.Bill Lockyer’s Million Dollar Baby

The price is high in the race for a vacant seat on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

The race for Alameda County supervisor comes down to one donor: Bill Lockyer. The state treasurer, himself up for re-election this fall, has contributed more than $1 million to the campaign of his wife, Nadia Lockyer, in what has become the most expensive supervisorial race in Alameda County history. The cash haul has largely overshadowed anything of substance in the candidate’s race against former state Senator Liz Figueroa to replace the retiring Gail Steele.

County supervisor elections do not have fund-raising limits, which has allowed the Lockyers to almost fully fund a campaign relying on large outlays to political consultants and staff. Financial disclosure forms filed last week showed that Bill Lockyer’s campaign for treasurer pumped an additional $450,000 in donations to his wife’s campaign, pushing the total amount of cash over $1 million. And this doesn’t include in-kind contributions such as web site construction, child care, and staff.

By contrast, Figueroa’s campaign has raised about $86,000 this year, and last week reported just $12,000 in remaining cash. If elected, Figueroa said her first course of action would be to stem the flow of huge sums of unfettered campaign dollars.

“Can you buy an election?” Figueroa asked, lamenting that well-financed candidates such as Lockyer will edge out qualified leaders from ever getting involved in the election process. “If we open the floodgates to this type of money, it will only be the beginning and people like the Lockyers can just help colleagues and family members as much as they want.” 

Katie Merrill, a consultant for the Lockyer campaign, dismissed Figueroa’s charge, saying she is merely attempting to change the conversation away from a biting mailer sent last week by a former county tax collector essentially calling for Figueroa to pay her back taxes.

Despite the vast spending discrepancy, the campaign has been spirited, featuring calls by the Lockyer campaign for Figueroa to pay delinquent property taxes and accusations she did not live in the county. Figueroa says she is on a payment plan with the county and says she lives in Sunol, which is within the boundaries of the District 2 seat she hopes to win. Not to be undone, Figueroa accused Lockyer of being unfamiliar with the district when she scheduled a fund-raiser with a prominent Latino businessman who was accused by his wife that he abused her and their young son. Lockyer ultimately did not attend the event, and called the move by Figueroa “puke politics.”

The state of county finances could also be described in a similar manner. The winner will inherit a budget that continues to reel from steep cuts to staff and important county services. The current board of supervisors recently closed a $152 million deficit through additional cuts to social services and short-term concessions from labor unions. Whoever prevails will likely tackle similarly excruciating decisions in the next year, and both candidates have campaigned on their past experiences in delivering government efficiency.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Figueroa said. When asked last month during a candidates forum in Hayward if she would pledge to not make cuts, Figueroa declined, calling it a “false promise” and faulted lawmakers in Sacramento for repeatedly dipping into the coffers of local communities. Lockyer was equally vague on how she would stabilize the county budget, saying, “We can be more efficient.” She said she would try to retain services amid extremely large deficits, but added, “I will not cut vital services unless those inefficiencies have been met.”

As executive director of the Alameda County Family Justice Center since 2007, Lockyer says she saved the county more than $1 million during her tenure. A trained lawyer, Lockyer toiled at the Santa Ana School District in Southern California before marrying her husband in 2003. Through the primary and general election, she has described herself as the only candidate with experience as head of a county program.

Figueroa, on the other hand, has been in public service for nearly as long as Lockyer has been alive — 39 years — and represented the area in the State Senate from 1998 to 2006. The boundaries of District 2 are nearly identical to those of the senate district she once served. During her time in Sacramento, Figueroa was notable in passing three pieces of legislation that later become blueprints for national models. Her bill extending the hospital stay of newborns and their mothers greatly increased the health of babies and was lauded by President Bill Clinton. Figueroa was also behind “Do Not Call” legislation and procuring insurance for underprivileged children, which, coincidentally, she noted, included campaigning with then-state senator Bill Lockyer. Figueroa and Bill Lockyer were once a well-known item in Sacramento circles in the 1990s, which has added a certain tabloid subtext to the entire race. In the meantime, both Lockyer and Figueroa have taken strides to highlight their varying degrees of experience.

“These are not times we can start with inexperienced personnel,” said Figueroa, who added, “It’s about experience, not on-the-job training.” Figueroa said Lockyer, through her limited experience in the county, has not “paid her dues” as a consistent local advocate. For her part, Lockyer has repeatedly said she would create “leadership teams” to keep her abreast of various issues and locales in the district. The mantra has forced some at the county level to scratch their heads in confusion.

“I never pretend to know it all,” Lockyer said last month, but that sentiment contrasted with images she constructed during the primary when she once admonished Figueroa and former opponent and Hayward City Councilman Kevin Dowling for not knowing enough. At a Fremont forum attended by both Figueroa and Dowling, Lockyer told a questioner how they could get themselves help, instead of personally directing the person to the county services. “I wouldn’t just give you a phone number to call,” she said. “I would try my hardest to personally get the information you needed.”

An open seat on the board of supervisors is a rare occurrence, so the tough tenor of this race is understandable. Lockyer likes to say voters are yearning for a new voice. But while she may be a new voice, there is a familiar old name behind her campaign.

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