Considering how unpopular the U.S. Congress is these days, it's kind of surprising that anyone wants to join its ranks. Last month, Congress' job-approval rating reached a historic low-water mark of just 10 percent, according to a Gallup survey. And yet here on the North Coast we find ourselves in the midst of the most exciting -- and crowded -- Congressional primary race in more than a decade.
To some extent, that excitement has been foisted on us. Given the opportunity we probably would have kept electing Rep. Mike Thompson for as long as he chose to represent us. But Humboldt County and Thompson have been forcibly divorced. Last year, a voter-initiated citizens committee redrew California's boundaries for congressional, state Senate and Assembly districts, putting the North Coast in bed with our wealthy neighbors to the south. For the purposes of congressional representation, Humboldt, Del Norte and Mendocino counties are no longer attached to an easterly dogleg jutting into the portion of wine country that includes Thompson's hometown of St. Helena. Instead, the new 2nd congressional district extends from Marin County north to the Oregon border, skirting Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park.
Our new representative likely would have been resident 20-year incumbent Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, but the 74-year-old announced last year that she'll retire rather than seek reelection. As of early this week, 13 candidates had filed paperwork hoping to fill Woolsey's vacant seat -- nine Democrats, two Republicans and two independents, which makes sense given the district's political makeup: More than half of registered voters here are Democrats while fewer than one in four is Republican. (The candidate filing period ended Wednesday.)
Population distribution is similarly lopsided. Together, Marin County and Sonoma counties have 251,796 registered voters. Humboldt comes in a distant third with 75,081 while Mendocino, Trinity and Del Norte combined have just 67,415.
Whoever wins the election, he or she will almost certainly hail from either Marin or Sonoma County. Only three of the 13 candidates don't -- Earth First! veteran Andy Caffrey of Garberville, Mendocino seaweed farmer John Lewallen and Mendocino pot doctor William Courtney -- and they're distant longshots.
One more difference this year is the new "top-two" electoral system, which will send the first- and second-place vote-getters from the June 5 primary into the November general election, regardless of party. We could see two progressive candidates facing off in November, or, if the progressive vote gets spread thinly among the 10 lefty contenders, a Republican could easily slide into one of the finalist slots.
With so many progressives in the field, the differences between candidates are more about style than policy positions. The Democratic contenders all agree that our government is wasting billions on imperialist wars; marijuana should be decriminalized; corporations and the ultra-rich should pay more taxes; universal health care is the way to go; corporate personhood should be repealed; Wall Street needs reforms; and our environment is in peril. On other issues, such as our need for more jobs and a balanced budget, all candidates are in agreement.
And so the race -- like most contests in contemporary politics, some would argue -- has largely been reduced to the crafting and selling of personas. Personal rough edges and philosophical subtleties have been burnished or hidden away, leaving a lineup of easily understood characters.
Much is required of a successful Congressional legislator. You must be a persuasive raconteur, a savvy negotiator, a dogged opportunist, a reliable bacon-supplier for your constituents and more. But winning an election? That's mostly salesmanship.
In recent weeks, the Journal interviewed the five most formidable contenders in the 2nd district congressional race. Four are Democrats; one is Republican. Three are men; two are women. And all five have established simple personas: the Nurse, the Anointed, the Entrepreneur, the Republican and the Activist. Here they are, in alphabetical order.
Candidate: Susan Adams
Persona: The Nurse
Day job: Marin County Supervisor
Campaign contributions through Dec. 31: $113,642
Susan Adams, a "happily single" mother and grandmother with a warm smile and shoulder-length, graphite-gray hair, earned her doctorate in nursing from UC San Francisco in 1998. For 33 years she's been a women's health nurse practitioner, and more recently she has parlayed that caregiver identity into a political metaphor. The front of her campaign brochure says "Fighting for healthy communities," and in a sit-down interview at the Fortuna Starbucks she elaborated on that theme.
"My philosophy has always been ‘healthy planet, healthy communities,'" she said. "And that doesn't just mean the physical body health. That means a healthy economy and healthy ecosystem and healthy watersheds and clean air."
