Mia Bonta, a state Assembly candidate in District 18, which includes much of Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro, at her campaign headquarters in Oakland on June 23, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Mia Bonta, the president of the Alameda Unified School District's Board of Education, opened up an early lead on Tuesday in a special election to fill her husband's seat in the state Assembly. But early returns from the 18th District, which includes most of Oakland, San Leandro and Alameda, showed Bonta falling short of the majority vote needed to avoid a runoff later this summer.
Bonta captured 37% of the vote in the last results of the evening, released by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters.
If no candidate receives a majority of votes, the top two finishers will face off in a runoff scheduled for Aug. 31.
Social justice attorney Janani Ramachandran, who stands in second place with 21% of the vote, appeared headed to join Bonta in the runoff. Alameda Vice Mayor Malia Vella trailed with 16% of the vote, while Stephen Slauson, an electrical engineer and the lone Republican in the race, was at 11% at night's end.
Bonta celebrated the returns on Tuesday night at her campaign headquarters in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood, alongside her husband Rob Bonta — California's newly appointed attorney general — and East Bay politicos including BART Board of Directors member Lateefah Simon and Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb.
"It's been so amazing to have so many supporters come out and just give testament to this amazing movement we've been creating together, so it feels like a blessing," Bonta said.
Looking ahead to the likely runoff with Ramachandran, Bonta said she would emphasize "my experience, my connection to this district, the fact that I've been working in this district and with our community for over 20 years."
"I think the common issue of being progressive leaders is something that we're going to have to duke it out about," she said of her probable opponent.
Just east of Lake Merritt, Ramachandran gathered with friends as well as supporters from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union at her apartment, which has served as a makeshift campaign headquarters.
"This just shows to me that voters are excited for true progressive policies," she said. "It shows to me that grassroots movements can win, that people power can win."
The special election campaign kicked off in late March after Rob Bonta, the district's five-term assemblyman, was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to be the state's new attorney general.
The eight candidates who made it on the ballot campaigned in a three-month sprint as the region was emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. All candidate forums were held virtually, although many of the campaigns conducted in-person door-knocking efforts across the district.
"I've literally been door knocking every day since the start of this campaign," said Ramachandran. "That's how we were able to get so far, because we've been out there."
The 18th Assembly District is one of the most liberal in the state (65% of voters are registered as Democrats), and the leading candidates have all vowed to be reliably progressive votes in Sacramento.
Labor unions invested heavily in the race — spreading endorsements between Bonta, Vella and Ramachandran, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Bonta and Vella.
The candidates did split in their approaches to the vexing issue of housing development. Vella offered wholehearted support for two proposals in the state Legislature that would ease construction of duplexes and small apartment buildings, while Bonta and Ramachandran said they would push to amend the bills to add more affordable housing requirements before committing their support.
Ramachandran also broke from Bonta and Vella in her opposition to the Oakland A's proposed development at the Port of Oakland's Howard Terminal, where the team hopes to build a new stadium along with housing and office and retail space.
Bonta was boosted in the race by her name ID and her consistent advantage in campaign spending: Her 2021 campaign committee reported $324,272 in expenditures, compared to $220,018 for Vella and $57,473 for Ramachandran.
In addition, three independent super PACs, financed by groups representing teachers, school employees, and doctors and dentists, along with health insurers and card rooms, spent $398,620 to bolster Bonta's candidacy.
As the race's front-runner from the moment she launched her campaign, Bonta weathered attacks from her opponents, who said she was benefiting from her husband's name and was receiving donations from companies who wanted to influence the new attorney general.
At a candidate forum in late May, Vella alluded to her opponent benefiting from "political patronage." And last week, Ramachandran launched a more direct broadside, charging Bonta with "legalized corruption" for accepting donations from companies who are pursuing future statewide ballot measures, for which the attorney general will write the title and summary seen by voters.
Bonta denied any impropriety and described the race as an opportunity to introduce her own personal story to the district's residents.
The competitiveness of the campaign did not spur Alameda County voters to the polls, despite the continued expansion of mail-in voting. Every voter in the district was sent a ballot by default, and the county set up 21 drop boxes and 10 voting locations for residents to drop off their ballots or vote in person.
But the last returns released on Tuesday showed just 43,900 ballots cast, a turnout of about 15%.
That's in line with two prior special elections for state Assembly this year that saw low voter interest. In April, just 21% of voters cast ballots in a special election held in San Diego's 79th Assembly District. Last month, only 14% of registered voters in Los Angeles' 54th Assembly District voted in a special election.
"I feel like a lot of people are distracted and we're seeing really low turnout," said Vella, at her election night gathering in Alameda.
Even if she remains out of the top two, Vella said the runoff would be a "great opportunity" for two female candidates.
"What I do know is that we're going to have more women in the state Legislature than ever before," she added. "And we're going to have a woman of color."