By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Pat Wiggins was asked four years ago if she was running a “political machine,” given that nobody was challenging her in the Democratic primary for the state Senate seat that encompasses Santa Rosa and a vast swath of the North Coast.
“The machine is the miles I have put on my car — that is the machine,” Wiggins quipped.
Four years later, the political movement that Wiggins helped bring to power shows no signs of rust. The outcome of the June 8 primary is almost certain to lock in place two of Wiggins’ closest allies in the state Senate and Assembly for elections to come. It also would further their grip in Sacramento around a “progressive” agenda that favors unions, social and environmental advocacy and limited growth.
Both Noreen Evans, who is seeking the 2nd District Senate seat, and Michael Allen, who is running for the 7th District Assembly slot, which covers Santa Rosa, Napa and Vallejo, are political acolytes of Wiggins and have generous financial backing and Democratic Party support that observers say virtually guarantees their election.
To critics, they also share a too-cozy bond with unions, particularly those representing public employees, at a time when taxpayer-funded salaries and pensions are under scrutiny for adding to California’s massive budget woes and when polls show only 11 percent of voters give state lawmakers a favorable rating.
Both Evans and Allen, who are raking in labor contributions, said they can be independent of these interests. “I’m beholden to nobody but voters,” Evans said.
Worries over special interests
But even some fellow Democrats fear the party locally is being co-opted by special interests that have the power to anoint preferred candidates and discourage other, perhaps more moderate, candidates from entering the fray.
“The game is rigged to begin with,” said Doug Bosco, a former North Coast congressman and assemblyman. “Anyone with any sophistication, that is capable of winning, will not run, unless they have half-a-million dollars of their own money to spend. They won’t collect it from the public, and the unions that will contribute it have already made up their minds.”
The elections for the Senate seat that Wiggins is leaving after one term for health reasons, and for the Assembly seat held by Evans for six years, are especially important because it is unusual to have both seats open at the same time. The winners in the Democratic primary are almost assured of victory in November and in subsequent elections because the districts are heavily Democratic.
But in a political season marked by highly visible campaigns for Sonoma County district attorney and for two open supervisorial seats, the Senate and Assembly campaigns are virtually unseen.
The only appearance for either Evans or Allen with a challenger present was a state Senate forum last Thursday in Napa, where Evans won the Democratic endorsement, and an April 12 forum for Assembly candidates held in Santa Rosa.
Big war chest no guarantee
But having the largest campaign war chest and most organized campaign doesn’t always translate into victory, as Allen can attest.
An attorney, he is the former general manager of the Service Employees International Union Local 707 and executive director of the North Bay Labor Council. He also was Wiggins’ district director for two years.
Despite having labor support and spending more money than anyone else in the 2008 race for Santa Rosa City Council, Allen finished in seventh place.
He now is the fundraising leader for the Assembly seat over his opponents, Vallejo Councilman Michael Wilson and former Santa Rosa Councilman Lee Pierce, who has made Allen’s donations from special interests an issue in the campaign.
Allen has raised more than $225,000, with more than $82,000, most of it from political action committees tied to labor, coming in since the most recent filing date of March 18.
His nearest challenger, Wilson, has raised a total of about $90,000, according to state campaign finance records.
Allen’s fall and quick rise again through the political ranks is held up as Exhibit A of what some say is a political machine at work in Sonoma County. But he said it’s “been anything but an anointment.”
Instead, he said he’s had to go through the same process of seeking endorsements that every other candidate has gone through. He also noted that he’s not the first person to seek office after having lost a previous campaign.
“It’s a matter of whether you decide to give up or continue building name recognition with a broader base,” he said. “That’s how you eventually get elected to public office.”
Allen’s trajectory is different from that of Evans, who was elected to the Assembly in 2004, and from Wiggins, who held the seat before her for six years. Both women were elected to the Santa Rosa City Council prior to ascending to state office.
Evans said she and Wiggins developed a bond while serving on the council over their shared interests in open government, the environment, city-centered growth, education and the labor movement.
She said the fact they have complementary political careers is evidence of nothing more than two friends helping each other out.
“When you find someone in politics who shares your values, you tend to work with them and support them when they run for other offices,” Evans said.
Wiggins, who went on to serve three terms in the Assembly before she was termed out of office in 2004, was elected to the Senate in 2006. Evans, in the meantime, ran for the Assembly seat and won.
Wiggins’ decision to not run again opened the door for Evans to seek the Senate seat.
Evans also has received sizeable amounts from special interests, including those with ties to labor, Indian tribes and trial attorneys. Since March 18, she’s taken in more than $82,000, bringing her total raised to date to more than $260,000.
Her opponent in the June 8 primary, Sonoma Councilwoman and business owner Joanne Sanders, said despite her background and raising more than $100,000, she feels like she hasn’t been taken seriously by Democratic Party members locally.
“There are all these doors that should be open that were closed before the campaign filing period was even open,” she said.
“A foundation of our country is to have healthy contests and elections, and not have them pre-decided,” she said. “Senator Wiggins ran unopposed four years ago. This is a huge district and it’s an important place in a huge state. Why would there not be a contest for this seat?”
Sanders, who touts her business experience, is critical of Evans for voting to cut education spending and for “balancing the budget on the backs of local government to fund state programs.”
