It’s a good thing the folks in charge of redrawing California’s political map approved their own work this week.
It would have been hard to get the pols who jump started the race for Santa Barbara’s new state senate seat to stop running.
After six months of hearings – and 10 years of controversy over gerrymandering – the independent California Citizens Redistricting Commission on Monday adopted final new lines for the state’s 177 congressional, legislative, and tax administration districts, based on the 2010 Census and prepared for the 2012 elections.
Well before the vote, however, local candidates began lining up support, contributions, and campaign organizations to compete for the wide-open 19th Senate District, home to nearly 1 million people in a 120-mile stretch between Santa Maria and Camarillo.
The race will be one of the state’s most closely watched legislative contests, a key factor in the Democrats’ effort to reach the two-thirds majorities in the Capitol they need to bypass Republicans on crucial votes on taxes. The campaign’s out-of-the-chute start also reflects the political uncertainties of California’s new primary election rules, and the enormous importance of early fundraising in a race with no incumbent, with table stakes of at least $1 million.
“I’m throwing my hat in the ring,” former Assemblymember Hannah Beth Jackson told The Independent, adding with a laugh that, “I probably should have my head examined.”
Jackson, who barely lost a 2008 senate race to Republican incumbent Tony Strickland, said the new district is a good fit for her progressive politics, noting that she represented a large chunk of it in the Assembly from 1999-2005. She has already formed a committee to begin raising money and is collecting endorsements for a formal announcement next month.
Her entry will end speculation about Assemblyman Das Williams jumping into the senate contest, a maneuver that could have gained him an extra four years in Sacramento under the state’s term limits laws. Williams, who got his start in politics working for Jackson, is strongly backing her, she said: “Das is the one who’s been encouraging me to run.”
“I’m very experienced [and] I feel I need to go back to Sacramento,” Jackson added. “We need to have some people there who know what they’re doing to help turn the state around.”
But Jackson will be challenged by fellow Democrat Jason Hodge, a well-connected Ventura County firefighter and elected member of the Oxnard Harbor Commission. Born and raised in the area, the 36-year old Hodge has worked for eight years as the political director for the Ventura County Professional Firefighters Association, in a host of local and state campaigns – including Jackson’s 2008 senate bid – and has his own political network in Sacramento, where his fiancée, Fiona Ma, represents San Francisco in the Assembly.
“I have a passion for the area, for policy and for being a problem solver,” he said in an interview.
Among his fans, Hodge counts former Assemblymember Pedro Nava, who himself has been weighing a senate run. Nava said he’ll make up his mind within the next few weeks, but would clearly favor Hodge – “he works well with everybody, doesn’t polarize, and denigrate opponents,” he said – over political enemies Jackson and her ally Williams.
“That senate district with the right candidate ought to be a Democratic win,” Nava told me. “I know for a fact Hannah Beth Jackson is the wrong candidate.”
Democrats hold a 12-point voter registration advantage over Republicans in the new district. However, the state’s new open primary system could benefit a well-financed GOP contender in a campaign largely shaped by an intra-party Democratic battle, a scenario that has former county supervisor Mike Stoker organizing behind the scenes.
Noting that he outpolled Republican registration in his failed Assembly race against Williams last year, Stoker said he is “90 percent certain I’m running” and expects to announce next month.
P.S. State Republican party leaders announced shortly after the commission vote that they will back a referendum effort to repeal the new districts, claiming they unfairly benefit Democrats. Stay tuned.