Big Money, Stiff Competition in Fight for South Bay Senate Seat

4 min
Dave Cortese (left) and Nora Campos at a state Senate District 15 candidate forum at Campbell City Hall on Feb. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At first glance, the race for state Senate in the 15th District presents a familiar dynamic in California politics: a battle royale between business and labor interests in a district likely to send a Democrat to Sacramento.

But the field of candidates running to represent San Jose area in the state Legislature extends beyond that dichotomy.

Dave Cortese and Nora Campos, both Democrats with years of experience in South Bay politics, are competing in the primary, along with Ann Ravel, a first-time candidate and fellow Democrat who spent decades in government. Also in the running is Johnny Khamis, a San Jose councilman running as an independent. The top-two finishers, regardless of party, will advance to the general election in November.

The candidates' impressive resumes, combined with an avalanche of spending, has made the race one of the most intriguing contests on the March 3 primary ballot.

"A race like this is wide open," said political strategist Michael Terris, a partner at TBWB Strategies.

For the first time since 2012, the 15th District seat has no incumbent; Democrat Jim Beall is termed out after serving the last eight years in the state Senate and the six years before that in the Assembly.

Beall was a fixture in South Bay politics. First elected to the San Jose City Council in 1980, he went on to serve on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors before representing the region in Sacramento.

"Beall had a lot of labor and centrist support just because he's such an institution," said Terris, who ran both of Beall's state Senate campaigns. "I think [the current candidates] have a harder time getting to a wider tent."

The race to fill the seat has become one of the most expensive state legislative primaries in California, with more than $3.7 million spent by candidates and outside super PACs.

Much of that money has been directed along familiar lines, with labor interests backing Cortese, currently a Santa Clara County supervisor, and business groups getting behind Campos, a former state assemblywoman.

Cortese has raised more than $1.1 million and spent $668,794, outpacing the field, according to pre-primary campaign statements filed last week with California's secretary of state. His campaign has been buttressed by an additional $298,041 from independent expenditures, mostly from pro-labor super PACs.

Cortese has carved out a position as the most traditionally liberal and pro-labor candidate in the race. He is the only candidate in the field who supported Assembly Bill 5, which ushered in California's recent labor law changes for independent contractors. He's also the lone candidate to back a potential November ballot measure to change part of Proposition 13, the controversial 1978 tax measure, by raising property taxes for certain businesses but leaving residential tax rates as is.

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"I've actually opposed it in every campaign except this one," Cortese said of the "split-roll" proposal. "I don't think commercial property owners should get the same protections and benefits as an elderly couple on fixed income who are trying to stay in their home."

Cortese has also taken a more aggressive position than his competitors around changing local zoning laws to spur housing construction. He voiced support for Senate Bill 50, a recently defeated measure to require more dense development throughout the state.

"Sen. Wiener [the bill's author] made the amendments that we wanted as a county," Cortese said. "I think he did just fine."

Campos is making her second run for the seat after losing to Beall in 2016. She previously served on the state Assembly from 2010 to 2016, after nearly a decade on the San Jose City Council.

In a race in which all candidates have promised to prioritize housing affordability, Campos points to her record writing state legislation on the issue — specifically a 2016 bill that allowed San Jose to build tiny homes for the homeless, half of which opened this year.

"I think everyone is looking to this bill because we've been successful," she said. "We actually have created a community in San Jose that actually houses individuals that are homeless with wraparound services."

Considered more moderate than Cortese, Campos' candidacy is getting a big boost from an influx of outside spending on the race: A super PAC funded by gas and oil companies has spent more than $1.1 million in support of Campos, allowing her to compete financially with Cortese.

Those same groups backed Campos in her 2016 primary against Beall, before cutting off their spending in the general election rematch. Beall sailed to reelection with a 25 point victory.

Ann Ravel speaks during a state Senate District 15 candidate forum at Campbell City Hall on Feb. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The torrent of campaign spending is familiar fodder for the third Democrat in the race, Ann Ravel, who has spent large parts of her career regulating money in politics.

A former attorney in the Santa Clara County Counsel's Office, Ravel served as head of California's Fair Political Practices Commission for two years, before heading to Washington, D.C., to chair the Federal Election Commission from 2013 to 2017.

Ravel said that as a candidate she is seeing the influence of money in the political system in new ways.

"A lot of people will decide whether or not to endorse you or whether to help you in your campaign if you are viable," Ravel said. "I believe that I'm eminently viable. But what it actually means is you have to have a lot of money. And so money seems to be the sole qualification for electoral success."

Lacking the war chest or interest group backing of Cortese and Campos, Ravel's path to the general election will most likely rely on performing well on the west side of the district, in wealthier San Jose neighborhoods like Willow Glen and towns like Campbell and Saratoga.

"Smaller towns and the suburbs would be her natural base and constituencies," Terris said.

Johnny Khamis speaks during a 15th District state Senate forum at Campbell City Hall on Feb. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The real wild card in the race is Johnny Khamis, a San Jose councilman registered as "no party preference."

As a child, Khamis fled Lebanon with his family and sought asylum in San Jose. In 2018, he left the Republican Party and became an independent.

"I think that the Republican Party has concentrated too much on anti-immigrant rhetoric," Khamis said. "I'm an immigrant and I came to the United States as a refugee, and it was welcoming."

Khamis believes his move away from a political party will work to his advantage in this race. More than 31% of the district's voters are no party preference, the second-highest of any district in the state.

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"I think most of these people are fiscally conservative and socially not so," Khamis said. "That's where I fit in. I want to be the voice for that community."

Khamis' campaign pairs fiscal prudence and a tough-on-crime focus with more liberal stances on social and environmental issues.

His opponents, though, are dubious that Khamis' pitch to independent voters will pay off, arguing that no party preference voters sit all over the map ideologically.

Two Republicans, Kenneth Del Valle and Robert Howell, and another independent, Tim Gildersleeve, fill out the ballot, but none have spent any money campaigning.

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