Is Jim Cooper politically bulletproof?

Well-funded moderate Democrat has been relatively safe for three terms—until possibly now

Assemblyman Jim Cooper

Assemblyman Jim Cooper

Photo from campaign website

Assemblyman Jim Cooper entered his reelection campaign as a blockbuster political fundraiser with the endorsements of the state Democratic Party and a slew of public safety and labor groups.

But that doesn’t mean the cop-turned-moderate Democrat is beloved in District 9, which covers most of Sacramento County. And he may finally have a legitimate challenge on his left.

At a recent forum hosted by the Greater Sacramento NAACP, Cooper’s Democratic challenger drew one burst of applause after another, while the six-year incumbent found many of his answers met by crickets. By the end of the night, Tracie Stafford, a former executive, small business owner and community activist, beat Cooper handily in the straw poll among the audience.

“Jim is a registered Democrat who doesn’t vote in line with the Democratic platform,” Stafford told SN&R. “And there’s all the fundraising—and that money is coming from oil, tobacco, the bail bonds industry, big business and big developers. It’s just very telling.”

This isn’t Stafford’s first uphill battle. She and her four siblings were one of the first black families to integrate the East Bay suburb of San Leandro in 1971. It was an isolating experience, one that her brother, former KGO radio talk show host Brian Copeland, turned into the longest running one-man show in San Francisco history.

Stafford worked her way up into senior management at Sun Micro Systems, before starting her own businesses as a marketing consultant.

Stafford has picked up support from California’s branch of SEIU and key Democratic clubs in Sacramento County, and her supporters are hoping that the Bernie Sanders-versus-the-world dynamic of the presidential primary will bring enough down-ballot progressive power in the March 3 top-two primary to thrust Stafford into a run-off.

Cooper’s political career began in 2000, when he became Elk Grove’s first mayor. A Sacramento County sheriff’s captain, Cooper later lost a bruising election to lead the department to Scott Jones. Cooper’s consolation prize was winning an Assembly seat in 2014.

Two years ago, amid the height of the #MeToo movement, the Los Angeles Times revisited earlier reporting that Cooper was the subject of at least two sexual harassment investigations in 2005. That doesn’t seem to have dented his support. State records indicate Cooper currently has nearly $1.4 million in his campaign war chest, compared to $35,000 for Stafford.

That financial advantage didn’t help Cooper at the Feb. 14 candidates forum, co-sponsored by the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and the Black Political Action Committee. Cooper’s opening remarks were met by some applause—a rarity that evening. He said that in the last six years, he has brought $5 million in homeless shelter funding to South Sacramento, as well as $750,000 for after-school youth activities. He also said he’s given out 3,000 backpacks each year and 3,000 turkeys to families in need.

Cooper drew a favorable response when discussing the racial disparity in student suspensions at Sacramento City Unified School District.

Community activist Tracie Stafford

Photo courtesy of the candidate

“I don’t think we need to study this anymore,” Cooper told the crowd. “But a lot of this deals with trauma. These kids [getting suspended] have undergone trauma, and that is what’s showing up here.”

He preached more support for teachers, as well as funding social workers who can interact with struggling families. “We’re going to pay for this one way or the other, and it’s much cheaper to do it on the front end,” Cooper said.

But when the topic turned to the housing crisis, the debate seemed to get away from Cooper. When the moderator cited a CalMatters story that unaffordable rents are the primary driver of homelessness, Cooper insisted that the chief causes were mental illness and substance abuse. Cooper said the only answer to the crisis was to expand treatment for those groups and give counties greater ability to take conservatorship of the most clinically unwell.

“So, we’re throwing a lot of money at housing, and that’s not the problem,” Cooper asserted.

“I’m really tired of hearing about ’broken people’ not being able to take care of themselves,” Stafford shot back. “We’re talking about mental health and drug abusers when the rent is just too damn high!”

That was met with thunderous applause, as Stafford added, “They keep building $300,000 houses—we need to hold our developers responsible for actually building houses that people can afford.”

When it came to other issues of poverty, Cooper and the Republican candidate in the race, Eric Rigard, tended to come down on one side, and Stafford on the other.

When the candidates were asked how to address South Sacramento’s food deserts, Cooper said he’d like to see more “nutrient-value meals” for kids at school, preferably from local agriculture producers. Rigard, who describes himself as a pro-life conservative Christian, agreed.

Stafford, who was orphaned at 12 and grew up in poverty, offered a different perspective.

“There were times when we had a box of Rice-A-Roni for a family of six to eat, and a [healthy food] education wouldn’t have helped that,” she said. “Before we can talk about eating organic, we’ve got to talk about being able to eat.”

The room erupted. At the end of the night, Stafford won a straw poll of the most favored candidate with 135 votes to Cooper’s 56 and Rigard’s five.

Cooper is again counting on his law-and-order credentials to win. He recently worked with Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert to create the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act, which will go before voters in November.

The measure seeks to roll back a number of changes that California voters approved between 2014 and 2016 with Propositions 47 and 57. Cooper’s initiative would change theft of $250 from a misdemeanor to a felony on the third offense.

The initiative would also allow law enforcement to take DNA samples from misdemeanor drug and property suspects, with the stated purpose of solving crimes such as serial rapes and murders. Finally, Cooper’s measure expands the list of crimes that are classified as violent for early parole consideration. Cooper and Schubert decided to take these options directly to the voters after Cooper failed to advance legislation.

The initiative appears likely to reignite a nearly decade-long debate between criminal justice reformers and victim advocacy groups. The most recent data from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California indicates overall crime rates are at near historic lows, and that racial disparities in arrest levels have also narrowed.

But prominent victims groups say that is a statistical illusion. Attorney Nina Salarno Besselman, president of Crime Victims United in Auburn, has repeatedly pointed out that raping an unconscious person, pimping a minor for sex and battering a spouse to the point of injury are all officially “nonviolent” offenses under recent changes to California law. Her group, the California Police Chiefs Association and some local politicians are backing Cooper’s initiative.

Stafford, on the other hand, is not. And she insists that she isn’t naive about crime. The wife and mother of four has spoken openly about being the victim of sexual assault and domestic violence when she was younger. Those experiences led her to serve as a spokeswoman for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence and to testify before Congress in 2013 during the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Stafford told SN&R that what worries her most about Cooper’s ballot measure is lowering the financial threshold for felony theft, which she fears will brand too many poor people as felons.

“That could easily have been me, with my background, and what I’d been through—the trauma,” she said. “The only difference is I happened to be living in a middle-class, suburban community when I was going through that. But if I had been in a different environment, I could just as easily have been in prison versus running for office.”