Predictably, Adams is on firm ground discussing the health care industry. She'd like the country to move toward a "Medicare for all" public option, and thinks that President Obama's Affordable Care Act made some good steps but was ultimately a boon for insurance companies.
Less predictable is the ease with which Adams holds forth on a wide range of other topics, including Humboldt-specific issues like the Shell wind energy project outside Ferndale and the rail banking proposal around Humboldt Bay. (Her politically safe position is that she supports both projects so long as they're done "the right way.")
Adams' brother and sister-in-law live in Carlotta, a fact she's made sure to mention frequently during local appearances, and she promises that, if elected, she'd spend half her time living in the northern part of the district.
During her 10 years on the Marin Board of Supervisors, Adams helped to establish the Marin Clean Energy Authority, the state's first community choice aggregation program, which allows the county government to purchase power from clean, renewable sources then transmit that power over PG&E's lines. Adams said PG&E opposed the project and even helped finance a challenger's campaign for her seat on the board. But the authority was established in May 2010, and Marin County now gets 50 percent of its energy from clean, renewable sources. The goal is to reach 100 percent within 10 years.
"We're way ahead of schedule," Adams said, adding that she'd like to achieve the same goal district-wide. "My vision is that the 2nd congressional district is off the fossil fuel grid in the next 10 years, showing the rest of the country how you do it."
Marin managed to keep its finances out of the red in recent years, and Adams said she'd fight to raise federal revenues by "getting out of the $10 billion-a-month war effort in the Middle East" and eliminating corporate welfare.
Though her agenda is solidly progressive, Adams said she has garnered strong bipartisan support. She's certainly managed to assemble some unlikely bedfellows locally. Staunch liberal Richard Salzman, the disgraced former campaign manager for District Attorney Paul Gallegos, has joined the Adams cause, as has conservative Eureka mortgage consultant (and husband of Humboldt County Supervisor Virginia Bass) Matthew Owen, who contributed $500 to Adams' campaign.
Most of the $113,642 Adams raised through the end of last year came through individual contributions of $500 or less. Most of those donors live in San Rafael, San Francisco and other Bay Area communities.
Between sips of coffee at Starbucks, Adams sounded like an eager job applicant. "I do my homework and I work hard and I'm not afraid of taking on the tough battles," she said. "And I'm successful more often than I'm not. So we'll see. I'm having a good time with this."
Candidate: Jared Huffman
Persona: The Anointed
Hometown: San Rafael
Day job: State Assemblyman
Campaign contributions through Dec. 31: $586,131
Jared Huffman grew up in Independence, Mo., Harry S. Truman's hometown, and as a kid he'd sometimes see the former president walking around the town square. "He was really a hero of mine from a very young age," said Huffman, who was 8 years old when the ex-president died. Just a boy and already he idolized Truman, a Democrat who championed civil rights, battled Joseph McCarthy, supported workers' unions, cut defense spending and advocated for national health insurance -- in 1948.
That's the type of shining credential that makes Huffman seem like The Chosen One in this race. The assemblyman from California's 6th District has already perfected the demeanor of a congressman. He looks the part. He acts the part. And the Democratic hierarchy has evidently chosen him for advancement.
As a civil rights attorney, an environmental attorney and a legislator, Huffman has made friends in high places while assembling an impressive résumé. He has passed more than 60 pieces of legislation including ocean and fisheries protections, renewable energy bills and health care industry reforms. He loves fishing and home winemaking, has a beautiful family and once played on the World Champion USA Volleyball team. With blue eyes, perfect teeth and the dulcet voice of a network news anchor, Jared Huffman may as well have been dreamed up by the Democratic Party and assembled in a lab.
Huffman claimed frontrunner status early in the race by nabbing endorsements from Mike Thompson, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, fellow Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, numerous civic and community organizations and literally hundreds of elected officials.
