Shortly after being re-elected for a second term Assemblymember Tony Thurmond surprisingly announced his candidacy in 2018 for California Superintendent of Public Instruction. He would become the heavy favorite to be elected statewide.
Thurmond left behind him an open Assembly seat, what looked to progressive Democratic elected officials in both Alameda and Contra Costa Counties as a chance to move up. Six of them would be on the ballot:
Judy Appel - Berkeley School Board. She would be be the strongest Berkeley candidate, with endorsers such as former Mayor/State Senator Loni Hancock.
Dan Kalb - Oakland City Council. Only Oakland elected official running; a strong contender. Endorsed by the Sierra Club.
Andy Katz - EBMUD Board Member. Environmentalist background, Berkeley attorney.
Jovanka Beckles - Richmond City Council. Part of the Richmond Progressive Alliance that fights Chevron. Likely to do well in Contra Costa County.
Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto - El Cerrito City Council. Tony Thurmond's choice as his successor.
Ben Bartlett - Berkeley City Council (District 3). The third Berkeley candidate, with less than two years on the Council.
In a normal year these six would be competing to finish first or second, under the "Top Two" system, which replaced normal party primaries. The Top Two, regardless of party, move on to the November ballot and a final showdown.
2018 would not be normal, thanks to an outsider.
When "Buffy Wicks for Assembly" signs first started appearing in large numbers, I had absolutely no idea who she was. Few local people did, except for those who went to her extensive number of house parties; over 100 she asserted. A ton of Wicks mailers later gained her more name recognition than any other candidate.
Wicks, newly arrived in Oakland, had worked for the Obama Campaign and Administration. Her literature prominently displayed pictures of Wicks with President Obama, while claiming a major role in helping elect him and pass the Affordable Care Act. She ran as a strong anti-Trump progressive.
Clearly from Washington, D.C., likely a campaign consultant, her major endorsers were notable for their high offices: U.S. Senator Kamala Harris and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom (a sure bet to become Governor). Wicks' occupation was somewhat in question, as she listed "Community Organizer". Never having held elective office, she lacked a voting record of any kind. Compared to the others, Buffy Wicks was a mystery candidate.
But no one could argue with the massive, unprecedented amount of money being spent on the Buffy Wicks campaign, dwarfing her rivals. There would not be a level playing field.
It soon became obvious that Wicks, regardless of her actual political views and intentions, was certain to finish first. Under Top Two, that left her opponents to compete for second place, and a chance to take on Wicks and her money in November. They chose a positive campaign, with none of the mailers I saw attacking Wicks. Some local papers in print and online expressed concerns over what special interests were financing Wicks.
THE JUNE 5, 2018 15TH ASSEMBLY DISTRICT RESULTS
Buffy Wicks37,141 (31%) TOP TWO ON NOVEMBER BALLOT Jovanka Beckles 18,733 (16%) TOP TWO ON NOVEMBER BALLOT
Pranav Jandhyala 6,946(6%)
Wicks easily carried both Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.
In this case Top Two prevented Buffy Wicks from winning the Democratic nomination and ending the Assembly race; a benefit for progressives who grew ever more suspicious about where all that Wicks money came from.
Finishing second, Richmond City Councilmember Jovanka Beckles ran to the left of her Democratic rivals. She relied upon labor union endorsements and support from the Bernie Sanders organization. Beckles was second in Contra Costa County, and third in Alameda County, trailing Dan Kalb. Kalb's loss resulted from a poor Contra Costa showing.
Speculation over who would have been the strongest challenger to Wicks ended. The top four Democrats Beckles defeated all quickly endorsed her, forming a united front against Buffy Wicks. But Wicks picked up the most important single endorsement after the primary, despite literature falsely giving voters the impression Wicks already had it. President Obama formally endorsed Buffy Wicks for Assembly on August 3, 2018, along with 80 other candidates nationwide.
CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS TO CANDIDATES
Grand Total Individual Donors Independent Expenditures Buffy Wicks $1,318,483 $ 725,669$ 592,814
Judy Appel 305,813 286,161 19,652
Dan Kalb 254,190 254,190 0
Jovanka Beckles 196,110 196,110 0
In addition to contributions of $725,000 from individuals, Wicks was the beneficiary of another $593,000 from two independent Political Action Committees (PACS). The Govern for California Action Committee spent the most, followed by the California Dental Association.
All of this money raised the question whether Wicks was the candidate of special interests, rather than the progressive crusader she claimed to be. The Govern California PAC was labeled a champion of charter schools, which Wicks strongly denied on her website. Meanwhile that PAC did radio ads, internet ads, and mass mailings for her. It was suspected by Wicks opponents that she was supported by developers, large landlords and other corporate interests. Wicks also denied having worked as a campaign fundraiser. Yet all that money rolled in, relatively little of it from the district, fueling a flood of Wicks mailers hailing her progressive politics and opposition to Trump.
Jovanka Beckles getting to the November ballot was unexpected, on a meager $196,000 in contributions. Dan Kalb received $254,000 and Judy Appel even more at nearly $306,000. Those were trivial amounts compared to the Buffy Wicks grand total of over 1.3 million dollars, counting the PACs. Wicks by far paid the most per vote received, Beckles the least, in this comparison limited to the top four candidates.
Now Beckles has a difficult task ahead of her, and is starting with house parties in cities like Berkeley to become better known. Wicks major vulnerability appears to be her hefty support from the Govern for California PAC, an organization reporters are likely to investigate as part of their November election coverage.