Das Williams and Mike Stoker will never be confused for Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The two candidates vying for the 35th District Assembly seat in Sacramento — now occupied by Democrat Pedro Nava — offer voters a night-and-day choice on just about everything. At last week’s forum — hosted by the League of Women Voters — Stoker, a self-described “middle of the road” Republican and former county supervisor, presented himself as the wizened political pro “willing to step up to the plate one more time” to help the state in its hour of crisis. If elected, Stoker vowed to cut spending, slash thousands of jobs from the state payroll, and attack “all the stupid regulations” that he blamed for killing four million private jobs since 2000. By contrast, Williams, a member of the Santa Barbara City Council and darling of the Democratic left — promised to find the money to fund education and thus restore the California Dream. Only by investing in education, Williams argued, can the state revitalize its economy, provide hope to the disenfranchised, and offer sustenance to a much-beleaguered middle class. Endowed with an appetite for evangelically tinged rhetoric, Williams proposed raising the necessary funds by increasing the “sin taxes,” the levies imposed by the state on the sale of tobacco and liquor. Williams also proposed raising taxes on oil extraction.
Stylistically, the two are both quick on their feet, like to talk, and not inclined to shy away when push comes to shove. But the rules of engagement imposed by the forum moderators effectively prevented any real fireworks from going off. The candidates were not allowed, for example, to point out how each other may have misstated their respective records or distorted their respective positions. If party registration provides any indication, the race would appear to be Williams’s to lose; the percentage of registered Democrats is 20 percent greater than that of registered Republicans. Democrats have won every race — except one — in the past 10 years with more than 60 percent of the vote. In campaign fundraising, Williams also has the upper hand, having raised $212,000 — mostly from unions long associated with the Democratic Party — in the last reporting period, compared to Stoker’s $96,000.
Stoker is hoping to even the odds by appealing to “Blue Dog Democrats” — fiscally conservative Democrats — socially liberal Republicans who’ve fled their party, and independents. To that end, Stoker’s running TV commercials that don’t mention he’s running as a Republican. He will highlight the extent to which Williams has been a partisan warrior whose campaigns have been heavily funded by public employee unions. And to the degree Williams hopes to benefit from an energized youth vote turning out to support Proposition 19 — the marijuana legalization initiative — Stoker is quick to point out that Williams has opposed Prop. 19, just as he has.
Williams, by contrast, is a formidable campaign organizer able to get out the vote with a rare vengeance. He is hoping to rekindle any of the Obama energy still smoldering out there and can be expected to attack Stoker for representing — as a private attorney — Greka Energy two years ago, when Greka was easily the most extravagant corporate polluter in Santa Barbara County. (Stoker has insisted he helped Greka clean up its environmental transgressions and lamented that “only in politics” could someone be criticized for so doing.) By contrast, Williams represents himself as a champion of green energy and has the voting record at City Hall to back it up.
On the state budget mess, Stoker advocated eliminating 20,000 state jobs, stating, “You wouldn’t notice one thing different in your life.” Williams countered that even with 20,000 jobs cut, the state wouldn’t come close to solving its $19-billion budget deficit. He advocated taxing booze and cigarettes.
On California’s high unemployment, Williams argued the state could help create new jobs by requiring energy companies to buy back the solar power generated by residential producers at prices more comparable to market rates. That would stimulate more homeowners to invest in solar installations, which in turn would help create jobs. Stoker said he supported all jobs, not just green ones, and said California’s environmental rules and regulations were chasing businesses to states like Texas.
On education, Stoker advocated rules that would require that 70 cents of every dollar budgeted for schools be spent in the classroom. Currently, he said, only 57 cents on the dollar makes it there. Likewise, Stoker said schools should be given grades, and students attending those schools with failing marks should be allowed to transfer — at school district expense — to a better school of the parents’ choice. Williams noted that California schools have 30 percent fewer teachers per capita than the national average, 50 percent fewer administrators, and 70 percent fewer counselors. “It’s a hollow thing to say we’ll support education without the revenues to do it,” he said.
On Proposition 23, the statewide initiative that would suspend the state’s 2006 global warming bill until unemployment drops to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters, Stoker was an enthusiastic supporter and Williams an adamant opponent. Stoker called the state law “a job killer” and argued, “California can’t do it alone.” Instead, he said, the state should lobby other states to petition for more comprehensive federal legislation. But even so, he argued, the United States would place itself at a competitive disadvantage in the world economy if it were to pass laws limiting greenhouse emissions without similar commitments from India and China. Williams dismissed Stoker’s more comprehensive approach as “an excuse to do nothing.”
Williams supported Proposition 25, which would allow the state Legislature to pass a budget with a simple majority vote as opposed to the two-thirds majority now needed. The status quo, he said, allowed a small minority to “hold the state hostage.” Stoker opposed it, saying it would allow tax increases. Williams countered that the proposed initiative leaves intact the two-thirds majority currently required for the Legislature to raise new taxes.
On immigration, Stoker and Williams both called for better border controls, but Stoker also argued that illegal immigrants convicted of crimes in the United States should be sent back to the country of origin to serve their sentences. By doing so, he said California could save $825 a day per Mexican national now incarcerated in California. By contrast, Williams supported imposing fines “with three zeros” on illegal immigrants in the United States, but also providing them a path to citizenship.
On Measure S, the half-cent sales tax to build a new county jail, Williams was strongly supportive, arguing “it’s not humane” to keep people locked up in such overcrowded conditions. Stoker declined to take a position, but argued that such a tax would not have been necessary had the county supervisors set money aside back in 1994 when he told them they should as he was stepping off the Board of Supervisors.
On an increased oil severance tax, Williams complained that California taxed oil companies “at one-fifth the rate Sarah Palin does in Alaska,” and argued the tax should be increased. Stoker said he’d support such a tax only if California eliminated all the additional fees the state extracted from the oil industry, which is why, he said, California gas prices are the highest in the nation.