Sitting in a window seat at Ramone's in Old Town Eureka, Huffman spoke at length about numerous policy issues. He supported Prop. 19 and said marijuana legalization should be a long-term goal. He'd like to see loopholes closed in the corporate tax code and supports a transaction tax on Wall Street. Asked about jobs he said that consumer demand and consumer confidence need to be restored. "One of the biggest things holding back consumer confidence is this lingering mortgage foreclosure crisis." He suggested perhaps charging banks that are "sitting on a record amount of cash at the Federal Reserve" and assessing fees on lenders that refuse to work with underwater borrowers.
There's an Obama-like polish to his oratory, an offhanded eloquence that allows him to unroll long, artful sentences, using phrases like "creative debt-equity sharing arrangements" and "a more nimble estate tax" without sounding pretentious. The downside, as with Obama, is that his polish can be read as detachment. Huffman may seem like the perfect politician, but right now politicians aren't especially popular.
His opponents, particularly Norman Solomon, have pointed to certain campaign contributions. The top donor to Huffman's congressional campaign is the Fisher family, which owns The Gap as well as Mendocino and Humboldt Redwood companies. He also took money from two professional lobbyists, though he says they don't lobby him directly. While running for Assembly in 2008 Huffman accepted donations from large corporations including PG&E, AT&T and Chevron, and from political action committees (PACs) representing the insurance industry, an oil marketers association, Wells Fargo and more.
Huffman argued that his legislative record proves he's not beholden to corporate interests, adding that he has supported campaign finance reform throughout his career. He coauthored the California Disclose Act, which would have increased transparency in political ads had it not been shot down by Republicans earlier this year. And he supports a constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for corporate political spending.
Candidate: Stacey Lawson
Persona: The Success
Hometown: San Rafael
Day job: Entrepreneur/teacher
Campaign contributions through Dec. 31: $455,959
Stacey Lawson's campaign has emphasized job creation, relying heavily on her own rags-to-riches narrative. Born and raised near the Washington mill town of Port Angeles, Lawson went on to attend Harvard Business School, graduating in 1996 with an MBA and $80,000 in debt. In short order she raised $7 million in venture capital to fund her first business idea, an Internet-based catalog of machine parts displayed in 3D. Called InPart, it was marketed to industrial clients like John Deere, Caterpillar and Boeing, and it was a success. Shortly after launching InPart, Lawson sold it to a multi-billion-dollar software company called Parametric Technology Corp., or PTC, and was hired there as a senior vice president. Just 28 years old, she'd become a multi-millionaire (a fact she generally leaves out of her campaign narrative).
Lawson, who went on to cofound and teach at UC Berkeley's Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, describes herself as the ideal candidate to bring middle-class jobs back to North Coast communities. Her campaign website calls her a "progressive-minded woman who has actually created jobs [and] promoted high-wage American manufacturing." She produced a snazzy-looking, 49-page jobs plan (available for download on her website) called "Making More in America." Among its many suggestions: Make credit more available to small businesses and manufacturers; retrofit buildings with green energy; boost funding for education and infrastructure; and raise taxes on the ultra-rich.
In a phone interview, Lawson continued to emphasize her business credentials, saying that she's the only candidate who has "been in the trenches." This type of rhetoric generally comes from Republicans, not Democrats, but Lawson said it's important not to cede that ground: "We're the party that takes care of people, and we're the party that's going to rebuild our middle class."
Lawson has quickly gone from total unknown to serious contender largely thanks to her prolific fundraising, which is second only to Huffman's. Her opponents point out that much of that money comes from outside the 2nd District, and several of her largest contributors work in the financial industry. She received a donation of more than $5,000 from an advisor at Citizens Bank, for example, and $1,000 from an executive at JP Morgan Chase.
Lawson countered that she's a vocal proponent of financial reform. She supports reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act to protect ordinary investors from the vagaries of investment banking, and she said she'd crack down on risky practices like credit default swaps.
"Anyone who has given money to me from the banking sector are good Democrats who understand my position that we need very substantial banking reform," Lawson said.
