Half an incumbent

Redistricting refugee Helen Thomson figures turnabout is fair play

Former Davis Assemblywoman Helen Thomson may try to knock a fellow Democrat out of his Senate seat next year.

Former Davis Assemblywoman Helen Thomson may try to knock a fellow Democrat out of his Senate seat next year.

Courtesy Of Helen Thomson

Helen Thomson had done everything right. After nearly three decades in public office—as a Davis school-board member, Yolo County supervisor and Democratic assemblywoman—the ex-nurse had a decent reputation and a shot at graduating to the Senate. But in 2001, during the once-a-decade process of redrawing district maps, Senate Democrats yanked the seat out from under her to protect an incumbent. Senate cartographers, overseen by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, shifted the Stockton-area 5th District northward to make it safer for Senator Mike Machado, D-Linden, who won his first term in 2000 by a razor-thin half-point margin. Machado’s reconfigured Senate district took in all of Yolo County and most of Solano County—the same areas Thomson, 63, had spent six years representing in the Assembly.

These days, two years after that setback, Thomson is thinking about turning the tables and challenging Machado in the March primary. It’s one of those rare affronts that, according to an unwritten political commandment, you just don’t do. As far as insiders and campaign watchers know, Thomson’s would be the only serious intra-party incumbent challenge in all of next year’s 100 legislative races. But Thomson, who’s back at her old job as a Yolo County supervisor, doesn’t see it that way.

As she’s been telling anyone who asks, Machado’s only “half an incumbent” in her book because only about half of the people he represents, those in San Joaquin County, actually voted for him. Thanks to the way redistricting works, the other half of the people in the Senate district, who live in Thomson’s old Yolo-Solano district, missed their turn to vote for a state senator the last time around when they were dumped into Machado’s new district. If Thomson does run, the key part of the race boils down to how well both Democrats can introduce themselves to the other half of the Senate district, where fewer people know their names.

Thomson said she started thinking about running “the day that the redistricting maps were done.” But as the November 5 deadline to sign up for the race nears, her decision isn’t getting easier. On one hand, a recent poll showed her beating Machado. But on the other hand, Machado already has a war chest Thomson couldn’t hope to match, and with a strong Republican candidate waiting to take on the winner in November, GOP operatives are drooling at the prospect of two Democrats waging a bloody—and expensive—primary battle.

Though Thomson notes tartly that it’s “interesting” Machado hasn’t called her since his hometown paper, The Record, ran something a couple weeks ago saying she might challenge him, she says she doesn’t have anything against him personally. Rather, she said, she has a beef with the way Burton and other Democrats left her sidelined.

Thomson’s predicament is an indirect offshoot of a redistricting comedy of errors that ended in tragedy for Democrats. When Senate Democrats were carving up the state, one of their more fanciful creations was a Senate district originally tailored for then Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, D-Modesto. But after Gary Condit forfeited his political career with a sex scandal, Cardoza launched a successful bid to grab the Modesto congressional seat from his old pal Condit in the primary. Democrats found another Senate hopeful in ex-Assemblyman Rusty Areias of Los Banos, who ended up losing to an inexperienced Republican and letting the GOP gain a new Senate seat.

When the Modesto Senate district shifted north to take in areas near Stockton, Machado’s Stockton-based district also shifted north into Thomson’s turf. Thomson made her own requests, which were disregarded. “I wasn’t asking for the moon,” she said.

At the same time, Thomson said, Senate leaders also gave the redistricting shaft to several other assemblywomen, including Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, and Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles.

“The good old boys screwed Thomson out of a Senate district,” said political analyst Tony Quinn, who tracks legislative races and helped draw legislative districts in past reapportionments. “They drew the lines for the boys.”

Thomson has reason to be hopeful. To gauge her chances, she did a poll with help from her old chief of staff, Craig Reynolds, who dabbles in political consulting and now works for Thomson’s Assembly successor, Lois Wolk, D-Davis. Out of 400 likely Democratic voters polled last month, 38 percent supported Thomson while 32 percent liked Machado. The poll also showed Machado with both higher name recognition and higher negative ratings than Thomson.

An interesting footnote to a Thomson-Machado contest is that it could continue Reynolds’ quasi rivalry with über-operative Richie Ross, one of the state’s most powerful political advisers. Ross, who ran Cruz Bustamante’s recall bid, made news last summer by berating Reynolds and another legislative aide in the Capitol. (See “Cruz controlled,” SN&R Cover, October 2.)

