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Allen loses bid for second term

Michael Allen.

Press Democrat file photo/2008
Published: Friday, November 30, 2012 at 8:42 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 30, 2012 at 8:42 p.m.

Despite having a massive financial advantage and the backing of powerful Democratic Party and union allies, Santa Rosa Assemblyman Michael Allen lost his bid for another term to a relative political unknown.

That shocking reality was confirmed Friday after Sonoma County officials finished counting outstanding votes from the Nov. 6 election.

The results showed San Rafael City Councilman Marc Levine edged Allen 51.2 percent to 48.8 percent, a difference of 4,448 votes. In another surprise, Levine won both Sonoma and Marin counties.

Allen's losing bid for the 10th Assembly District seat is a blow for the interests that backed him, notably for Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, whose main priority this year was getting members of his caucus re-elected, his spokesman said.

It's also a personal and professional setback for Allen, who was elected to the Assembly in 2010 and was quickly elevated, courtesy of Perez, to a position of leadership in the Legislature. Instead, Levine will be sworn into office Monday.

“As with anything, when you work very hard and you don't accomplish what you wanted, it's disappointing,” Allen said Friday.

Allen had appeared to be primed for a long career in the Legislature and for a prominent role in local Democratic Party politics. As an attorney, former nurse and labor leader, he has strong connections with important constituencies in the North Bay.

Allen also was a district director for former state Sen. Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, who built a political machine on the North Coast around an agenda that favors unions, social and environmental advocacy and limited growth.

Allen mustered those resources in 2010 when he eked out a victory over Vallejo City Councilman Michael Wilson for the 7th District Assembly seat. He relied on that help again after he chose to run in the newly drawn 10th District, which spans Marin County, part of Santa Rosa and portions of western and southern Sonoma County.

“We walked. We phoned. You name it, we did it,” said Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council.

She estimated as many as 400 volunteers were working on the race, which she called a “priority” for the organization.

Allen had an almost 6-to-1 financial advantage over Levine. He raised nearly $1.4 million and spent $1.38 million, leaving him with an ending cash balance of about $150,000 on Oct. 25, state campaign finance records show.

Levine, by comparison, raised about $253,000 and spent all but about $51,000, records show.

But nothing, not even Perez personally campaigning for Allen, was enough for the Santa Rosa Democrat to earn another term in office.

The explanations for Allen's loss vary but chief among them may be that he had to introduce himself to voters in a new district and square off against another Democrat. The race was a closely watched test of a new system that sends the top two vote-winners in the primary to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

“This race is a real poster child for what can go wrong within the party on the top-two system,” said David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University. “Republicans knew that was going to happen when they put it on the ballot.”

Allen, who has a home in Oakmont, fended off criticism that he was a carpetbagger for renting an apartment in San Rafael in order to run in the new district.

Allen, and the independent expenditure committees that supported him, bombarded the district with mailers, radio and TV spots and other forms of advertising. But the campaign strategy “clearly didn't work,” McCuan said.

Levine was able to exploit the public's dim view of the Legislature and Allen's ties to labor, as well as his history of ethical transgressions. In 2011, the state's political watchdog agency fined Allen $3,000 for voting on matters in which he had a financial interest while he was a Santa Rosa planning commissioner.

Former Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, who endorsed Allen, said one elected official told him Allen's “aggressive” involvement in the Petaluma City Council race might have turned some voters off in southern Sonoma County. After Allen intervened, the Sonoma County Democratic Party in September endorsed the three most liberal of six Democrats in the Petaluma race.

“I know there's a tendency to play power broker, and that creates suspicion among voters,” Nation said.

McCuan predicted an analysis will show Allen under-performed in absentee ballots submitted by voters in southern Sonoma County. The fact Levine overtook Allen in Sonoma County after all the votes were counted lends credence to that theory.

Other observers viewed as a mistake Allen's decision to not accept the voluntary campaign spending limit of $909,000 for Assembly candidates under Proposition 34. The decision meant he could not include a candidate's statement in the voter pamphlet guide, lending the appearance that only Levine was entered in the race.

Levine will head to Sacramento as a self-styled political outsider and reformer who was backed by business and agricultural interests.

But Stephen Gale, head of the Sonoma County Democratic Party, said it would be an “overstatement” to suggest Levine's victory signals an ideological shift away from the party's more liberal wing.

“I think it's about redistricting. It's essentially a story that's written every 10 years,” Gale said.

As Levine prepares to take office, Allen is left to wonder what might have been. It's no stretch to think he would have played a key role in the Legislature because in many ways he already was.

Perez selected him as assistant majority floor leader and also appointed him to a joint legislative committee tasked with addressing the high-profile issue of public employee pensions.

Allen's legacy as a lawmaker will likely be remembered for his efforts to improve patient and worker safety at the state's mental health facilities, an effort spurred by the killing of a psychiatric technician at Napa State Hospital.

Allen spearheaded new laws that loosen restrictions on forcibly medicating patients and that require state hospitals to update injury and illness prevention plans annually. Perez also had appointed him as chairman of a new Select Committee on State Hospital Safety.

“The problems in the state mental health system still exist. What we're concerned with is who's going to step up and be the champion Allen was,” said Coby Pizzotti, a lobbyist for the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians.

Agricultural groups, however, aren't likely to miss Allen, who fought to give farmworkers overtime pay after they work more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours a week. The bill was rejected by the Assembly.

The trade organizations Western Growers and California Citrus Mutual spent about $228,000 on mailers to oppose Allen in the Assembly race. One of the mailers depicted a photo of Allen with a big grin on his face and called him “The Sacramento Guy.”

That moniker no longer fits, but many predict Allen will continue to play a prominent role in politics both at the local level and at the Capitol. On Friday, though, he said he has no specific job offers or appointments on the horizon, only a plan to enjoy the holidays with his friends and family.

“Michael has a record to be proud of,” said Maldonado with the labor council. “I'm not concerned at all that he won't find a way to still make a contribution.”

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