or at least too much like an incumbent in an anti-incumbent year (according to some, but I disagree).
COUNTY SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS
Marin has been extremely fortunate to have had Mary Jane Burke serve in this post for 28 years, always unopposed for re-election because she’s so popular and is seen as not only the primary cheerleader for public schools, but also a fearless leader who takes often unpopular but necessary positions, and provides guidance to more than a dozen district superintendents in Marin. But she's now retiring, and even political insiders didn't know of any anointed successor within the Marin County Office of Education, so a local district Superintendent is not a bad place to look for a person to fill this role.
And sure enough, John Carroll (although perhaps not widely known, but the longest-serving district superintendent in Marin, of two West Marin districts) announced his candidacy even though Mary Jane Burke said she would not endorse anyone in the race. It began to look like Carroll would be unopposed, but suddenly another candidate jumped into the race — Michele Crncich Hodge — who was a faculty union leader for some years in Marin, and still has strong union support, and was elected to the Mill Valley school board a year and a half ago.
In that race, Hodge raised a substantial amount of money for what is usually a relatively low-key race, a signal to me that she wanted to be a player in future races. But even I was surprised when she jumped into this race, although she has the requisite credentials, because who would run against an almost-incumbent who has the endorsement of every other superintendent in Marin, not to mention the vast majority of elected school trustees and other political leadership, except perhaps for the few that Hodges has worked with and she convinced to support her.
The answer, I’m guessing, is promised union support, but that begs the question why faculty unions would support a challenger to someone so entrenched for so long, with so many endorsements, and experience much closer to the job being sought than Hodge’s recently-won school board seat. And Mary Jane Burke changed her mind and endorsed Carroll after all, making him the overwhelming frontrunner.
COUNTY SUPERVISOR – District 1 (San Rafael)
This is the seat Supervisor Damon Connolly is vacating. A county supervisor seat is a plum position, which usually attracts one or more of the district's top City Council members, but apparently not this time.
Sometimes a former (e.g., Judy Arnold) or current (e.g., Katie Rice) supervisorial aide runs for their departing boss’ seat, and that has happened here with the candidacy of Mary Sackett, who has been one of Damon Connolly’s supervisorial aides for five years now. Sackett is also a former practicing attorney, and currently sits on the Marin County Bar Association's board.
As a supervisorial aide, Sackett developed a reputation for hard, effective, steady work, and earned the endorsement not only of her boss, but dozens of other community leaders from across the board. Much like Michele Hodge running against John Carroll for county Superintendent of schools, Sackett may seem like an incumbent to some, but that didn't stop Gina Daly from jumping in to run for this seat as well.
Daly, like Hodge, was elected to a school board seat a year and a half ago, in this case San Rafael. I recall that she was quite impressive and was quite an activist, and I was thus not surprised when she won her seat. But I was indeed surprised to see a new school board member run for county supervisor, especially against a seeming incumbent like Sackett.
Daly has a few impressive local endorsements from local elected officials, but her list pales compared to Sackett's, so I’d say that, especially with the IJ’s endorsement, Sackett is the strong frontrunner.
But with a third candidate, George Saribalis (whose campaign seems to be limited to printed signs on public poles saying “Neighborhood Safety First”), some say his mere presence on the ballot, along with those signs, may earn him 15% or so. If Sackett fails to exceed 50%, she and Daly could well be in a runoff this fall.
COUNTY SUPERVISOR – District 5 (Novato)
With longtime supervisor Judy Arnold retiring, one might expect several major candidates to run, including two or more City Council members, and perhaps other business or civic leaders as well. But there is exactly one serious candidate, Eric Lucan, and three non-serious candidates, by my count.
Lucan has served nine years now on the Novato City Council, including mayor three times (including currently), but he still looks very young. So much so and with such a straight shooter look, one could almost mistake him for a Mormon missionary, complete with the white shirts and skinny black ties, well-coiffed dark hair, and good looks. But he has been an able and effective council member and even countywide civic leader, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised he scared most others off, including Pat Eklund, who was beaten by Arnold about 20 years ago.
The other candidates include Kevin Morrison, who has been beaten twice for City Council (including to Lucan). He claims to be the progressive, and sometimes sounds quite knowledgeable and involved and even inspirational. But he does not seem to have much really relevant experience, or endorsements, although I think he did a good job emceeing the Earth Day celebration at the Mill Valley Community Center earlier this year.
Jason Sarris, a long-time homeless man who is now in a shelter, but has been involved with the issue for years, is another candidate. He’s intelligent, thoughtful, and I’m glad he’s running, even if he has no chance of winning because he’s not raising money or communicating with enough voters. The final candidate is Colin Medalie, a Marin County Deputy Sheriff, whom you would think would be a serious candidate, but doesn’t seem to be campaigning much, and seems to be on the conservative law-and-order side of things, which might have doomed him even if he were a serious candidate.
NINE ADDITIONAL COUNTYWIDE RACES ON THE BALLOT—EACH FEATURING AN UNOPPOSED CANDIDATE
These races include the six Superior Court judges (usually only about three at a time), and they are usually unopposed, unless some local attorney wants to build their practice or has an inflated ego and a usually-mistaken notion that an incumbent can be beaten if they’re anything but a liberal Democrat (which isn’t really an important criterion for judges). When there is a rare contest, the sitting judges circle their wagons to support the incumbent, who raises a lot of money and endorsements to send a lot of mailers featuring a lot of people in robes and law enforcement uniforms. Most importantly, all of our judges are in fact good, and don’t deserve to be challenged, much less beaten, even though most of them were appointed by governors rather than being elected to an open seat.