Sanders also supports Proposition 14, which would allow for open primaries. If in force, it would have meant that the two top vote-getters on June 8 would face each other in the general election, effectively setting up a race between two Democrats.
Also running in the Senate race is Sonoma County Planning Commissioner Tom Lynch of Guerneville, who lags far behind in fundraising.
Against open primaries
Both Allen and Evans are opposed to open primaries, saying they don’t want voters from other political parties to have a say in choosing which Democrat goes forward.
“Why be part of a party if you’re going to open it up to whoever wants to influence that election?” Allen said.
Evans said the system in place now does not discourage other Democrats from entering the race. She said she’s raised more money and garnered more endorsements than Sanders for the basic reason that she is working harder in the campaign.
“It sounds to me like people who don’t understand how the Democratic process works,” she said. “A lot of people think they can collect a few signatures and the world will beat a path to their door. That’s not how it works.”
Only hours after Wiggins announced in August that she would not run for re-election, Evans announced her intention to run in a press release that included the names of several powerful Democrats who are endorsing her.
Terry Price, Evans’ campaign manager, said her intentions should not have come as a surprise, given that she’d formed a committee to run for the Senate seat in 2014 in anticipation that Wiggins would retain the seat until then.
Candidates normally try to line up endorsements and tap into funding sources as early as they can to discourage others who might be interested in running.
But the concern raised with Allen and Evans is that they benefit from inside Legislative connections that create a line of uncontested succession.
Term limits enacted by California voters were intended to open up seats that were held by individuals for, in some cases, decades. But according to former county supervisor and Democrat Eric Koenigshofer, what was once a marathon has now turned into a “relay,” with politicians handing the baton off to their desired successor.
“It’s their club,” he said of the North Coast’s progressive coalition.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Sonoma County Democrats are more organized than their counterparts in Marin County.
“That begins with organized labor, but includes the Democratic Central Committee and Democratic clubs. It’s very, very different in the two counties,” he said.
But Huffman said the Democratic apparatus that exists here regionally is nothing like it is in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and other centralized seats of power. And he uses himself as an argument that someone outside the system can legitimately have a shot at winning.
“I didn’t get here by being a part of any system,” he said.
Having amassed a sizeable war chest, Huffman is now viewed as a virtual shoo-in to win another two-year term in November.
Machine accusation ‘hooey’
Price said “the accusation that we somehow shoved others aside and machine politics took over … is such hooey. The facts just don’t support it.”
Progressive Democrats in Sonoma County used to level the same accusation at local government leaders who were perceived to be in the pocket of business interests.
The tables are now turned.
Herb Williams, a Santa Rosa-based political consultant who has worked for many candidates with business and developer backing and was a main target of this criticism, said “if anyone has ever been a tool of anyone in this county in the last 20 years, it’s Michael Allen.”
Williams said Allen’s ties to unions do not bode well for him being independent on the issues.
Those ties include Allen signing a pledge with SEIU Local 1021 when he was a candidate for the Santa Rosa City Council promising to “publicly support and actively encourage” the union’s organizing efforts and to encourage other employers to quickly reach labor agreements once workers vote to unionize.
Records show that on April 7, the union donated $7,800 to Allen’s campaign — the most allowed by state law.
“I think being beholden to those kinds of unions is not a good thing for anyone, where you have to say up front that you are going to support their entire agenda and their agenda is making more money for employees — which isn’t bad, unless it breaks government,” Williams said.
Evans and Allen make the argument that the special interests that are supporting them are representing constituencies that voters on the North Coast support — teachers, for example, or police officers — and that to support these unions merely reflects the will of the voters.
“They certainly don’t want candidates who are in favor of oil drilling or taking money from oil interests,” Allen said, referencing a $1,500 donation that was made to Wilson’s campaign by Chevron.
The company has contributed $3,900 to Sanders’ campaign.
Target of FPPC probe
But besides Allen’s controversial ties to labor unions, he also is being investigated by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission to determine whether he violated conflict-of-interest laws while he was a member of the Santa Rosa Planning Commission.
The probe centers on Allen’s vote in August to approve an overhaul of the city general plan that changed the land-use designation for property owned by the Sonoma County Water Agency. Allen at the time was under contract to the Water Agency to lobby for that change in the general plan designation.
Allen has denied any conflicts and says he can be independent of any interests that are seeking his vote.
“I don’t think I’m a tool of any particular interest,” he said. “I think I’m an independent thinker. But if someone asks, ‘Do you support education, opportunities for Californians and social mobility?’ then I’m going to be in favor of those things.”
If elected, Allen is likely to have a bully pulpit to promote that agenda.
“These are folks who don’t have to compromise very much,” said Brian Sobel, a Petaluma-based political consultant and registered Republican who has contributed $500 to Sanders’ campaign. “They know where they’re going. They know the drill. And I would argue, it makes them less accountable to their entire constituency.”
Given the political leanings on the North Coast, this area is likely to continue electing Democrats to Legislative seats, as it has done for decades.
Registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans four-to-one in Sonoma County, a trend that is mirrored across the North Coast.
“What people aren’t acknowledging is the fact that the community became more progressive over the last 20 years,” said Jim Leddy, Evans’ opponent in the 2004 Democratic primary for the Assembly and now the county’s governmental affairs coordinator.
“Do the elected officials reflect that, or did they seize the power and turn the electorate that way?”