Hannah-Beth Jackson runs an obstacle course. Jason Hodge cruises the ’hood. Mike Stoker waits in the wings.
Those are the images the top contenders in the pivotal campaign for the 19th State Senate District are sending voters in Santa Barbara and western Ventura counties three weeks before the June 5 primary election.
With newly drawn district lines sharply reducing the number of Republican voters, GOP incumbent Tony Strickland decided to run for Congress. Democrats see the open seat as crucial to winning, in at least one house of the Legislature, the two-thirds majority needed to pass tax bills on party-line votes.
“This seat is the firewall for Republicans,” said Stoker, the 56-year-old former Santa Barbara County supervisor and veteran GOP activist.
The race is shaped with Jackson, Hodge, and Stoker arrayed on a liberal-moderate-conservative spectrum, as they compete under new primary election rules by which the top two finishers advance to a November runoff, regardless of party affiliation. The district’s 412,208 registered voters are 43-percent Democrats, 32-percent Republicans, 20-percent decline-to-state independents, and the rest minor-party members. This gives Stoker, the only GOP candidate, a solid base of support to win one runoff spot, as he confidently noted in an interview.
“I’m sitting tight,” he said. “We decided early that if I had to spend money in a primary, I shouldn’t be in the race.”
The sharp conflict between the Democrats pits newcomer Hodge, a 37-year-old firefighter, union representative, and elected member of the Oxnard Harbor Commission, against the 61-year-old front-runner Jackson. A longtime advocate for progressive causes, she previously represented much of the district in the Assembly before losing the 2008 State Senate race to Strickland by just 857 votes.
In a series of recent coffeehouse interviews, Jackson (green tea nonfat latte), Hodge (bagel with butter, cream cheese, and hot sauce), and Stoker (iced tea) discussed some key issues in the race.
TV AND MONEY: Hodge and Jackson are both well financed and have substantial TV ad campaigns. Both are airing bio spots filmed on the beach and filled with platitudes — Jobs! Schools! Pragmatic solutions! — but each also is running an ad designed to portray the other as a creature of special interests.
In Jackson’s, she dons a tracksuit, limbers up on a high hurdle, then dashes through a maze of three guys wielding thick piles of cash and wearing brown-bag masks labeled “oil,” “chemicals,” and “insurance,” before sprinting to a finish line of cheering admirers. The images highlight Jackson’s attacks on Hodge’s fundraising. He has collected about $350,000, and she criticizes the fact that most of his donors are outside the district. A significant slice of his money comes from corporate political action committees based in Sacramento, where his wife, Assemblymember Fiona Ma, is part of the Capitol’s Democratic leadership.
It is telling that Jackson’s ad refers to her as “Action Jackson,” an attempt to overcome the derogatory label “Taxin’ Jackson” that Strickland used to great effect and that Hodge and Stoker both now fling at her. The “Taxin’ Jackson” attack is included in recent mailers from a shadowy independent expenditure committee called the “California Senior Advocates League,” which Ventura County Star political writer Timm Herdt reported is financed by several Republican organizations and corporate interests, including oil and tobacco companies.
Hodge shrugs off Jackson’s criticism, noting that he is not alone in receiving special-interest money. Jackson has raised about $450,000; while most is from within the district, she has received substantial sums from public-employee unions, including the California Teachers Association, the Service Employees International Union, and the California Nurses Association. In a cinema verité–style ad now running, Hodge doubles down on the criticism of Jackson as a champion for taxes. Filmed as he drives through his blue-collar neighborhood, Hodge speaks to the camera, charging that Jackson “raised taxes on teachers” and gave a $500-million “tax break to a handful of companies.”
In fact, Jackson in the Assembly authored a tax credit for teachers, then later joined other Democrats in suspending it as a concession for Republican votes to pass an overdue budget; the “tax break” refers to a package of incentives passed by the Legislature to keep TV and movie productions from moving from California.
Stoker reported less than $5,000 cash on hand in his most recent filing, but had his first major fundraiser last week, raising about $30,000.
TAXING AND SPENDING: Voters in November will decide on a Gov. Jerry Brown–sponsored initiative asking them to raise their own taxes. It would increase the sales tax by 0.25 percent for four years and raise income-tax rates for those earning $250,000 or more to capture between $5 billion and $7 billion in new revenue.
Stoker opposes it and says he will fight all tax increases until there is a “25-percent across-the-board cut” in all operations “except UC and public safety.” Jackson supports the initiative, saying its failure would “decimate education” and promising to fight further cuts: “We have already cut government dramatically. I believe the top one percent are not paying their share.”
Hodge’s stance on taxes has shifted since the campaign began, which he attributes to his “nuanced argument” on Brown’s ballot measure. “I’m a Democrat who doesn’t think that you need higher taxes,” he declared in his first ad and mailers. Hodge said this categorical, anti-tax statement referred to an earlier version of Brown’s plan, which would have raised the sales tax one-half instead of one-quarter cent; he says that was unfair to working people. “I live in Oxnard, where people don’t have money,” he said. “It’s important to have people who come from working-class backgrounds.”
Now, he conditionally supports Brown’s initiative “as part of a comprehensive solution” that should include aggressive collection of unpaid taxes and an unspecified “pro-business … good-faith effort to do true economic reform.” He explained, “I’m actually fairly neutral on it. I don’t like the sales-tax part but support taxing the rich.”
PENSIONS: Amid a crisis in high-cost, underfunded public-employee pension plans, Brown has proposed a comprehensive reform package. It includes raising the retirement age for newly hired workers, prohibiting employees from “spiking” pensions, and a two-tiered system offering new hires a 401(k) fund coupled with a more modest pension than the defined benefit plans of current workers.
Hodge and Jackson, both supported by various public-employee unions, are less than enthusiastic. Jackson supports the anti-spiking provision, aimed at curbing abuses by well-paid employees who bump pay classifications or use accumulated vacation and sick leave to boost pension benefits. She says raising the retirement age should be “on the table” but stops short of endorsing it; she’s against a tiered system to reduce pensions for new workers. Hodge agrees. “I’m not a tiered fan [because] I don’t like the idea of ghettoizing” workers. He “believes strongly in a defined benefit plan” and says the most important step for now is “a more comprehensive audit of the system.”
Stoker backs Brown’s plan, noting that legislative Republicans also support it but that union-backed Democrats have blocked a vote: “It’s a great start. I look forward to working with him on it.”
DEATH PENALTY: An initiative to outlaw capital punishment in California will be on the November ballot, sponsored by a coalition arguing it is ineffective and unnecessarily requires hundreds of millions spent on complex legal appeals for inmates sentenced to death.
Jackson backs the measure “from a dollars-and-cents perspective” and thinks the death penalty is “not a deterrent.” Hodge says, “I’m not against the death penalty,” but adds, “I don’t really have a position” on the initiative. Stoker opposes it, saying capital punishment helps prevent violent crime: “I’m on the biblical side of an eye for an eye.”