When Peninsula voters go to the polls in November to select their new Assembly representative, it's a safe bet that they'll go for a moderate Democratic attorney who lives in Palo Alto and who has the backing of regional party leaders.
Still, the question remains: Who will they choose?
Unlike in recent years, where the district's anointed Democrat rolled to a comfortable Election Day victory, this year's race has split the Democratic establishment into two camps. One candidate, Palo Alto Councilman Marc Berman, has the support of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, termed-out incumbent Rich Gordon, and a laundry list of county supervisors, mayors and local elected officials. His opponent, patent attorney Vicki Veenker, has her own army of Democratic backers, led by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian and U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren.
Each has raised more than half million dollars for the campaign, with Berman's campaign receiving $690,000 in contributions so far this year and Veenker bringing in $559,208, according to campaign-finance documents filed this week. Each also enjoys the backing of various traditional Democratic-leaning organizations. Berman has earned the endorsements of both California Professional Firefighters and Equality California; Veenker has the Sierra Club of California and the California League of Conservation Voters on her side.
Despite their similarities, the race between Berman and Veenker is shaping up to be the most suspenseful in the Assembly District since 2004, when Ira Ruskin edged out his Republican challenger, Steve Poizner, in what was then District 21. Today, District 24 includes Palo Alto, Mountain View, Atherton, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Woodside, Portola Valley, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Sunnyvale, a portion of Cupertino and the coastal section of San Mateo County, from El Granada to the Santa Cruz County border.
With seemingly no clear favorite in the race, the California Democratic Party (which has an opinion on nearly every contest, including the council elections in Palo Alto and Mountain View), decided not to endorse anyone in District 24 this year. Even the Palo Alto council on which Berman serves is split, with four of its nine members endorsing Veenker and four supporting Berman (including the candidate himself).
In some ways, the Assembly race feels less like a choice between competing visions and more like a family scuffle (the fact that Berman worked at Eshoo's office after his freshman year in college helps perpetuate that feeling). On major issues, Berman and Veenker agree more often than not. They both call for more education spending, talk about environmental stewardship, support the modernization of Caltrain and view California's high-speed rail project, as it currently stands, with great skepticism.
Yet there are key differences when it comes to their backgrounds. And with two weeks to go until Election Day, Berman and Veenker are both trying to emphasize these differences, in some cases by taking shots at the opponent.
The most recent example happened last weekend, when Veenker released a TV ad touting her as an "independent voice" and a leader who would "fight to protect our environment and water supply." The ad also features an image of Berman and alludes to the fact that in 2013, when Palo Alto was passing its ban on single-use plastic bags, Berman recused himself because of his investment in a manufacturer of plastic bags.
Veenker's campaign emphasized that point further with an email to supporters, which stated that voters "should be aware that her opponent has a conflict of interest and could not vote on the plastic bag ban while on the Palo Alto City Council due to his investment in a plastic bag manufacturer."
The email also asserts that Veenker "won't back off from tough environmental issues because of special issues and big donors," a point underscored by the image of a plastic bag fluttering on a tree branch.
Berman thought the ad crossed the line. While it's true that he recused himself from the council discussion in 2013, the recusal happened because he had an investment in Roplast Industries, a company co-founded by his father that makes reusable plastic bags. The company, Berman told the Weekly, "has never produced single-use bags and is one of only two plastic-bag manufacturers in California to stand up to the plastics industry to support Prop. 67 on the November ballot."
Berman also fought back against Veenker's assertion that she is the greener candidate and pointed to his support for Palo Alto's carbon-neutral electricity plan and for the city's aggressive move toward solar energy in recent years. His plan, if elected, includes reducing petroleum use by 50 percent by 2030 and spending $1.5 billion to restore 54,000 acres of wetlands.
In his public response to Veenker's ad, Berman went for what passes as a nuclear option in the heavily Democratic district: He compared her tactics to those of Donald Trump. In an email to supporters, he characterized the plastic-bag ad as a "misleading attack against me and my family."
"If we can't trust my opponent to tell the truth now, we certainly can't trust her in office," Berman's email stated. "Contribute today and tell her enough of these Trump tactics!"
It was Veenker's turn to be offended. The ad, she told the Weekly, simply stated a publicly known fact: that he recused himself from participating on plastic bags because of a conflict of interest. The underlying issue, she said, is about Berman's conflict, not his family or his company.
"When I entered the race, I knew that people wouldn't always agree with me and would criticize me, but I didn't expect to be chastised by Marc for sharing a true and relevant fact with voters let alone be compared to Trump!" Veenker said in an email.
The two have other differences. Veenker is supported by the state's biggest teachers union, California Teachers Association, while Berman has received more than $800,000 in independent expenditures from EdVoice, an advocacy group that supports education reform. In discussing the differences between himself and his opponent, Berman pointed to his support for the recent legislative proposal to increase the duration before teachers are granted tenure at public schools from two to three years. Veenker, he said, hasn't been as clear about her position.
"My opponent doesn't have that level of detail out there," Berman told the Weekly. "It's hard for me to tell the distinctions because it's hard to tell what her positions are."
But Veenker told the Weekly that she considers debate between two and three years a "red herring" and a distraction from the real issue: the difficulties schools have in firing ineffective teachers. State officials should be discussing ways to simplify the process while still ensuring that teachers have protection from capricious termination, not debating whether two or three (or five or 10, for that matter) is the right number of years for setting tenure, she said.
"We need to have due process for teachers," Veenker said. "But if there's a problem and school districts feel like it's way too expensive and will take way too long and they won't win anyway and be able to dismiss a teacher, it seems to me that's what we fix."
The recent spats notwithstanding, both candidates have denounced negative campaigning and have largely focused on their own virtues, rather than the opponent's vices. The organizations supporting each candidate with independent expenditures also have taken notice. A recent mailer from the group Silicon Valley Progressive Women for Equity and Oportunidad, which supports Veenker, includes a cartoon of Yogi Berra on its cover with his famous adage: "No one goes there nowadays. It's too crowded" (it goes on to talk about Veenker's commitment to tackling the region's traffic and housing problems).
Meanwhile, the California Association of Realtors (one of several political groups that have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures to the Berman campaign), sponsored a series of ads likening Berman to good-for-you vegetables, including broccoli and beets. One ad features a picture of cooked Brussels sprouts.
"Eating your Brussels sprouts can seem dull, but fresh Brussels sprouts with a twist like roasted peppers are really tasty," the ad states. "Democrat Marc Berman's knows that fiscal responsibility and budget transparency are like eating your veggies: They may not seem exciting, but they're important."
Not exactly fighting words.