Hitting the campaign trail

Behind the scenes with the candidates for Assembly

Politics aside, the two candidates for California's 15th Assembly District have a lot in common.

Both incumbent Joan Buchanan and challenger Abram Wilson have a history in local government, Wilson as San Ramon's mayor since 2002 and Buchanan as an 18-year member of the San Ramon Valley school board.

They're of similar age; Buchanan is 57, Wilson, 63, having lived through the civil rights and counter-culture movements of the 1960s.

Each has a history of handling large amounts of money. Buchanan rose through the ranks at Delta Dental, ultimately becoming director of commercial operations. Wilson was a banker for 30 years as senior account executive at Bank of America and vice president of Wells Fargo Bank.

Both have a shadow cast over their campaign. Wilson for his defense of San Ramon City Manager Herb Muniz, who, at a salary of more than $344,000, is currently the highest paid city manager in California, and Buchanan for her run for U.S. Congress just months after being elected to her assembly seat, an election she lost to former Lt. Gov. John Garamendi.

Each has a campaign office in Bishop Ranch in San Ramon. Not a bad move by the proprietors; they'll have a link to the state Legislature no matter who wins.

In a rematch of their last battle, Wilson and Buchanan are campaigning for California's 15th Assembly District, a long, rangy and clearly gerrymandered district that touches as far south as the Santa Clara County line and includes parts of Contra Costa County, Alameda County, San Joaquin County and stretches as far north and east as Elk Grove in Sacramento County.

The 15th District's boundaries were adjusted in 2001 as part of what's known as a "sweetheart gerrymander" deal. Democrats and Republicans agreed to move lines to protect incumbents from both sides of the aisle. That would change in 2011, when a non-partisan group, not politicians, will create district boundaries. That is, unless one of two bills currently before the Legislature passes and puts redistricting back in the hands of state Assembly.

The district has gradually shifted from red to blue, with more than 40 percent Democrat and nearly 36 percent Republican, plus an unusually high number of people -- nearly 20 percent -- who don't want to be listed by their affiliation. In 2001, though, the 15th was a Republican stronghold; Lynne Leach served from 1996 until 2002 when she maxed out her term limit and was succeeded by Republican Guy Houston, a former football star at San Ramon Valley High School. Houston maxed out his term limit, too, clearing the way for the two-way race in 2008 between Wilson and Buchanan.

Walking with Joan Buchanan

It's 8:30 on a Saturday morning and Joan Buchanan's office is already buzzing. The phone banks aren't going yet -- no sense in waking people up on a weekend to get the message out -- but a half-dozen or so people are moving around, generally preparing for the day.

As in most campaign offices, the furniture here is folding chairs and tables, with a few assemble-yourself shelving units thrown in as well. An entire room is given over to signs. A flat screen TV is on and muted, showing a Giants game -- Buchanan's a huge fan -- and Campaign Manager Katie Vavao stops briefly to check the score.

Vavao is a bit vague about her background, saying she works with legislators in Sacramento. It turns out she works the rest of the year as an associate consultant in the Democratic Caucus.

Outside, some tables have been set up for volunteers to sign in. After that, they're taken inside in groups to watch a short training video, then given T-shirts and bags with campaign literature to distribute.

Buchanan arrives, dressed casually in a polo shirt and jeans. She walks the office, also checking the Giants score, saying hello to the people she knows and introducing herself to those she doesn't. One woman, a bit older than the other volunteers, gushes a bit at meeting the assemblywoman.

It's already hot and expected to get hotter. Many of the volunteers are in shorts. In pairs and threes, wearing flip flops and T-shirts, young men and women are showing up. A trio from a local high school arrives.

This is planned to be a day of precinct walks to distribute Buchanan literature. A couple of labor organizations are supposed to help out, but they're running late.

The young men and women who have been arriving turn out to be Young Democrats. Most are from outside Buchanan's district.

This is what those Young Democrats call an invasion: dozens of the young party faithful gathering from all across the East Bay to target a specific district.

After watching their training video, the volunteers mill around a table of snacks, waiting for Buchanan to speak.

These young people believe in Buchanan. They see her seat in the 15th District as part of the solution to what's wrong with the state: the perennially late budget, that as of this day had yet to be passed; a budget process she calls "both outdated and outmoded;" massive cuts to education and social services, a struggling economy and an unemployment rate that's nearly 13 percent.

