How Steve Glazer Won

Tony Quinn
Political Analyst

Mindful of the millions they spend electing Democrats, the public employee unions expect legislators to act like the old Soviet-era nomenklatura, compliant toadies who do what they are told.  So when one gets out of line it’s big deal.  Democratic special election candidate Steve Glazer dared do so, and labor spent $3.5 million trying to keep him out of the State Senate.  Last night Glazer won with 55 percent of the vote, and labor lost.

So how did he do it?  Glazer had crossed labor by helping elect Democrats not on their approved list.  He was blackballed as a political consultant, and then when he tried to run himself for the Assembly in 2014, labor unloaded on him and in the process managed to blow a winnable Assembly seat.  And then much to the surprise of the unions, he jumped into the special election for an open Senate seat in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties this spring.

Three factors account for Glazer’s upset victory:

Understanding the “Top Two.” 

The runoff for this seat was not a Democrat verses a Republican, as would have been the case under the old partisan runoff system.  Instead two Democrats faced off under our new “top two” runoff system, and all the voters, not just partisans in a closed primary, had a chance to select the winner in this safe Democratic district.  According to the excellent analysis by Political Data, a third of the voters were Republicans; 15 percent were Decline to State, and only a little more than half were Democrats.

Yet the union-directed campaign for Glazer’s opponent, Democratic Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, played just to the Democratic base.  It ran a campaign as though the race were a closed Democratic primary.  Because the top two runoff creates an open contest in which all voters are equal, appeals simply to a partisan base are doomed to fail, even when they are bankrolled in the millions of dollars as the public employee union effort was.

Amusingly, ever major Democrat in the East Bay, as well as the state party, marched in lockstep to labor and endorsed Bonilla.  But the voters were unimpressed; they could not care less which politicians endorse which politicians.

Filth in the Mailbox.

“It’s like mob bosses executing payback”, wrote veteran Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton about the campaign tactics in this contest.  “Actually, it’s old-fashioned dirty politics. Think ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon in his early California campaigns. This is an ugly throwback but with a difference. The candidates are relatively clean and classy. The culprits are some bankrolling special interests, mainly unions.”

That’s true; Bonilla was not nearly as wretched a candidate as the campaign waged on her behalf by an outfit called “Working Families Opposing Glazer for Senate 2015”.  Glazer, a long time Democratic political consultant, Jerry Brown’s campaign manager, and Orinda mayor, is a moderate Democrat.  But to read the junk voters received attacking him you’d have thought he was in the pocket of the detested Koch brothers, or Big Tobacco, or Big Oil, of any of the other myriad of labor’s Great Satans.

To be effective, negative mail has to be credible, and none of this was.  “Working Families,” the union funded independent expenditure that for all intents and purposes was the Bonilla campaign, managed to waste more than $3 million on this nonsense.  As Skelton wrote, the district is “an upper-middle-class region of highly educated white-collar commuters. It’ll be interesting to see whether they fall for the blarney being spewed by a few win-at-any-cost political assassins.”

They did not.  The Political Data analysis of permanent absentee voters showed much higher turnout in the suburban parts of the district than in the more labor friendly urban parts.  And overall turnout was much higher than the average special election.  Voters reacted to the direct mail garbage they received by heaving it into the recycle bin, and then making sure they voted.

The Issue that Mattered: BART Strikes.

Another reason labor so detested Glazer was his opposition to strikes by BART workers, the commuter service used by commuters in this East Bay district.  Survey USA asked voters whether they approved of BART strikes, and by a 60 percent margin they disapproved.  When asked “which candidate better reflects your views on whether BART workers should be allowed to strike”, Glazer led by 21 points.

BART’s 2013 strike harmed hundreds of thousands of commuters throughout the Bay Area.  While local Democrats cringed in fear of criticizing the unions, Glazer took them on.  It was a winning issue for him.

Skelton put the stakes in this election very well: “One of two loud messages will be sent by the election results: Democrats no longer need to cower from bully labor. Or, they’d better fall in line or else.”

This result shows there’s room for independent Democrats who don’t have to cower to labor.  Let’s see if Democrats learn that lesson.

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