An Independent Expenditure Campaign that Backfired: Three Days Later, 8th Assembly District is Still a Stunner

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To illustrate how improbable Mariko Yamada’s victory over Christopher Cabaldon was, let us recount a few key watermarks in the race.

Almost from the start, it seemed an uphill battle as Cabaldon had the audacity in January of 2007, weeks after Lois Wolk officially took office for her third and final term as Assemblywoman, there he stood in Yamada’s home town with two of her colleagues, two members of the Davis City Council, two members of his own city council, and the Mayor of Woodland (and to boot Jeff Monroe was in uniform that day, but attended the event to show support for Cabaldon).

It seemed before Mariko Yamada even announced she was way behind and she never caught up (or so we thought).

To make matters worse, Yamada had turned off a large portion of her base in the Spring and Summer of 2007 with an ill-advised support (or at least non-opposition) to study areas on the Davis periphery. Large numbers of people who had been supporters of Yamada turned on her. There was talk of recall. A hundred people showed up for the County Supervisors meeting in July. Even the divided Davis City Council spoke with one voice.

In the winter of 2008, Cabaldon had engineered a seemingly easy victory for the party’s endorsement. Even a few controversies at the pre-endorsement conference faded away to a resounding victory at the party convention.

Later that same week sitting Assemblywoman Lois Wolk broke her official neutrality to back Christopher Cabaldon. He stood in Suisun City with his three predecessors Lois Wolk, Helen Thomson, and Tom Hannigan. It was the perfect photo-op.

You had dueling headquarter openings–a packed house for Cabaldon’s opening while at the same time, Yamada had about 30 people for an envelope stuffing party.

Nearly every major elected official backed Cabaldon. Mayors, Yamada’s own colleagues, Supervisors, School Board Members, past members of the legislature, the Democratic Party, everyone except for most of the major unions. But judging from the efforts of the unions at the party convention, that would not be a big deal.

But something happened to change all of this. If there was a villain in this stage it was EdVoice. There was a moment at the party convention that was almost a portent. After Cabaldon received a resounding victory in the 8th AD Caucus at the convention, the Yamada folks had a few hours to garner signatures to pull the nomination once again off of consent. But a group of people in orange shirts showed up and were very coy about who they were and they shadowed the Yamada people trying to dissuade delegates from signing up. It was a very creepy moment in the election.

By April, the citizens of the 8th Assembly District were deluged with mailers. One a day for weeks. Three weeks out, we were starting to hear from people who had been Cabaldon supporters. They were complaining about too much material. Some were environmentalists concerned with the waste of paper. Others were becoming uncomfortable with the big money and corporate backing.

And yet, even at this point, it seemed a formality. The Yamada campaign was still struggling to gain traction, seizing on minor issues such as the booting of Cabaldon’s car.

In fact, the first counterattacks by Yamada’s IEs focused on the car booting, Wal Mart, the WRONG achronym, things like that. And again, it seemed they were desperate and grasping for straws.

EdVoice was relentless. But now the union IEs were starting to match them piece for piece. EdVoice struck back. Three vicious and largely unfounded attacks. First, the pay increase, which was dubious at best particularly since the pay raises were tied to judicial salaries and not under the control of the board directly. Second, the Latte piece which called a $91,000 jobs programs for the disabled wasteful. Finally, an desparate and untrue attempt to link Yamada to the embattled Yolo County Housing Authority and the blatant lie that suggested a linkage between that organization and foreclosures.

Cabaldon’s well-financed and well-organized machine proved no match for the larger and better organized labor machine that worked relentlessly the last week to turn out supporters across the district. By the time it was over, Yamada had engineered a stunner. When absentee ballots were reported and Yamada had the lead, everyone knew that it was over. The lead held throughout the night.

This is probably the second most stunning victory that I had seen. The only one more stunning was almost 15 years ago when a largely unknown College Professor Walter Capps beat the party’s handpicked choice for a Congressional nomination. Professor Capps stunned everyone by defeating that individual. So much so that the Republican nominee had to change her victory speech.

Mariko Yamada’s victory in a heavily democratic district means almost certainly the third straight election of a Davis-based Assemblywoman. However, she is of a different ilk. For the first time in 12 years, Craig Reynolds will not be Chief of Staff in this District.

If there was a villain in all of this, it was EdVoice. Their excesses opened the door for this victory. Their mail barrage turned people off and their unfair attacks were the coup de grace for the election.

Independent Expenditures are in many ways a real problem. Campaigns lose control of their messages. They are largely unregulated and unaccountable to anyone. And yet they can drop hundreds of thousands and change the dynamics of a race. That is what happened here. EdVoice likely the culprit here and labor likely the hero on behalf of a Yamada Campaign that had previously been outspent and out-organized.

For Cabaldon it is a major setback for a talented and still young politician. People were tounting him as a potential future speaker. Now, he is left searching for his future.

For Yamada it is the beginning of a Sacramento career. She has wounds to heal still and fences to mend both with her opponent’s former supporters and her own.

Doug Paul Davis is a resident of the city of Davis and has created the People’s Vanguard of Davis, a progressive blog that covers mainly Yolo County but also some California news where this article originally appeared. It is republished with his permission.

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