Reynolds and Ross, who haven’t spoken since the incident, worked together years ago in the Assembly speaker’s office. They faced off last year when Reynolds helped guide Wolk to beat West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, a Ross client, in the primary. Reynolds also has worked as Thomson’s campaign guru in the past.

Thomson said that if she runs, she will run on her record instead of slinging mud at Machado. But almost in the same breath, Thomson said Machado’s not doing much to attend to the needs of the northern half of his district. “We don’t see a lot of him,” she said.

Machado, a farmer with a background in agribusiness, had been a relatively conservative Democrat but now casts more liberal votes—perhaps out of fear of a challenge from a more liberal Democrat, like Thomson, in a district that became more liberal after redistricting. The conservative parts of eastern Sacramento County were drawn out of the district and replaced by more liberal Yolo and Solano counties and part of southern Sacramento County.

Because they served in the Legislature at the same time, Thomson can make direct comparisons between Machado’s voting record and hers. She rattled off three key bills—to notify parents of pesticide use at schools, cut greenhouse emissions and add protections for gay students—that she supported and he didn’t.

Though that kind of information might show up in the mailboxes of Democrats during the primary, when candidates play to party faithful, Republicans will be willing to sling mud if Thomson doesn’t.

“Machado’s got problems,” said Quinn, the analyst, because Machado’s an officeholder at a time (post-recall) when voters are feeling anti-incumbent. “There seems to be a revolt against the Legislature.”

The biggest consideration, however, has nothing to do with whom Democrats pick in the primary. Whoever wins must face Gary Podesto, Stockton’s Republican mayor. And Podesto’s campaign manager, Carl Fogliani, is already talking up what he calls Machado’s lousy ethical reputation. “The guy’s got more baggage than American Tourister,” said Fogliani, who ran a successful Assembly campaign for Stockton Republican Greg Aghazarian last year.

Machado accepted money in an old campaign committee, which was established before Proposition 34 capped contributions, and transferred it to another committee—the same kind of move that made Bustamante look tarnished during the recall election. Machado also started to write a bill that would benefit a tribal casino that also employs his political consultant, Ross, as a lobbyist.

Machado and Ross did not return calls for this article, but when Machado was asked last month about using the loophole, he shrugged off the idea that there was anything improper about it. “If you take a look, there’s probably 40 other people with committees like that,” he said.

Fogliani said he’d be talking up the ethical issues if Podesto faces Machado, and issues about Thomson being an “extreme liberal” if Podesto faces her. He added that Podesto’s political consultant would be the Sacramento-based Republican firm JohnsonClark Associates, which helped defeat Areias last year in a district where party registration was even more favorable to Democrats.

Ordinarily, Podesto might not pose much of a threat in a district where voters are 46-percent Democratic and 36-percent Republican. But now Democrats must contend with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who could raise mountains of cash for even the most hopeless GOP candidate just by driving up and stepping out of his Hummer. The new governor also could generate more media coverage in one day than either candidate could in weeks of kissing babies at the county fair. With Schwarzenegger, Republicans are emboldened to take shots at seats they wouldn’t have had a prayer of winning without him—and they have the money to do it.

“I’m mindful of that,” Thomson said, allowing that some of her supporters who would like to see her back in the Legislature are also fearful that making the move could blow up in Democrats’ faces and hand another seat to Republicans. Thomson has a free shot at the Senate seat because her term as supervisor doesn’t expire until 2006, but she also must consider that, if she wins, a Republican governor will appoint her replacement on the county board—the same thing that happened when Thomson won her Assembly seat in 1996.

Thomson said she’s talked to supporters in both ends of the district who have urged her to run, but she knows she won’t get any love from California’s most powerful Democrat: Burton. As Senate president pro tem, it’s his job to make sure that none of the sheep in his flock are taken out, so he’ll back Machado in the primary.

After hearing that Thomson might run, Burton gave her a call. He wasn’t trying to bully her out of the race, Thomson said, but only trying to figure out what she intended to do. Thomson said she’d get back to him when she had made a decision. She said no one has called her to ask her to stay benched next year.

Of course, even though Thomson believes she has an edge over Machado in the primary, she also must recognize that she could be the weaker player in the general election.

Yolo County Democratic Party Chairman Scott Lay said Podesto would be formidable and predicted that “a lot of dirt may be thrown around.” Although local Democrats have been shooting “Draft Thomson” e-mails to one another, he said, the worst-case scenario for the party would be to lose the seat.

“Democratic leaders are skeptical about changing horses in midstream, because of Arnold,” he said. “Helen would have a much more difficult time against Gary Podesto, in my opinion. I just hope we have a thoughtful process that ensures we don’t lose the seat.”