Assemblywoman and Speaker pro Tempore Fiona Ma arrives, dressed in business attire, jacket, slacks and high heels, her little dog, Maggie -- Ma describes her has her secret weapon when campaigning -- on a leash. She and Buchanan banter a bit, taking about the benefits of staying in Sacramento or driving back after Assembly sessions, Ma praising Buchanan's commitment to read every bill that comes before her.

Ma, who's traveled from San Francisco, speaks briefly, telling the volunteers their help is key to keeping the 15th District in Buchanan's hands.

Jason Overman, the Bay Area Regional Director of California Young Democrats steps up next, pointing out many of the volunteers.

Next, it's Buchanan's turn.

"What this state looks like five, 10, 20 years down the road is going to be based on the work you do today," she tells the group of about 30 volunteers. "My generation and that Baby Boom generation, we're approaching retirement age and we need people like you who are going to step up and be the leaders."

What she lacks in eloquence she makes up for in knowledge. She's clearly done her homework. Buchanan starts with education:

"We have school districts like Mount Diablo that eliminated counselors back in 1991. We try to send kids to college and we don't have counselors there for them, to help them navigate the process and get into college. You think about it -- if they cut counselors in 1991 -- what are they cutting today? This makes no sense," she tells the group, moving on to social service programs.

"We have a budget proposal that says 'let's eliminate the CalWorks program,' which, by the way, most of the money for that comes from the federal government. We're not only taking money out of our budget but we're giving up federal funds to help poor people."

Buchanan also talks about the governor's plan to add what she calls "dramatic cutbacks to in-home support services," telling stories of visits from older people worried about what will happen to their disabled children when they die, or in one case, a talk with a paraplegic woman upset that she might lose the in-home care she needs.

"Those are the kinds of values we're fighting for in this budget, and that's why it's so important for me to win this election and to elect a new Democrat (governor), because needing a two-thirds vote means that every additional Republican vote we get, we have to give up something and we can't afford to give up vital services that are needed," she says.

"We can't ignore the educational needs of our children and shortchange them and shortchange the California economy in the future if we're ever going to return this state to greatness. That's what's at stake."

After her speech, Buchanan heads over to the snack table, where some of the volunteers have gathered for a quick bite before heading out. This is where she's at her best, answering questions one-on-one. Every legislator has a pet issue or two, and when one volunteer mentions water, it's easy to see that's one of Buchanan's. She and the young man briefly discuss the shrinking amount of fresh water entering the Delta and it's clear, once again, that Buchanan has done her homework.

Before leaving, she has one last piece of advice for her volunteers: "If you get a question you can't answer, just say, 'I'll have the assemblywoman call you,' because I get a list of calls I have to make."

In the car with Finance Director Claire Viall, a volunteer from the 2008 race, Buchanan is backing out with the idea of heading to Walnut Creek when she changes her mind. It's Danville instead, and Viall heads back inside to get information on homes there. That information includes names and party affiliations of homeowners and residents.

En route to Danville, Buchanan discusses her strategy about walking a precinct: park, hit all the homes on that side of the street, then work the opposite side on the way back.

It's hard to get a feel for how the campaign is going by door knocking. Danville is largely Republican, for one thing, and most doorbells go unanswered. She's greeted warmly a few times, with a couple of people agreeing readily to allow her signs in their yards. Some people recognize her from her time on the school board. Most, however, remain noncommittal and a couple of people say they're voting for her opponent.

This is not for the fainthearted. It's brutally hot, with temperatures in the mid-90s. It's also not for someone who doesn't handle rejection well. Not many people care to discuss politics or say whom they're voting for and many people either don't answer the door or aren't home. For those, Buchanan leaves a campaign brochure with a handwritten note: "Sorry I missed you."

Buchanan's biggest drawback, especially when campaigning door-to-door, may be that she's too smart. She'd rather engage in a discussion than a simple handshake and a quick vote-for-me, although she always makes a point of mentioning her 18 years on the school board.

More than once, she continues talking, right over what a constituent is saying.

One man, an older fellow who's just stepped inside from doing yard work, tells Buchanan that "government is out of control," adding "it's way over the top."