Another criticism of Lawson concerns a period of her life that seems to have been erased from her personal narrative: In 2004, having achieved professional success, Lawson went on a spiritual pilgrimage to India, where she practiced meditation at an ashram with a renowned swami. She continued to pursue yoga, meditation and spiritual enlightenment after returning to the U.S., and in 2007 media mogul Arianna Huffington recruited Lawson to write a spirituality blog for the Huffington Post. Lawson wrote at least 20 blog entries in 2007 and 2008, but search for them now and you'll get a message that reads, "Editor's Note: This post has been removed at the request of the blogger."
The posts are retrievable through the Internet Archives, and while there's nothing particularly incendiary, you can see why she might want them hidden. "I've played, for a few brief moments, in the field of oneness with you," Lawson writes. "I've seen you naked, revealed, and beautiful ... and I've touched your deepest Self, where you and I dissolve into one and walk on this earth together as in heaven."
She also describes her upbringing and career rather differently than in campaign materials. She calls the Port Angeles area "the boonies" and remembers her "despondence at being stuck there." Her early career was like "gorging on a meal with no nutritional value. I was being sustained by success while my soul was shriveling."
She wraps up her brief autobiography this way: "I could have told the story a dozen different ways, yet none would have revealed who I really am." Not exactly a campaign slogan.
While certainly a bit woo-woo, Lawson's writings are actually quite thoughtful, and the themes she addresses -- interconnectedness, the divinity of all living things, etc. -- describe a worldview shared by millions of people. Trouble is they don't fit the narrative that American voters demand of their political representatives. We distrust ambiguity, we reject all but the most superficial (and Christian) expressions of spirituality, and we punish those who question the sanctity of capitalism.
It says something about Lawson that she felt it necessary to hide her spiritual writings from voters. But it says something about us, too.
Candidate: Dan Roberts
Persona: The Republican
Day job: Investment banker
Campaign contributions through Dec. 31: $113,851
At a March 1 candidates' forum inside Fortuna High School's gymnasium, Dan Roberts sat with his arms folded across his chest wearing a navy blue suit and red, white and blue bowtie. Even without the bowtie it would have been easy for Roberts to stand out. As the lone Republican on a nine-candidate panel, he was the only person that night to say, "I don't agree."
"We have a spending problem, not a taxing problem," he said into the microphone. Rather than raising taxes on "the so-called rich," Roberts proposed a 15 percent flat-rate income tax across the board. "I think we should stop this class warfare that's going on," he said, prompting scattered applause from the crowd.
Founder, president and CEO of San Francisco investment firm Roberts & Ryan, Roberts had driven his convertible black Pontiac Solstice up Hwy. 101 to attend the event. Before participating in the forum he sat down at the Fortuna Starbucks to talk about his priorities, his reasons for running and his campaign strategy.
He'd barely sat down before an older woman approached him bashfully and said, "Hi, how do you do. You're the Republican candidate?" Yes, he replied. "I think that lady over there would like a chat with you at some point," the woman said, pointing at two more gray-haired women seated nearby. They waved.
As strategies go, simply being a Republican is enough to earn Roberts some loyal support, and he's keeping his platform simple. Under the "Issues" tab on his campaign website only one issue is addressed: federal spending. Asked his opinion on other topics, Roberts said he needs to put everything aside except "one issue: fiscal conservatism. Cut the deficit, balance the budget, stop the spending. It starts there. All of our unhappiness begins with progressive liberals not doing that."
What would he eliminate? "Cut departments," he said. "You pick ‘em. Could be Energy, could be EPA." Perhaps Defense?
The Journal asked about a claim made in a campaign video: "$787 Billion Stimulus Plan equals 2.4 Million Jobs LOST." Where did that figure come from? "It probably comes off the press, the published articles on the subject," he said. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the federal stimulus created between 1.4 million and 3.3 million jobs in the fall of 2010 alone. "Depends on who you want to believe," Roberts countered. "I pick the Republican source." He couldn't recall what that source was.
Roberts was born and raised in San Francisco, where his business is now located. Is that a disadvantage given how rural most of the 2nd District is? "Why do you say that?" he challenged. "Where I live, down there it's not [rural]. It's rural up here. I don't know how I'm gonna represent this [district] -- it's polar opposites, frankly."
