Posted by Kellie Ryan on June 09, 2015 at 10:48 AM
Orinda Mayor Steve Glazer beat Concord Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla in the Democratsonly race for an East Bay state Senate seat, but the real losers may be labor unions and Democratic leaders who don’t see that the political game in California has changed.
Glazer, a 57yearold campaign consultant and former aide to Gov. Jerry Brown, took the lead for the Seventh State Senate District seat when the first votebymail results were released minutes after the polls closed Tuesday and never looked back. By night’s end, he beat Bonilla by more than 10,000 votes, 54.6 percent to 45.4 percent. He won easily in both Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
To Bonilla’s allies, the result was a fluke, brought on by GOP dirty tricks that could never work anywhere else.
“This lowturnout special election was a special circumstance where a Democratic candidate was able to pander to Republican voters to gain an edge,” Jon Youngdahl of Working Families Opposing Glazer said in a statement. “The election was not about the soul of the Democratic Party. It was a craven political strategy designed by corporate special interests and Republicans.”
The group, funded by labor interests, spent more than $2 million to support Bonilla and oppose Glazer.
Bonilla, 54, declined to speak with reporters Wednesday and didn’t officially concede until late afternoon, when she sent an email message to supporters.
“After a brutally hardfought campaign, Steve Glazer will serve our community in the state Senate,” Bonilla said. She thanked her backers for their support, “even in the face of nasty personal attacks and historic spending from outside special interests.”
The complaints about Glazer’s efforts to appeal to Republicans and independent voters ignore the changes taking place in California elections with the advent of the toptwo primary system, in which the two biggest votegetters, regardless of party, advance to the runoff.
“Bonilla’s labor allies made no attempt to do anything but rally their Democratic base,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant who now publishes the California Target Book, which focuses on state campaigns. “Bonilla could only hope that Republicans and independent voters stayed home, and they didn’t.”
The top-two system was designed to force candidates to appeal to all the voters in their district, even those who don’t much like them or agree with them.
It’s a system Glazer is comfortable working with. In fact, in 2013 he was blacklisted by the California Labor Federation for working with the California Chamber of Commerce to identify probusiness candidates for the group to support in Assembly races that pitted two Democrats against each other.
Bill Bloomfield, a wealthy Republicanturnedindependent businessman from Southern California who spent more than $2 million on Glazer’s campaign, also sees the new direction in California elections. In November, he spent more than $1.3 million to help elect Ben Allen of Santa Monica as a more moderate alternative to fellow Democrat Sandra Fluke in a state Senate district no Republican could ever win.
Until Proposition 14 passed in 2010, the top Republican and top Democrat in their separate primaries squared off in the general election. But if the district was dominated by one party, as is the case with Democrats in most of the Bay Area, the runoff was little more than a coronation.
But everything changes when two Republicans or two Democrats can meet in that showdown. With a choice limited to Bonilla and Glazer, East Bay Republicans had to decide which Democrat better represented their views.
That was especially important in the heavily suburban Seventh State Senate District, a whitecollar, relatively wealthy area that’s no hotbed of labor activism.
The flood of mailers painting Bonilla as the choice of labor and party leaders didn’t bring Democrats to the polls, said Katie Merrill, a Democratic consultant who has worked for Bonilla in the past.
While Democrats have a registration edge in the district, they don’t march in lockstep with the more progressive wing of the party, she said.
“They’re used to voting for people like (former Rep.) Ellen Taucher, a moderate Democrat,” Merrill said. Glazer collected votes from moderate Democrats “and made a strong effort to appeal to Republicans and independents.”
The win was a vindication for Glazer, who finished out of the running to Tim Sbranti, a laborbacked Democrat, in last year’s June primary for the 16th Assembly District, which is contained in the Senate district. Sbranti lost in November to Catharine Baker, a moderate Republican from San Ramon.
“Our campaign struck a chord with voters frustrated by the gridlock and dysfunction in Sacramento,” Glazer said Wednesday. “They want leaders who are more pragmatic than partisan.”
Glazer also had a jab at party leaders and their allies in labor, who poured millions into independent expenditure efforts to cast him as a closet Republican trying to steal the election for the GOP.
As a state senator, he said, “I’ll be looking to advance progressive ideas in a fiscally responsible manner.”
Despite a history with Brown that goes back more than 30 years, Glazer doesn’t expect to become the governor’s new best friend in the Legislature. He is opposed to Brown’s highspeed rail plan and already has ideas about how to improve the governor’s budget, which will be voted on next month.
“I appreciate the governor’s fiscal discipline,” he said, “but hope we can find a way to increase the budget for higher education assistance so every qualified California student can be admitted.”
John Wildermuth is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter:@jfwildermuth John Wildermuth.