New Candidates, Old Money: The New Second Congressional Seat
by Darwin Bond-Graham, September 15, 2011
Second Congressional Race: Solomon v. Huffman
Candidate for the newly created 2nd US Congressional District seat Norman Solomon visited the Mendocino coast last Thursday, appearing at the Caspar Community Center for an evening discussion with about fifty locals, half of whom trickled in late, as is the style up here. The audience was friendly, receiving Solomon's opening remarks with nodding heads and a few rounds of applause offered after his most invective remarks against the military industrial complex, and his most passionate defenses of the remaining vestiges of American democracy. These moments were few and far between, however. Fitting his calm, almost meditative demeanor, Solomon mostly spoke in a cool, soothing tone.
For those unfamiliar, Solomon is a longtime writer and activist of the progressive tradition, perhaps best known for his book War Made Easy, a critique of the mass media's role in promoting American imperial violence. For journalists and scholars like yours truly, Solomon is known and respected for his thirteen year stint as the director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, a think tank created to smarten up news reporting by compiling sources of expert information and analysis on all variety of subjects.
He is running for Congress, he says, in the spirit of the late Senator Paul Wellstone. In an op-ed published in the San Francisco Guardian in January of this year he explained that if elected he would “represent the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Although he points out that the Progressive Caucus is by count the largest caucus among different factions of the House of Representatives, true democratic progressivism is a political philosophy few members of Congress put into practice. Right-wing ideology is fiercely ascendent and many of the so-called progressives have caved under Obama's presidency. Representing the democratic wing of the Democratic Party is a tall order then.
Solomon currently lives in the coastal Marin County hamlet of Inverness. How is it that a Marin County resident is running for the Congressional seat to represent Mendocino County, two places of dramatically different cultural and class composition? The answer lies in the recent redistricting exercise whereby northern California was re-carved, or gerry-remandered if you will, by the “nonpartisan” citizens commission tasked with cleaning up the electoral map. The western portion of what used to be the vast 1st District was cleaved from Lake and Napa County and grafted to part of the old 6th District by the commissioners. The new 2nd Congressional District spans everything, geographically (and socioeconomically), from the tony mansion-scaped village of Sausalito, to the working class prison, timber, pot, and fishing backwater that is Crescent City.
The result is a district that is about four points more Democratic by party registration, about 50% to 23% Republican, than the previous 1st District. Although the new 2nd District boundaries dispense with the old panhandle that used to cut due east from St. Helena all the way to the outskirts of Sacramento, it now has a funny cavity beginning above Petaluma where the border cuts northwesterly to exclude Cotati, Rohnert Park, and Santa Rosa, then sweeping back to the east to ensure Windsor and Healdsburg remain within limits. Anyone familiar with the culture and economy of northern California knows that Santa Rosa is the center of gravity for all the cities up the 101 corridor, and for west Sonoma County communities like Sebastopol and Guerneville. The new district severs this relationship with respect to decisions that will be made in the Congress while lumping the interests of San Rafael and Ukiah together. Go figure.
Another interesting outcome of redistricting of course is the fact that Mike Thompson, aka, “Congressman Wine Guy,” will no longer represent Mendocino County. Thompson will stay put where he currently resides, ensconced in the newly created 5th District composed of Napa and Lake counties. He is more than the heavy favorite for re-election.
On Thursday night Solomon was asked directly about the new district boundaries which many Mendocino residents rightly have criticized for shifting the center of political gravity toward the more populous and extremely wealthier enclaves of Marin County. With more than 250,000 residents Marin County is almost three times larger than Mendocino County, and only 12,000 persons less than the combined populations of the District's four northern counties: Mendocino, Humboldt, Del Norte, and Trinity. Adding Petaluma swings the balance of power back south by more than 46,000 residents. Marin's more affluent demographics also may mean higher rates of voter turnout than the more economically depressed northern counties (numerous surveys over the years have shown that middle and upper class voters go to the polls at higher rates than the poor, especially in midterm years), leading to an even greater distortion of electoral strength.
