The Most Popular Politician In East Bay Senate Race Is ... Jerry Brown?

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Gov. Jerry Brown, seen here in his 2014 re-election campaign, issued an executive order Wednesday seeking ambitious new reductions in greenhouse gases.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images )

No matter who voters in California's 7th State Senate District select in the special election on May 19, one thing's for sure: It will be a Democrat who cozied up to the political warmth that radiates off Gov. Jerry Brown these days.

The race between Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla (D-Concord) and Orinda Mayor Steve Glazer has more dramatic storylines than you can possibly keep track of: Democrats fighting each other; big money being spent by independent groups normally aligned with either labor unions (pro-Bonilla) or Republicans (pro-Glazer); the shifting strategies of campaigns under California's top-two primary rules.

And those are just the biggies. But in these closing weeks, the guy who seems to be the real political prize is the one who's tried hard to stay away from this Democrat vs. Democrat wrestling match: Gov. Jerry Brown.

The easy, and therefore less spoken, connection is between Brown and Glazer. The two men have a relationship that dates back more than 30 years. "Their enduring relationship is a testament both to Mr. Glazer's devotion to Mr. Brown and to Mr. Brown's penchant for trusting only a handful of close advisers," said the New York Times in a 2010 profile of Glazer while he was helping run Brown's successful bid for a third term as governor.

But Brown has kept an official distance from his longtime friend in this race and in Glazer's failed 2014 bid for the state Assembly. In truth, the governor and the former adviser have had some public distance between them since Glazer was blacklisted by organized labor for 2012 legislative campaigns in which he worked for a business-backed political action committee.

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Which is why it was notable to see the governor being name-dropped in the home stretch of the special election runoff, but by Glazer's opponent. Assemblywoman Bonilla, who came in second to Glazer in March (but slipped past another Democrat to advance), recently was promoted by a pro-labor campaign whose recent TV ad ends with this tagline:

"No wonder classroom teachers, local law enforcement, and Gov. Jerry Brown trust Susan Bonilla."

But lest you think otherwise, that's not a shoutout from the governor.

"Governor Brown has not endorsed in this race," said his spokesman, Evan Westrup, in an email.

It's not hard to see why Brown is a real prize in this race; after all, he's the state's top Democrat in a Democratic-friendly district. The governor won with 63 percent of the vote in this East Bay Senate district last November. In 2012, his Proposition 30 tax increase won in the district with more than 56 percent of the vote. And Brown's current statewide job approval numbers remain high.

For a Democrat in a tough race ... and in a strong Democratic district (a plurality 43.4 percent of voters) ... Brown's the guy you want to be seen with. Except that in this race, both candidates are Democrats.

Undated photo of Gov. Jerry Brown with his former adviser, Steve Glazer, who's now running for the state Senate.
Undated photo of Gov. Jerry Brown with his former adviser, Steve Glazer, who's now running for the state Senate. (Glazer Senate Campaign)

Glazer, who includes photos of himself with Brown on his campaign website, nonetheless downplays the issue. In a KQED News interview last month, he declined to comment on any conversations he has with the governor these days.

But Glazer doesn't have to do much to put himself standing alongside Brown. That no doubt explains why the Democrats who are working against Glazer argue he's not the "Brown Democrat" in the race.

"Bonilla, a former public school teacher, has gained a reputation for being a roll-up-your-sleeves, let's get things done Democrat, much like Brown," wrote Steve Maviglio, a strategist working on the anti-Glazer effort, in a recent online column.

The Democratic groups trying to derail Glazer, in fact, are spending most of their time trying to link the Orinda official to Republicans -- the party whose voters no doubt helped him make it into the runoff in the race.

Mailer sent from independent group opposing Steve Glazer in the East Bay state Senate race.
Mailer sent from independent group opposing Steve Glazer in the East Bay state Senate race. (Independent PAC Mailer)

"Who's Bankrolling Steve Glazer?" asks a mailer sent by the pro-union group. The actual donor, wealthy Southern California businessman Bill Bloomfield, is somewhat beside the point: The flier offers up photos of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and President George W. Bush to really hammer home its point.

The money being spent on all of this is eye-popping; a review of campaign reports shows, just since the March 17 primary, more than $2 million in independent expenditures alone.

The race may be the most bitter intraparty battle in recent memory in California politics. Whereas party fealty is a big part of the equation in any contest, it's especially true when it comes to who will sit in one of just 40 seats in the Senate -- a body where a handful of legislators can block the generally liberal leadership's agenda pretty easily. But even then, this race is full of quirky dynamics: Just last week, Bonilla and Glazer clashed over their positions on extending the Prop. 30 taxes -- with Bonilla's camp insisting she's always opposed an extension, just like Glazer.

(Reality check: in a March 11 email, Bonilla's campaign adviser wrote that the candidate "supports voters passing an extension to Prop. 30, which has helped restore education funding after years of devastating cuts and is helping turn our local schools around.")

The real question seems to be whether the jockeying for the governor's imprimatur is about the fight over Democrats or non-Democrats in the district. The Prop. 30 squabble is especially curious, given that Brown has made it clear he's opposed to an extension of the taxes.

Even so, both candidates no doubt need to reach out to the voters who cast ballots for one of three other contenders last month. And key to that is positioning whose values are, well, most politically valuable. On that question, you could do a lot worse in this Bay Area suburban community than aligning yourself with Jerry Brown.