Tom Fulks

This time, Democratic party bosses think their Assembly candidate can win

Maria Kelly, left, talks Dawn Ortiz-Legg about election returns in June 2016.
Maria Kelly, left, talks Dawn Ortiz-Legg about election returns in June 2016.

The state’s Democratic Party bosses have targeted termed-out Republican Katcho Achadjian’s 35th Assembly District seat for a takeover.

They think business-savvy Dawn Ortiz-Legg can go head-to-head with her Republican opponent, lawyer Jordan Cunningham, who captured 37 percent of the June primary vote compared to her 45 percent.

That translates into a 10-point gap for Ortiz-Legg to make up by November, presuming the vote for another Republican and Libertarian on the June ballot consolidates behind Cunningham.

Dem Party leaders are convinced she’s up to the task, unlike nearly every other Democrat who’s tried to win that seat in the past umpteen years, with the shining exception of Jack O’Connell.

O’Connell was an incumbent whose Santa Barbara-based district was redrawn in the early 1990s to bring him up into San Luis Obispo County. He didn’t have to start from scratch, like other Democrats have had to do in the overwhelmingly Republican district.

In 2014, Achadjian defeated Democrat Heidi Harmon 63 to 37 percent, a drubbing by any measure.

The 2012 election wasn’t much different, with Achadjian taking 61.3 percent to Democrat Gerald Manata’s 38.7 percent.

In the words of the notoriously foul-mouthed former Dem Party boss John Burton, this part of California is made up of “s**t districts.”

Apparently, the new party bosses have a different, less colorful opinion.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon came to SLO last week for a fundraiser and dropped a barnburner speech for Ortiz-Legg. He was joined on the stump by state Sen. Bill Monning, the Senate majority leader who represents SLO County.

I believe the party bigwigs this time are sincere. It wasn’t always so.

Some may recall a similar shipload of sunshine offloaded by Dem party leaders in 2004, when then-Senate Majority Leader Burton pledged $5 million to entice then-3rd District County Supervisor Peg Pinard to drop her re-election bid and jump into the race for an open state Senate seat against then-Assemblyman Abel Maldonado.

I was there, in Burton’s ornate, first-floor Capitol office in Sacramento, when the proposal to Pinard was proffered: You fit the profile — a female elected official with a pulse, a Democrat living in a district we’ve targeted. Run for the open Senate seat and we’ll back you to the hilt.

Pinard, dizzied by the sudden flattering attention from the top, would learn much later that Burton was actually conniving to give Maldonado a fight to force Republicans to divert resources from other Senate districts that Dem strategists believed offered better chances of victory in the battle for Senate majority.

Sitting in the bedazzling offices of one of California’s most powerful Democrats, I was Pinard’s re-election campaign adviser.

Shortly after, I was jettisoned like a hoary bedbug as she jumped from the AA farm club to the AAA league (the majors being Congress).

Pinard now probably rues the day she went for the bait.

Not only did she lose to Maldonado by 10 points, her political career was fairly well ruined.

This was in large measure attributable to an astonishingly inept campaign run by a pricey Los Angeles political consultant who burned through money like I use Kleenex on a head cold.

His direct mail attacks on Maldanodo were ineffective and his series of TV ads, one featuring Pinard playing a banjo by the side of a road, were painfully embarrassing. Party bosses didn’t care what happened to her, so long as Republicans siphoned money from elsewhere to combat her spending.

I’ve known Peg for a long time and have always liked and respected her.

I also know the former SLO city councilwoman, mayor and county supervisor didn’t deserve that shameful treatment from party hucksters. Adding salt to the open sore was the fact that Burton and Co. didn’t come close to spending the $5 million they’d promised.

Today, it feels different. I believe the party bosses do care — not just about winning the Assembly seat, but about their candidate.

A hands-on executive in the solar power industry, Ortiz-Legg holds a master’s degree in international public policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a focus on climate change and technology, and an undergraduate degree from Pepperdine University. She serves on the county Economic Vitality Corp. board of directors, the Cuesta College Sustainability Center and holds a host of volunteer leadership positions.

She’s got the right chops at the right time, particularly as the Legislature tackles the complex, controversial task of addressing climate change.

Her party’s bosses sense it, and they’re moving in for a win.

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks is a former reporter and opinion writer. He has been a political campaign consultant for many local races. His column runs in The Tribune every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Matthew Hoy.