By GUY KOVNER | The Press Democrat
A virtual unknown when she joined the North Coast congressional race last year, Stacey Lawson presented herself as a successful businesswoman and educator bringing her experience to the political arena.
Now, with absentee ballots arriving on doorsteps and the June 5 primary election less than a month away, questions from other Democratic candidates about Lawson’s business background and voting record are gaining prominence in the campaign.
That’s due in part to a consensus on most issues among the eight Democrats competing for votes in a liberal district, amplified by the perception that three of them — Lawson, Susan Adams and Norman Solomon — are competing for second place behind Assemblyman Jared Huffman.
Under California’s new top-two, open primary system, the two leading vote-getters, regardless of party, will move on to the November general election.
Two Democrats are likely to prevail in the primary, experts say, noting that two Republican candidates will split a minority portion of the vote.
At candidate forums since mid-April, Adams, a Marin County supervisor, and Solomon, a West Marin activist and author, have taken shots at Lawson, who made a sudden impact by raising about $740,000 in campaign cash, second only to Huffman with about $864,000.
Their ammunition includes Lawson’s record of voting four times in 12 elections as a San Francisco resident from 2003 to 2008, and her leadership of a high-end women’s purse company that failed to pay payroll taxes and manufactured its products in China.
Adams, who has a fraction of the other three contenders’ cash, said that Lawson’s poor voting record is reminiscent of Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman’s record, a factor in her 2010 loss to Gov. Jerry Brown.
Whitman, then a former CEO at eBay, came to electoral politics from the business world, as did Lawson.
“I think it’s an important indicator,” Adams said. “Women fought for the right to vote. There is no excuse (for not voting).”
Adams and Huffman have perfect voting records in Marin County since 1993 and 1995, respectively, and Solomon missed only once, in a local district election, in 21 elections since 1999.
Lawson acknowledged an “imperfect voting record” and called it a mistake. “Even missing one election is one too many,” she said in an interview Thursday.
At a candidates’ forum in April, Lawson said that she felt “disenfranchised” from the political system during the time she failed to vote, including the November, 2008 presidential election.
That was not long after Lawson had participated in Emerge California, a political candidate training program for Democratic women, in 2007, and donated $5,100 to Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2007-08.
In the interview, Lawson said she had campaigned for Clinton and then Obama, and had voted from overseas in November, 2008. But there is no record of her vote, she said, a fact confirmed by the San Francisco Department of Elections.
Solomon said he was “taken aback” by news reports of Lawson’s poor voting record. “It continues to be disturbing to me,” he said.
“Voting is sacred,” Solomon said.
Huffman, who is termed out of the Legislature this year, said he was not getting involved in “the crossfire between several of my opponents.”
Adams and an anonymous website called “Who Is Stacey Lawson?” have faulted Lawson’s role as board chairman of Chelsey Henry Inc., a Seattle-based women’s handbag and luggage retailer that failed to pay about $350,000 in payroll taxes from 2006 to 2009.
Huffman and spokesmen for Adams and Solomon said that neither the candidate nor the campaign had any connection with the website, which is also active on social media.
The website appears to represent a violation of campaign finance law because no independent expenditure for or against Lawson has been reported to the Federal Election Commission, Lawson spokesman Jason Liles said.
Chelsey Henry also outsourced product manufacturing to China, which Adams said was “not exactly a stunning or stellar example” of creating jobs in America.
The company, which is still in business, was eventually taken over by creditors, Adams said.
Lawson said Chelsey Henry, during her tenure as board chairwoman, came up short on cash for paying taxes during the recession. The board took “immediate action,” she said, requiring company managers to negotiate a payment plan with the Internal Revenue Service.
The company sold its assets and brand name to a creditor, and the tax liability is still being repaid, she said.
Lawson said her critics do not understand the hardship small companies endured during the recession, and are focusing on a single episode in her career.
She also said the criticisms amount to the “dirty attack politics” that have sullied public perception of the political process.
A Harvard Business School graduate in 1996, Lawson made $6 million on the sale of her first company and went on to corporate executive jobs paying as much as $300,000 a year.
Chelsey Henry did not “send jobs overseas,” but contracted with a Chinese company for product manufacturing, she said.
Her proposals to generate high-wage jobs on the North Coast are “the whole basis for my candidacy,” Lawson said. That does not include bringing the “needle trade” — the low-skilled manufacture of clothing and related items — back to the United States, she said.