Come November, Democrats in Alameda County will face a tough choice between two progressive candidates of color who are running for a state assembly seat.
Rob Bonta, current vice mayor of the City of Alameda and deputy city attorney for San Francisco, is running against newcomer Abel Guillen, president of the Board of Trustees for Peralta Community Colleges.
Both are Democrats, having advanced through California’s first top-two primary, where the two candidates who received the most votes advance to the general election regardless of their party preference
In a diverse county like Alameda, the two candidates’ ability to appeal to voters across racial lines will be critical. The total voting age population breaks down demographically to 30 percent African American, 20 percent Asian Pacific Islander (API), and 13 percent Latino. In the June 5 primary, approximately 18 percent of voters were African American, 12 percent were API, and 8 percent were Latino.
“Having both a Latino and an Asian running in this district is a tribute to the political maturity of those communities because they’re both fielding viable candidates in a district that has a very high African-American population,” said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy, research, and advocacy at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
With African American candidate Joel Young eliminated in the primary, securing the African American vote could play a decisive role in the winning candidate’s victory.
Bonta cites a strong connection to the African American community dating back to his first job after college, where he worked as a community organizer with African American boys growing up in public housing neighborhoods.
However, Guillen has a history of achieving success in primarily African American communities from when he won his seat on the Peralta Community College board.
“Back in 2006, I ran in a primarily African American community against an African American candidate and I won,” said Guillen. “It was because of coalition building; because I was able to earn the trust of the community leaders and really get out there and work.”
Both candidates also cite key endorsements from African American elected officials and community leaders.
Larry Reid, Oakland City Council President, Surlene Grant, former Vice Mayor of San Leandro, and Marie Gilmore, the first African American mayor in the history of Alameda, have offered their support to Bonta.
Endorsing Guillen are former Oakland mayor Elihu Harris, President of the East Bay Municipal Utility’s District’s board of directors Bill Patterson, and Toni Cook, former president of the Oakland Unified School Board.
In addition to appealing to the African American voting bloc, both must also work to make connections with the ethnic group represented by their opponent.
Bonta cites his parents’ involvement in the United Farmworkers Association (UFW), and their endorsement of his candidacy, as one factor that will appeal to the Latino community.
“My parents were on the frontlines fighting for fair treatment for farm workers, for water breaks, bathroom breaks, and healthcare,” said Bonta. “I’ve talked to a lot of Latino voters who have said that that was an important part of their family history and something they strongly believe in, so I know it resonates with Latino voters.”
“My family is a mixed race family. My wife is Black-Puerto Rican, I’m half Filipino, half European descent. We represent all the ethnic groups in the East Bay,” reflected Bonta on his ability to appeal to voters from all backgrounds.
One of Guillen’s key supporters from the Asian community is current Oakland Mayor Jean Quan.
In a press release endorsing Guillen, Quan stated: "Abel Guillen has a strong record of fighting for our students, promoting job training opportunities and balancing challenged budgets in his work with our community colleges. He has the most experience with Oakland and on the issues affecting Oakland residents."
Aside from coalition building across racial lines, the other challenge the two face in a race where both are of the same party is making the distinctions between them clear.
Bonta’s platform prioritizes better schools, safer streets, more good jobs and critical safety net services.
Guillen is focusing on the re-funding of education, as well as job training for students, and health care for all.
Bonta believes it is his experience that will ultimately make him stand out. “We’re going to need someone who not only embodies the values of the district as I do but who also can be effective and get things done, and not just go up to Sacramento and be a dissenting voice.”
“Rob Bonta is the ideal candidate to go to Sacramento and fight to try and keep our neighborhoods safe and strengthen public safety efforts to fight crime in Oakland,” said Oakland Police Officers Association president Barry Donelan. “He has the broad base of experiences to deal with the issues facing the district.”
However, Guillen points out, “I’m the only candidate in this race who’s actually worked in the capitol. I worked for former State Senator Carole Migden. I’ve actually carried legislation from idea to implementation, I don’t think anyone else in this race has that experience.”
Guillen also sees his strong connection to the Bay Area as an important factor that will appeal to voters. “I’m much more rooted in this community than my opponent.”
“I come from an immigrant experience, which is very different from someone who grew up in a suburban environment,” he said. “I’m a Bay Area native, born and raised here, I spent my whole life here. I think that’s very important to the voters of this area, to think that someone understands the experiences of this community.”
“Abel is a working class kid from the Mission district who has developed a lifelong commitment to empower people,” said Kenneth Burt, political director of the California Federation of Teachers, which has endorsed Guillen. “He does his homework, he works collaboratively, and he’s not afraid to take tough stands.”
But one factor in Bonta’s favor is the potentially historic nature of his candidacy.
If elected, Bonta could become the first Filipino American to serve in California’s state legislature. He has the resounding support of the Filipino American community, as well as Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) legislators.
“We’re putting all of our blood, sweat and tears into it. This is the next paradigm shift in the Filipino community that the Latino community had in the 1960’s and 70’s in the State Assembly,” said Genevieve Jopanda, national co-chair for KAYA: Filipino Americans for Progress.
“Once they got those one or two people in the state assembly, they created the Latino Legislative Caucus – you look and see how big and strong and influential that caucus is. I think there’s opportunity for that to happen for the Filipino community,” Jopanda explained.
“Nationally, Filipino-Americans are the second largest group found in the Asian & Pacific Islander American community, and this community has a rich history in California, including the impact Filipino Americans had on the farm workers movement and the formation of the UFW, said Assemblyman Warren T. Furutani (D – South LA County), chair of the API Legislative Caucus.
Ultimately, political observers agree that one of the main challenges will be to galvanize voters’ enthusiasm, particularly after the primary, where there was near record low turnout.
“What it will come down to is how hard they work, how to get voters engaged when there aren’t particularly large, easy distinctions,” said Bill Wong, political director of the Asian American Small Business Political Action Committee (PAC).
“People will decide late – in some cases arbitrarily, because it’s how you’re feeling that day,” said Wong.
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