The real test of how the new district's imbalance will sway northern California's representation in the Congress will concern the power of money. Money runs American politics. The average cost of a seat in the House is now approximately $1 million according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and in 90% of the last election cycle's races the top spender prevailed. Money picks candidates and wins races most of the time. With a median family income that is more than double Mendocino County's ($86,000 to $41,000 respectively) Marin County is where the 2nd District's contenders will be seeking cash. This is especially true given the large number of millionaires residing in the emerald hills and valleys of San Anselmo, Fairfax, and Tiburon.
Solomon recognized this problem Thursday night, replying to one comment concerning the possibility of Marin County's domination of the north that he is running to represent the district's progressive majority, not any particular geographic area.
Currently representing California's 6th Assembly District, Solomon's rival Jared Huffman also lives in Marin and has a significant edge so far in fundraising, partly because he already represents Marin County in the state house. Huffman has already raised more than $271,000 for battle in the coming election, much of it from his Marin County network. Huffman also has the backing of several powerful North Bay unions such as the Amalgamated Transit Union, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and Engineers Local 3.
As one means of countering the power of big money, Solomon hopes to make waves and retain trust with voters by vowing that his campaign will not accept cash from corporate political action committees. As of June Solomon has raised $130,000, nearly all from individual contributions, and his campaign has a large and invigorated volunteer base. Huffman has a track record of taking big cash contributions from PACs, including both labor and corporate interests. Six of Huffman's ten top contributors over the last two years are labor groups. Huffman's top ten money sources also include powerful corporate interests such as AT&T, E&J Gallo Winery, and Waste Management.
In addition to frontrunners Solomon and Huffman, the race for the 2nd District seat includes three women who have largely been overshadowed: Susan Adams and Stacy Lawson, both also hailing from Marin County, and Tiffany Renee of Petaluma. On the issues all five candidates more or less agree on basic priorities that poll well in the North Bay such as the need to reduce carbon emissions and to develop renewable, local energy sources; the need to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in order to pay down the debt; the importance of defending Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare against privatization raids; and the need for higher levels of funding for education. Indeed one of the difficulties of this campaign will be differentiating the candidates on the issues when there is so much rhetorical agreement. No doubt each candidate would have a far different track record if elected. Regardless of their stump speeches, many Congressional Reps are pressured to go along with their more conservative colleagues, or bend to the will of the powerful corporate lobbyists who outnumber them. This is where Solomon hopes to distinguish himself, explaining that his campaign is being waged not just to represent the heavily Democratic North Bay, but to press against the centrists who currently run the Democratic Party at the national level. Solomon comes across as a principled idealist.
Solomon was put on the spot with a few issues of special importance to Mendocino County by the crowd Thursday night. Several in the audience asked about some of the big elephants of North Coast politics: wine, water, and pot. Solomon said he appreciates a good glass of wine, but that nothing can mask the bitter taste of the injustice and exploitation endured by immigrant laborers who toil in the fields for low wages, often in terror of ICE raids and deportation, and with few resources to better their lot. More broadly, Solomon seems to have done his homework on water issues on the North Coast and the state as a whole. He said he will promote conservation and oppose plans that would harm rivers, fish, and upstream communities, and offered some informed criticisms of plans like the peripheral canal. With respect to King Weed, Solomon said he favors legalization given the negative costs of prohibition.
Huffman's announced future event dates do not include a Mendocino stop as of today. His next reception will be in the town of Ross in Marin County, and is billed as a “wine and hors d'oeuvres reception.” Huffman lists winemaking as one of his favorite hobbies on his campaign web site, but appears to hold the interest of his union supporters above his wine industry friends, having voted in favor of SB 104, the farm worker organizing bill that was subsequently vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in June. None of the three other candidates appear to be headed to Mendocino anytime soon, basing most of their efforts in Marin and southern Sonoma Counties.