The Party Line
One does not need to look to Ohio to find a split in the Democratic Party. In my very own home district, California Assembly District 18, there is a spirited contest between grassroots progressives and the Democratic Party machine. On the one hand is a young South Asian woman, Janani Ramachandran, a corporate-free candidate, who claims Oakland as her base. On the other hand, Alameda resident Mia Bonta, an Afro-Latina, is riding the wave of popularity and corporate largesse created by her husband, Rob, in his quest to become California Attorney General.
Janani speaks compassionately of “standing in the gap” for immigrants, vulnerable women and children. She is a fierce advocate for tenants’ rights, understands the compelling urgency of criminal justice reform right here in THIS County, and is unapologetically unafraid to stand up for Oakland. Janani has enthusiastically embraced my 10-point platform and endorsed my candidacy for Alameda County District Attorney. Mia Bonta has not been heard from yet, and frankly, I’m not sure where the party line will be drawn in my race yet.
The Alameda County Central Committee’s Party Line
As an elected representative to the Alameda County Democratic Party Central Committee, however, I am restrained from endorsing Janani. Janani impressed me early on with her positive energy, fighting spirit and the brashness of youth. She brings all that and a good education to bear on her candidacy. Her positions on the Coliseum and Howard Terminal projects and solidarity with the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) align with mine.
Still, “the party line” says that I cannot endorse Janani because our Committee has endorsed Mia. Many delegates like me who actually live in Oakland voted to endorse Janani. But, as the former District Assemblyman, and now Attorney General, Rob Bonta cast a long shadow over the process. Rob personally campaigned for Mia, calling and texting delegates. Rob’s two main surrogates were outright bullies, trying to make sure that Mia got the Democratic Party endorsement. And yes, there was a serious problem with the ballots in the first endorsement vote which resulted in “no endorsement.”
I reached out to both Rob and Mia during the endorsement process. After all, I am Rob’s Woman of the Year for Assembly District 18 for 2017. The only response I got was that I should talk to Mia’s campaign manager at that time. Apparently, they realized that because I am a corporate-free candidate, a member of the California Progressive Caucus and I’ve been a proud Black woman all of my life, my conversation about Mia’s candidacy might feel challenging.
Where I Draw the Line
My dear friend Simona likes to say, “we’re here now.” Ballots have dropped, people are already calling me and asking my opinion, and decisions about whom to support have already been made. As you review your unusually short ballot, you only get 1 of 2 choices. I hope that you had an opportunity to hear both candidates in one of the many candidate forums, away from television ads and slick mailers. I’ve received 3 pretty and large pieces of mail from Mia’s campaign already.
A friend did an analysis of the contributions to Mia’s campaign and the contributions to Janani’s campaign. Mia has raised almost $700,000, mainly from corporations and corporate executives from outside of our district. The gaming industry has donated a lot of money to Mia’s campaign, obviously wanting to impress Rob. He has a long relationship with the gaming industry and holds regulatory power over gaming as Attorney General.
In contrast, Janani’s contributions are all corporate-free and come from much smaller donations. Janani has raised just over $200,000.00 for the special election and $160,000 for the 2022 election.
But as Mason said to Dixon, “this is where I draw the line.” I want someone to represent our beloved Assembly District 18 in Sacramento who will resist the State control of the Oakland Unified School District like it was her own and support our teachers, who will be passionate about intervening in gun violence in our community, who will support meaningful criminal justice reform and not take any contributions from police unions. Ideally, our representative will not be beholden to people who show open disdain for Oakland, and her tenure will not forever be tied to the power of one man – her husband.
What’s On the Line
This is a special election which means it’s a wild card election. “Money can’t buy you love” in California politics. And especially not in the 18th Assembly District. We are more radical than the people of Richmond who rejected Chevron’s million dollar campaigns to buy the Richmond City Council in 2012 and 2014. Mia Bonta did win Round 1 by 15 points. But, I suspect she will learn that running for office as a Black woman does not usually give you a leg up. According to the 2018 Oakland Equity Indicators report, Black people in Alameda County are 20 times more likely to be incarcerated than White people, and almost 25 times more likely to be incarcerated than Asians or other ethnicities.
What’s on the line, however, is important to note. The California Democratic Party’s policy for state electeds is that once someone becomes an incumbent, the entire party must support that person. Remember, “the party line.” Whomever wins this special election will become an incumbent, entitled to all the privileges of incumbency. They will likely hold the seat for 12 years, until they term out in 2032. Rob Bonta never had a serious challenger after he won in 2012. If Mia Bonta wins, she may not ever have a serious challenger, and a family dynasty from the tiny island of Alameda will represent most of Oakland, all of San Leandro and Alameda, for literally decades. Notably, the local City of Alameda Democratic Club endorsed Janani.
In the end, for me, a critical question is whether we elect a corporate-free candidate, or a candidate primarily financed by casinos, corporations and other elected officials. Grassroots democratic clubs, allies and respected elected officials from across the State have endorsed both candidates. Hopefully, together, we can turn out more than 21% of the voters. If you want to see a real fight in the Democratic Party, don’t go to Ohio. Come to the 18th Assembly District.