The 18th Assembly District: This Year’s Most Competitive Race

The contest to replace Swanson features four candidates — Rob Bonta, Abel Guillen, Joel Young, and Kathy Neal — who each have a legitimate shot at winning.

The 16th Assembly district has long been known as a “black seat” in the state legislature because the demographics of the district had historically tilted toward African-American voters living in East Oakland. For the past six years, the seat has been held by Sandré Swanson, one of the most prominent African-American politicians in the Bay Area. But an historic exodus of blacks from Oakland, coupled with a dramatic redistricting and a newfangled primary season, has changed the demographic landscape of the district. As a result, the 16th, now known as the 18th Assembly district because of redistricting, may one of the most competitive legislative contests in California this year.

Although the official nomination period does not start until February 13, the race already includes four major candidates: Alameda Vice Mayor Rob Bonta, Peralta Community College Trustee Abel Guillen, AC Transit board member Joel Young, and Kathy Neal, a former Port of Oakland commissioner. Each also has amassed a substantial war chest and endorsements in advance of the June 5 election.

Under California’s new open primary rules, the two top vote-getters in June, regardless of party affiliation, will face off in the November general election. Most of the candidates say the new rules haven’t changed how they plan to run their respective campaigns, although they concede the need to find a balance between spending in the primary and saving resources for a potential general election campaign. “Instead of one shot,” Neal explained, “you get a shot at it twice. In terms of expenditures, you have to pace yourself differently in the open primary system. Ultimately, though, it’s about connecting with people.”

The redrawn 18th district also is no longer a shoo-in for African-American candidates. In addition to Oakland losing one-quarter of its black population from 2000 to 2010, the 18th now includes a much larger portion of San Leandro. It still includes Alameda, as well.

The campaign also promises to be close because the candidates are cut from a similar political cloth — all are Democrats. Each also has been well-received by the East Bay’s powerful labor community. But in recent weeks, no candidate has been buoyed more by labor than Guillen who wrapped up powerhouse endorsements last week from the California Nurses Association and the California Teachers Association — two of the most well-organized and most influential unions in the state.

Guillen’s base of support also appears to be expanding. According to his most recent campaign fundraising report filed late last month with the Secretary of State’s Office, more than five hundred of his contributors were small donors. Guillen said that most are people who have never contributed to a campaign in their lives. Because many of his donors are still well below the fundraising limit, Guillen hopes that they will open their checkbooks again in the future. “We think they will probably donate again,” he said. Guillen’s end-of-year report shows his campaign with a respectable $107,000 in cash on hand, strengthened by more than $66,000 in donations during the last three months of the year.

Guillen also has tapped into the message of the 99 Percent. Late last year, he won plaudits from the Occupy movement for his plan to explore the feasibility of moving the community college district’s assets from large financial institutions to local credit unions and community banks. “I have a commitment to myself and my job at the Peralta Community College to try to be one of those people who talks the talk, but also delivers,” Guillen said. “As an elected official, it’s my job to find my role. I can’t control cuts in Sacramento, but I can control what we have and reinvest it.”

Other local agencies and communities are picking up on the Peralta board’s lead. The Berkeley City Council is contemplating a move of its assets from Wells Fargo to local institutions. Guillen said Berkeley and other public agencies, such as AC Transit, have requested information for their own initiatives. “I’m glad it’s picking up steam,” he said.

If Guillen’s grassroots approach has begun to sow positive results, Bonta’s momentum has been equally impressive. Despite being the last candidate to jump into the race, Bonta has picked up significant steam in the past few months. He outpaced his opponents in fundraising, collecting nearly $162,000 in 2011 — all of it in the last three months of the year.

A Yale graduate and former member of the US men’s twenty-and-under soccer team, Bonta is viewed as the most business-friendly candidate in the race. He’s also banking on picking up substantial backing in San Leandro to go with his base of support in Alameda. Bonta also believes that the new demographics of the 18th will be to his advantage. “When I ran for city council I had a broad base of support from tons of whites, Latinos, Asians, and African Americans,” he said. “I have a message that resonates with everyone.”

Job creation is also a big part of Joel Young’s platform. His website confidently blares the slogan, “Jobs Here.” However, another round of unflattering news coverage focused on his personal behavior has buried his message and may be prompting potential supporters to explore other candidates.

Although fundraising reports put Young’s $171,000 cash on hand at the top of the leader board, he had a disappointing last quarter of the year, bringing in just $47,000 in donations. His opponents won’t speculate on whether serious allegations made last year by a former girlfriend that he struck her in the face after she found him in bed with another woman have disrupted the flow of contributions. Bonta and Guillen, though, reported large upticks in fundraising during the fourth quarter of 2011.

Then last month, Young was again ensnared in controversy when Jason Overman, an aide to Oakland Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, reported to police that Young had spat in his face and verbally threatened him during a fundraiser in downtown Oakland. Young did not return requests to be interviewed for this story, but allegations of his bad behavior have become fodder for his opponents. In January, Neal issued a statement that appeared to denounce Young, while also revealing that she was a victim of domestic violence in her early twenties. “I cannot speak to the truth of these allegations, but I can say that violence of any kind is unacceptable, especially from our elected leaders,” Neal said. “Domestic violence, as has also been alleged, is even more disturbing and grave.”

Most observers view Neal as the wildcard in the race. Campaign reports show her with about $30,000 in cash on hand, but Neal said she recently infused her campaign with a $60,000 personal loan. Some campaign watchers, however, say Neal’s gender may prove to be an advantage in a district with changing demographics. “She’s the only woman in the race,” Alameda County Democratic Party Chairwoman Robin Torello said twice during a conversation at the party’s pre-endorsement caucus last month. “I’m not relying on just that,” said Neal. “I don’t take it for granted, but I realize we share the same life experiences and that can be important.”

For the most part, Neal has spent her time and energy working the back channels of Oakland politics. She had a stint as commissioner at the Port of Oakland a decade ago and currently serves on the Alameda County Central Committee.

Last year, she recounted her reasoning for running for the seat after hearing of Young’s personal problems and calculating the relative inexperience of the group of candidates. “All of them are well-meaning,” she said of her opponents, “but not experienced representatives. Sacramento is a mess and we need folks who know how to fix it.”

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