California’s powerful unions lost a key special election this week in an all-Democrat race for State Senate in the East Bay that pitted a reformist candidate, Orinda Mayor Steve Glazer, against a reliable Big Labor vote, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla. The race took place on what was nominally Republican turf, after State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier resigned. Heavy spending by independent groups on both sides–and the state’s new “jungle” primary–helped Glazer win 55%-45%.
Glazer, a former aide to Gov. Jerry Brown, had lost to a union-backed candidate in an Assembly race last year. Though a lifetime liberal Democrat, his positions–support for pension reform, opposition to the recent Bay Area Rapid Transit strike, and backing for other candidates the unions had opposed–had alienated him from the state’s political machine. But Bonilla’s left-wing campaign alienated voters in the suburban district–and this time Glazer had the cash to fight back.
Unions have won such contests before, most recently in the race for state Superintendent, where union-backed Tom Torlakson defeated education reformer (and fellow Democrat) Marshall Tuck. But as Steven Greenhut of the San Diego Union-Tribune notes, unions have fared less well in special elections, losing another, similar race in Orange County in March that was between a union-backed Republican and a conservative candidate. The state’s top-two “jungle” primary, Greenhut suggests, may be a significant factor, as it frees voters to look beyond traditional loyalties and consider policies.
Republican strategist Richard Temple told the Contra Costa Times that Glazer’s win was a “repudiation of union politics.” For Tony Quinn of the Fox & Hounds blog, the race was also a revolt against political insiders, their endorsements and their junk mail. “This result shows there’s room for independent Democrats who don’t have to cower to labor,” he adds.