Niello’s left turn

Conservative Assembly member hopes Dems will help him beat Gaines, Alby

Last year, Republican state Assemblyman Roger Niello committed heresy against the GOP. He angered his party when he voted for a budget that included some temporary tax increases in hopes of avoiding “economic calamity up and down the state” (see “Capital clash,” SN&R Feature, January 7).

He got hate mail from conservatives then, and many in the party still haven’t forgotten.

Now running to succeed Dave Cox in the state Senate—Cox passed away this summer, necessitating a special election to fill his seat—Niello is being attacked by Republican candidates Ted Gaines and Barbara Alby for betraying red-meat GOP principals.

So Niello’s turning to some unlikely allies: Democrats.

“Whoever it is, the Republican nominee is going to beat Ken Cooley,” Niello reasoned, referring to Rancho Cordova Mayor Ken Cooley, the sole Democrat running for the seat which has historically been quite safe for Republicans. The district includes Placer, El Dorado and part of Sacramento counties. It stretches from the Oregon border, along the Nevada border south to Inyo County. The district is so spread out that Niello’s been touring it in an RV.

The special election comes with special rules. One Democrat and three Republicans are going to be on the ballot. Voters can pick whomever they wish, regardless of party affiliation. If any one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, that candidate takes the seat. If no one wins a majority of the vote outright, the top Democrat and the top Republican will go on to a runoff election in January.

Cooley’s almost guaranteed a spot in the runoff. The question for Democrats is whether they’re better off with Ted Gaines or Roger Niello advancing.

It’s not like Niello is a moderate. For example, he’s supporting Proposition 23, an oil-industry-backed measure to suspend California’s air-pollution rules on carbon dioxide. He thinks the rules are bad for business and because—like many in his political party but unlike the vast majority of climate scientists on the planet—he’s not sure global warming is really caused by human activity.

“I’m not exactly a poster child for the left,” Niello explained. “But if you talk with anybody in the Legislature, they’ll report that I have good relationships on both sides of the aisle.”

Cooley’s campaign has gotten off to a slow start, but he’s not inclined to sit back and let Niello poach Democratic votes. He’ll be touting his record in local government. “In Rancho Cordova, we’ve run a budget surplus every year. People up and down this district will know that Rancho’s got its act together.” And he expects most Democrats will support him in November, because he’ll be the one with the “D” next his name.

But Niello is hoping enough Democrats will cross party lines, like he did on the budget vote last year, to help him move up to the Senate.