Buchanan points out that when she came onto the school board, the district was bankrupt and she helped turn the district's finances around. But the dialogue ends as quickly as it began. It's impossible to tell from this interaction whether he supports or opposes Buchanan.

"It's hard to say," she admits, walking away from the home. "He's Republican and she's Democrat. Possibly they'll cancel each other out."

As Buchanan walks back down the street, the man calls out, asking if she would like a glass of water. Is it a simple act of kindness or did Buchanan get her point across? Again, it's impossible to say.

Riding back to her headquarters, Buchanan talks about the key issues. No. 1, of course, is jobs.

"Jobs and the economy is overshadowing everything," she says. "The next issue before us is schools. The cuts are just devastating."

Buchanan, like many of her Democrat counterparts, is pushing for what she calls "sensible reforms."

Her third issue: water, and in particular, the degradation of the Delta.

Driving back to the office, the Giants game has given way to the 49ers, and Buchanan again is listening for the score.

For her, it seems the perfect Trifecta would be a World Series victory for the Giants, Super Bowl rings for the Niners, and another term in the Assembly.

An evening with Abram Wilson

With weeks to go before the election, Abram Wilson is acting like he's already won. He's been spending time in Sacramento, meeting with GOP leaders to, in his words, "hit the ground running."

He's also recently been to a leadership development weekend in San Diego, with a number of Republican up and comers.

Like most campaign offices, Wilson's is a jumble of boxes, folding tables and chairs. There are only two permanent desks, Wilson's -- a huge oak desk left to him by a friend -- and the smaller cluttered desk of his campaign manager, Matthew Dobler.

Dobler's a hired gun, brought up from San Diego, and he's worked on a number of campaigns, notably Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.

He's also worked for state Assemblyman Martin Garrick, (R-Solana Beach) both in his office and his campaign, and the campaigns of Assemblywoman Shirley Horton (R-San Diego) and state Sen. Bill Emmerson (R-Redlands).

Dobler says as of this writing, that the campaign has had "door-to-door, personal contact" with 75,000 homes.

Wilson and Dobler have clearly formed a bond. There's a dynamic here that must come from months of working together, day and night, six or seven days a week. Wilson misplaces his cell phone; Dobler tells him where to look. They can finish each others' sentences. They dress alike, Wilson wearing his trademark dark pinstripe and Dobler wearing a nearly identical suit.

In the car with them and headed to a Republican function in Blackhaawk, Wilson tells me about the speech he's expected to give.

"I've gone over some things I'm going to say, which I never do until I get there," Wilson says, asking if Dobler knows the order of the other speakers. He does, explaining Connie Conway, a Republican rising star from Tulare County, named by the Sacramento Bee as one of "five newcomers to watch" and chair of the state Republican Caucus is speaking first; then Diane Harkey of Dana Point, vice chair of the Assembly Committee on CalPERS (California Public Employees Retirement System and Social Security). Both made a trip from Sacramento to attend Wilson's event.

"If it starts at 5:45 (p.m.), it'll be over, 8, 8:30," Dobler tells him.

"Am I speaking this weekend?"

"No, you're not speaking," Dobler says.

It's easy to see why Wilson depends on Dobler to keep track of his schedule. He's a busy man, making trips to Sacramento for endorsements, making campaign stops, flying downstate to support other Republicans, all the while holding down his job as San Ramon mayor and even making time to show up at an awards ceremony for kids.

Dobler usually drives, functions, leaving Wilson to make calls. Tonight, Wilson's driving, Dobler is navigating. Wilson points out the development, with street after street of multi-million-dollar homes that weren't there when he first ran for mayor. We get lost, turn around in a driveway and still make it to the event on time.

While cars are lined down the road for people attending the event, Wilson, the guest of honor, is encouraged to leave his car in the driveway.

The party is at a private home. The place is amazing. It has a 30-foot-tall cathedral ceiling in the living room, sunken bar, his and hers wide screen televisions on each side of the fireplace, complete with sound systems, a swimming pool and hot tub, and a patio with views that look over the entire San Ramon Valley.

"I feel sometimes, even if they don't like us, if we find a real nice house, they'll come out just to see the house," Conway jokes.

