Because of California's new top-two primary system, the 18th Assembly District race this fall between Alameda Vice Mayor Rob Bonta and Peralta Community College Trustee Abel Guillen is not your typical Democrat-versus-Republican contest. Instead, Bonta and Guillen are both staunch liberals who tend to see eye-to-eye on nearly every major policy position. Indeed, it's difficult at times to tell the two apart.
Both, for example, want to eliminate the two-thirds majority to raise taxes in the state Legislature. Improving education is a top priority, they say, as is reducing crime. How would they increase revenue to the state's coffers? Enact an oil severance tax. Even when legendary civil rights leader Dolores Huerta endorsed Guillen, she soon gave her support to Bonta as well, adding to the large number of dual endorsements in this race.
At one point this summer, each campaign was attempting to seemingly one-up each other on Facebook and Twitter with the announcement of an endorsement from some liberal backer, however obscure. In short, this race could be a harbinger for others in similarly politically homogeneous areas of the state, in which competition for some seats in the Legislature may no longer be about policy differences between the candidates, but instead may focus more on nuance and personality.
Many of the slight differences between Bonta and Guillen stem from their political backgrounds. Bonta's strong support for public safety, for example, reflects his experience in municipal government. His policy proposals also may sell well to many voters in Oakland, which makes up the lion's share of the redrawn 18th District — a district that also includes Alameda and parts of San Leandro, which tend to be more moderate. One of Bonta's more interesting proposals is to allow the state to create an emergency fund for cities with high crime rates to gain tax dollars to hire additional police officers. Bonta has also proposed legislation that would carve out an exemption from Governor Jerry Brown's dissolution of redevelopment to help fund construction at former military bases in the state, including Alameda Point and the Oakland Army Base.
Bonta's emphasis on public safety and economic growth, however, also has sparked allegations that he's not really a progressive, but rather a pro-business Democrat. But those claims were severely undercut when the district's most admired progressive, outgoing Assemblyman Sandré Swanson, gave Bonta a sterling endorsement in July. "I have carefully considered their values, experience, and vision for the future," Swanson said of Bonta and Guillen at the time. "It is now clear to me that Rob Bonta is the best choice for the California State Assembly." Bonta is also endorsed by the Alameda County Democratic Party.
As for Guillen, his progressive credentials were established early in the primary season. With the Occupy Oakland protesters marching in the streets, Guillen garnered attention when he successfully moved the Peralta Community Colleges District board to approve moving its assets out of major banks and into smaller community-based institutions. His efforts won plaudits from many progressives, especially younger voters.
Guillen's populist tendencies of late also have become even more pronounced. During a forum last month in San Leandro, he repeatedly appealed to union members and working-class values. "Instead of beating up public employees," he said, "we need to look at the private sector and for them to say, 'Hey, how come I don't have a pension, also?' We should all have pensions, don't you think?"
In terms of fund-raising, Bonta holds the edge. Through September 30, he had received $565,000 in contributions compared to Guillen's $407,000. Both candidates also have received substantial support from labor, although Bonta also has the backing of police and fire unions. Bonta won the June primary with 36 percent of the vote, followed by Guillen's 29 percent.
Despite a genuine personal respect between the candidates, a substantial portion of the general election campaign has featured bouts of charges and counter charges between the two campaigns. In early August, Guillen's campaign filed an official complaint with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, contending that Bonta had failed to file campaign finance reports from his 2010 run for Alameda City Council. Guillen also asserted his opponent did not electronically file reports from the same year to the Secretary of State's database. Bonta, however, ultimately cleared up the issue, and in September, the FPPC found that the corrections he made were sufficient and so did not sanction him.
Bonta's campaign, meanwhile, took umbrage with an unidentified telephone pollster who asserted that he want to privatize education in the state. "I heard the poll," said Bonta. "The whole thing was taking my record out of context. To say something like that is insane, but I'm not naive to think that doesn't happen in politics. It only has to happen if we choose for it to happen."
At a forum last month, Bonta asked Guillen for a pledge to run a clean campaign, to which Guillen simply responded, "Sure."