Due to consolidations in recent decades, we are now down to four countywide department heads who are independently elected, and the Superintendent of Schools race is one of them, and was discussed above. Another open seat, also due to retirement, was Sheriff Bob Doyle's, but his anointed successor, Jamie Scardina, didn’t draw a challenger. But by law, he must still be listed on the ballot (unlike most unopposed candidates), along with the final two elected department heads running unopposed this year for their second term: District Attorney Lori Frugoli and Assessor/Recorder/Clerk Shelly Scott.
STATEWIDE OFFICES: MOSTLY DEMOCRATS RUNNING FOR RE-ELECTION, BUT A COUPLE HAVE ETHICAL PROBLEMS, AND THERE ARE A COUPLE OPEN SEATS
It's not likely that Democrats’ now decades-long lock on all statewide offices will be broken this year, especially given Republicans’ ever-shrinking percentage of registered voters. It could happen with a very bad Democratic candidate, and a shining star Republican, but we so rarely see even well-known and well-qualified candidates from the GOP, since they so often lose no matter what.
Of course, Republicans rally against the Democrats’ leader, Governor Gavin Newsom, but nearly all the Democrats are sticking with him, as evidenced by the fact that he got the same percentage of votes in the recall election last year as he did when he first ran four years ago. And he presumably will get at least that number again in November, since he has no serious GOP opposition.
Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis has remained relatively low profile (which is not unusual for this position, give or take Gray Davis, or Gavin Newsom), and she was surprisingly unknown when she was elected four years ago. But she seems to have no real controversies, or serious challengers, although it remains to be seen if she will be the frontrunner, or even a serious candidate, for governor next time.
State Treasurer Fiona Ma is running for a second term, after flirting with the idea of running instead for State Controller, since her predecessor and mentor Betty Yee is termed out. But Ma has had some “fraternization” problems, and others complain of the atmosphere in her employ, and I speak as someone who held a house party for her five years ago.
State Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara was perhaps the least known and weakest of those elected four years ago, despite loudly proclaiming his identity politics by stating bluntly he is “gay, labor, and Latino.” But the problem is he promised not to accept campaign contributions from the insurance industry, and then he did. He also had a problem with billing taxpayers for an apartment in Sacramento while he lived in LA.
Presumably, that is why our own state assemblyman, Marc Levine, decided to challenge him rather than run for a sixth and final two-year Assembly term, and he has in fact been hitting Lara hard on these ethical issues. But Lara is responding in kind, as Levine has his own history of questionable ethics, and accepting special interest campaign contributions from large Central Valley agricultural and water interests, which created a sort of slush fund for him for years.
Attorney General Rob Bonta was appointed last year by Governor Newsom to replace Xavier Becerra, who had just been appointed to President Biden's cabinet. Bonta was seen as a more liberal than average assemblyman, and now attorney general, and has thus attracted more significant opposition than one might otherwise expect, and is found in other races. In addition to a more typical Republican, there is “independent” (formally now “No Party Preference,” but that’s still a rarely used phrase) Anna Marie Schubert, the District Attorney of Sacramento County. Between the two of them, they may draw enough votes to keep Bonta’s vote total down. But whomever he faces in November, I think the “D” after his name will ensure that he will ultimately prevail.
Secretary of State Shirley Weber was also appointed last year by Gavin Newsom, to replace Alex Padilla, whom he had just appointed to the U.S. Senate to replace Kamala Harris. There seem to be no controversies surrounding Weber, who was also a veteran assembly member as well as one active in the African American caucus. She appears to be sailing to election without significant issues or opposition. I have heard her speak, and the general consensus is that she is good.
In the open race for State Controller (Betty Yee is termed out), the candidate endorsed by the California Democratic Party is Malia Cohen, currently a member of the Board of Equalization and formerly a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Both Betty Yee and Fiona Ma went through the Board of Supervisors and/or the Board of Equalization on their way to state Controller or State Treasurer, so this is a well-worn path.
Cohen’s main opponent is Steve Glazer, a state senator from the East Bay who is a more conservative Democrat than average and is perhaps best known for being hard on the BART unions. Ironically, Glazer is the only one from whom I have received a mailer, and I've gotten three from him.
That leaves the open race for State Board of Equalization, although technically not statewide (there are four districts, each one-quarter of the state), but they are constitutional officers. But in recent years, the main purpose and constitutionality of the board's mission was thrown into question, although you might not get that from the candidates’ rhetoric.
Former assemblywoman Sally Lieber from the South Bay is probably the frontrunner, and was endorsed by the Democratic Party. She lost a race for state Senate about a decade ago, but presumably she has not been out of the political game too long.
Her main opponent is Michela Alioto-Pier, a former San Francisco supervisor (who also lost a race for higher office and has also been out of the game a while), but her statement only lists Dianne Feinstein and Fiona Ma as endorsers. That may not be enough to overcome Lieber’s endorsements.
Greg Brockbank is a 30-plus-year attorney and civic and political activist, having served for 22 years on the College of Marin Board of Trustees and then on the San Rafael City Council. He is the senior member and immediate past chair of the Marin Democratic Party governing board and has attended 30 state Democratic conventions. For over 20 years, he has provided numerous groups with detailed lists of the contact info for all candidates for Marin’s local offices, and appears as a commentator and election-night co-host on public access television.