Good point. People up here are worried about just that. "You know what? Don't worry about it," Roberts said. "The votes, frankly, are down south. Are they not?" In that case, why even bother driving up here? "Because I want to learn the fishery issues, environmental issues, the forestry -- I don't know those issues."
His visit to Humboldt County was a listening tour, he said, and he doesn't see his unfamiliarity with local issues as a disadvantage. "I'm a businessman. I care about families. I care about small businesses perhaps more than about the environment ... probably more than some theoretical heating or cooling issue." He called global warming "unsettled science" and a bogeyman that's served primarily to give Al Gore "a billion dollars ... and 200 extra pounds."
Roberts' campaign is almost entirely self-financed -- $110,000 of his $113,851. Perhaps that helps account for his bluntness. This refusal to answer in safe generalities was, among other things, refreshing. "I've given the voters a different message and a clear choice," he said.
Candidate: Norman Solomon
Persona: The Activist
Hometown: Inverness Park
Day job: Journalist/media critic/activist
Campaign contributions through Dec. 31: $311,817
In one of the most liberal/progressive congressional districts in the country, author and activist Norman Solomon has positioned himself to the left of his main rivals in this race. He's done so by taking a hardline stance against nuclear power, the wars in the Middle East and corporate influence on politics, and by calling for a "Green New Deal," an injection of public money for environmentally friendly infrastructure development and job creation.
Solomon, who expressed admiration for both Humboldt County Supervisor Mark Lovelace and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has been "walking the talk" of his political ideals for years, in a variety of public forums. Author of more than a dozen books including War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death and The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh, Solomon has appeared as a media critic on several national news programs. He even managed to get the better of Glenn Beck in a 2007 CNN segment about the corporate parenthood of major media companies.
Solomon took three fact-finding trips to Baghdad and one to Afghanistan, and he argued against both wars on national TV. On the campaign trail he has been joined by former talk show host Phil Donahue and movie star/Marin County resident Sean Penn.
In a long phone interview and a follow-up conversation over coffee, Solomon was unapologetic in his call for increased government spending. "As a liberal/progressive/whatever-you-want-to-call-me, I believe in public investment," he said. Specifically he argued that we should be spending more on rural health care, rural broadband access, education, public transportation, infrastructure, a federal jobs program and social services.
How would he pay for such programs? Through "massive cuts in military spending," for starters. He'd also call for a carbon tax on polluters, the end of Bush-era tax cuts for anyone earning more than $250,000 per year and closing loopholes in the corporate tax code. And he supports a jobs bill currently wending its way through Congress called "The Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act," which would establish a 0.25 percent transaction tax on Wall Street. Add these together, Solomon said, and "you're talkin' real, real money."
He supports full legalization of marijuana, "and in the next breath I say legalization is not enough. ... It's crucial to couple legalization with a policy to protect the small growers. We must put policies in place to prevent the Wal-Martization of cannabis." At the same time, he'd take a firm stance against cultivation on public lands, he said. Criticizing the recent federal crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries, Solomon suggested that a dramatic gesture might be in order -- something along the lines of the stunt by Rep. Mike Thompson in 2002, when the congressman dumped 500 pounds of dead salmon on the steps of the Interior Department to call attention to a massive salmon kill in the Klamath basin. "I can't say exactly what I'm gonna do, but the day may well need to come when Congressman Solomon dumps some cannabis on the appropriate front steps in Washington."
Not that Solomon models himself on Thompson. The Blue Dog Coalition supports policies that are "very friendly to Wall Street," he said. Solomon would rather join forces with the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Embracing his far-left agenda, Solomon sees himself as a perfect match for the 2nd District.
"This new district is a very liberal district overall, and it can stand for and fight for and accomplish in Congress what many districts aren't able to do," he said. Then, as he has done numerous times throughout the campaign, he took dead aim at the frontrunner. "Frankly, if Jared [Huffman] was going to represent a district in Kansas or Mississippi in the U.S. Congress, I would say that seems fine, a step forward. But we can do better in this district, and I think there's a very good chance we will."