Wilson is immediately surrounded by supporters. The hundred or so guests clearly love him. They see Wilson as a key part of the solution for all that's wrong with California, with its annually gridlocked budget, an unemployment rate approaching 13 percent, more than $3 million a year in pension costs for state workers, and the perception that the state is dong nothing to keep companies from leaving, much less bringing in new ones.

It's handshake time, and while it's tempting to simply state that Wilson works the room, it's more than that. He takes time to have actual conversations with people, listening as much as speaking.

Wilson never eats at these events. He's too busy, moving from one conversation to the next, often with a crowd surrounding him. His theme is simple: "Giving people jobs -- how can we do that, on both sides of the aisle."

"We have to stay competitive," Wilson tells one supporter, noting that Texas Gov. Rick Perry personally works with companies that are considering relocating there.

"I know a lot of guys my age who have lost their jobs and their prospects are dismal," Gary Cappa, president and CEO of Consolidated Engineering Laboratories in San Francisco, tells Wilson.

"We have to turn that around," Wilson says.

After dinner, it's time for the speeches. Conversation slows, then stops. It's the reason people are here.

"We believe in you. We want you there and Godspeed," Harkey tells Wilson. "I'm looking forward to seeing you, Monday through Thursday, under the dome."

It's Wilson's turn. He thanks his hosts and Harkey, gets a round of applause for his wife. His focus, as in most of his campaign, is jobs.

"We mentioned the word dream. What's the dream?" he asks, borrowing just a little from Martin Luther King's famous 1963 speech.

"I grew up in an age that you couldn't always dream. I'm 63 years old and I still remember growing up, the signs, right there, saying 'white only,' 'black only,'" recalling his upbringing in Charleston, S.C. "My parents taught me that I could dream, and that I can do anything that I wanted to do, that I was in charge of my own destiny. And I look around in California now and I wonder, and I look at the children -- are their dreams coming true? Can they come true?"

"The dream is not there," he tells the crowd. "We want the dream in California. People are leaving. They start a business here and all of a sudden they're taxed. All of a sudden you have these fees and rules that you have to go by, and no one even knows. Didn't we have a war about taxation without representation? They've forgotten that."

"I understand that there's tomorrow. There's a tomorrow because you are here, because you care, and that inspires all of us…. There's a light at the end of the tunnel and I looks at the faces -- you're at the end of the tunnel," Wilson continues.

"You hold us accountable. You tell us that we work for you. Sacramento's forgotten that. In some aspects, the United States has forgotten that. We have to turn that around. We're not doing this for just ourselves; we're doing this for the next generation and the generations after that."

He moves on to another of his main themes, that state government is broken.

"You know, there's a saying. If you don't plow the soil and plant the seeds, there will be no harvest and that's the problem now. We're out there every day, plowing the soil, planting the seeds, and Sacramento takes the harvest. We have to stop that. We have to keep the harvest here so that we can grow, our families, our children can also dream. It's not rocket science. It's common sense. Common sense is not common in Sacramento."

Wilson tells the crowd that he's seeing significant support across the board.

"I don't believe that I can change every person -- just the next person," he says. "Democrats, they're Americans. They want the things that we want. Half the people are putting partisan politics aside and saying, 'I can't make my mortgage. I spend all this money sending my kids to college and now they're living with me.'"

He turns back to the state's problems to wrap things up:

"Almost two-thirds of our general fund is deficit. We have to get our house in order. We have to keep the stocks of California bankable," he says. "Right now we need finance, banking skills. We have to have people who get it. We need people who can hit the ground running. This is S.O.S. time -- save our state."

The goal for the night was to raise $40,000; instead, the campaign took in more than $50,000.

A half hour after the speech, the crowd has thinned. The caterers, who know Wilson doesn't eat at events, put aside a plate for him to eat later.

Dobler looks at his watch. It's after 9, an hour later than expected, and Wilson still has to pack for his leadership conference in San Diego. Dobler checks his watch again, a not-too-subtle sign for Wilson to wrap things up so they can head home.

But Wilson isn't done yet. He's just spent all night politicking. No one's watching except the home's residents and Dobler. He's got nothing to prove. Yet over the protests of his hosts, he wraps aluminum foil over bowls of the caterer's leftovers and places them into the refrigerator.

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