For nearly two decades, voters in Marin and parts of Sonoma County have sent Petaluma Democrat Lynn Woolsey, best known for her early opposition to the Iraq War, to represent them in Congress.
Now, voters are choosing from a crowded field of twelve candidates vying to succeed the retiring Woolsey, in a sprawling new district that runs from the Golden Gate Bridge along the north coast to the Oregon border. The primary election rules have changed with the top-two vote-getters advancing to the November election, regardless of party. All this, is making for one feisty congressional race.
At a San Rafael coffee shop Marin County Supervisor Susan Adams wastes little time taking a jab at fellow democrat and wealthy tech entrepreneur Stacey Lawson.
“She’s lived in the community less than three years,” said Adams. “There’s been no engagement in civic life locally, and I think the people are looking for somebody that’s actually shown up and worked on behalf of the community; not just show up with a big war chest, to try to buy a seat.”
Adams, with her message of political experience and deep district roots, has raised just one-fifth of the money Lawson has. And she’s not the only one taking aim at Lawson. In a recent mailer, author and self-described Occupy candidate Norman Solomon calls Lawson a “corporate profiteer” and compares her spotty voting record to former GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman.
Solomon is a darling of Hollywood lefties like Sean Penn. He touts his foreign policy knowledge and refusal tto ake corporate money. Solomon says he won’t shy away from providing voters with "information" about his opponents.
“This is a grassroots versus Astroturf campaign,” said Solomon. “And frankly, we’re running against a lot of Astroturf: big money, TV radio commercials.”
For her part, Stacey Lawson says if her rivals are gunning for her, it’s because her plan to focus on manufacturing to rebuild the middle-class resonates with voters. Lawson says she won’t be stooping to negative ads.
“That’s not the kind of campaign I want to run,” said Lawson. “I think that’s actually what’s wrong with our politics right now.”
Spoken like a true front runner, except that Lawson is not. Polls suggest Assemblyman Jared Huffman, a San Rafael Democrat, easily leads the field. Huffman has locked up hundreds of endorsements while touting his environmental track record and ability to work across party lines.
So why is Lawson getting all the attention?
Lawson has raised more than $900,000 according to May 16 financial disclosures. That's second to Huffman’s more than one million dollars raised. Under the state’s new primary system, the top-two vote-getters, regardless of party, face off in the fall. In the liberal second congressional district, that November ballot could feature two Democrats.
“The battle here is all about second place,” said David McCuan, an associate professor of political science at Sonoma State University. “When you’re searching for second place and you’re trying to distinguish yourself, and introduce yourself to many new voters in a district that runs from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border, you have to go negative.”
McCuan said the race for number two has helped frontrunner Jared Huffman stay out of the scrum and get a free pass to November. But Huffman says he’s not taking anything for granted.
“I’m excited, I’m feeling the momentum and the energy, but part of that is paranoia,” said Huffman recently at a Sausalito fundraiser. “The political graveyard is littered with front runners who got complacent and I’m determined not to let that happen.”
Sonoma State political scientist David McCuan predicts that by November, total candidate spending could reach three and a half million dollars; a record for this seat.
“Money doesn’t buy you success, but what money does buy you is a seat at the table or exposure, and therefore every candidate in this race who’s not a pretender has to raise a lot of money,” McCuan said. “Whether that’s Jared Huffman, whether that's Stacey Lawson, whether that’s Susan Adams or Norman Solomon, kind of the top four kind of real candidates in this race.”
The perception that he’s not one of the "real candidates" makes Republican Dan Roberts bristle. The Tiburon stockbroker and Vietnam War veteran has the backing of the state GOP. He thinks he can win over some Democrats with his promise to take on Wall Street crooks and his calls for an immediate troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. But in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one, Roberts is also contending with another Republican in the race, Mike Halliwell, who could siphon off votes.
“Well, it’ll be a chore,” said Roberts at his Tiburon home. “But, as a former Marine, I’m used to charging the hill against opposition and succeeding, so there’s no withdrawal for me.”
Roberts says with new primary rules, new voters to the north, and Democrats beating each other up it's foolish to count him out.