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