H. Abram Wilson instinctively knows what all famous, formerly vanquished politicians know: The art of politics is in the comeback, and failure is a lousy way to learn a lesson.
"Losing sucks," Wilson says flatly.
The 63-year-old mayor of San Ramon, who lost a run for the 15th State Assembly seat to Democrat and fellow San Ramon Valley resident Joan Buchanan by five percentage points in 2008, will take another shot at the seat when he battles Buchanan again on Nov. 2.
Wilson figures he's got a better-than-average chance of winning the 15th Assembly in November for the Republican Party. Political winds have shifted. Americans are worried about jobs and budget deficits even as the love affair with Obama wanes.
"I'm in this thing to win," he says.
Wilson's 2008 loss in the 15th district was the first for a Republican in 20 years and his first since getting into politics more than a decade ago. It was a bruising experience. On paper, Wilson was the better, more experienced candidate, while Buchanan lacked Wilson's political gravitas, many argued. Republican pundits chalked the loss up to anti-Bush blowback, sharpened by Obama fever.
It was likely all of that, Wilson concedes, and one more thing: Money.
"I think people will be surprised when they find out just how much money was involved in that race," he says.
Tsunamis of cash flooded San Ramon and the 15th Assembly district in 2008, with both Republican and Democratic machines from around the region slamming more than $3.5 million down on a race pitting two San Ramon-area residents against each other. Both had worked for decades for the betterment of the San Ramon Valley. They were colleagues. Their kids went to school together. But this was war.
Nearly $1 million was spent on Wilson's behalf, most of it coming from the Republican Party. But the real money came from the Democratic Party, which threw nearly $1 million behind Buchanan and union contributions pumped her final campaign bill to $2.5 million. And all that for a job that guaranteed the victor just two years in office and a salary of $95,291.
No Assembly race in the state saw that much paper and one would be hard-pressed to find a state Senate race as flush, too. Not even recently elected United States Congressman John Garamendi, who now represents the East Bay in Congress, spent as much—and that was for national office. What made the Assembly 15th seat the priciest piece of political real estate in the state?
"I don't think it's any different than other seats," Wilson says. "Every seat counts. It's no secret that the Assembly has a two-thirds Democratic majority, so any and every seat counts."
On a map, the 15th Assembly district resembles an upside-down leprechaun. Rolling from Sacramento County in the north, west along the Delta through Contra Costa County, south through the rural tip of Stockton, over the Altamont through Alameda and manicured towns like San Ramon and Walnut Creek, the 15th is a golash of Elk Grove soccer moms, sun-baked corn farmers, Pleasanton techies and Danville dandies.
Nearly 40 percent of the region's 300,000 registered voters are Democrat, 35 percent Republican and 20 percent unaffiliated. Two-thirds are white and 11 percent are Hispanic. They're not rich. The median income is about $70,000, with that statistic skewed by wealthy pockets like Danville and San Ramon. Whoever sways the undecided 20 percent wins.
Wilson says he's learning the district, and he and his staff have "knocked on 20,000 doors" in the last few months.
"Jobs are the top concern for everyone I've spoken to," he says. "Everyone wants good schools, safe streets and a good job. Start with jobs and everything else follows: Revenue, police, fire. And jobs are a non-partisan issue."
Unemployment is ugly in the 15th: 11.3 percent in Contra Costa County, 12.6 percent in Sacramento, 16.5 percent in San Joaquin County. Those are the official numbers. If people have a job, they're not making what they once did. But like any good fiscal conservative, more government isn't the answer, Wilson says. He insists that only the private sector can create jobs.
"I agree with Meg (Whitman, gubernatorial candidate) that we must create a better climate for business," Wilson says. "It costs a business $800 just to file. I think it's $50 in Oregon. Even my own son moved to Bend to start a business. Finding niches, what we're good at, that's the key. For example, the Tri-Valley area has become a kind of scientific incubator here; Lawrence Livermore Labs, Chevron, Sybase—these are all examples. The same concept can be applied throughout the 15th. There's lots of agriculture in the Sacramento and San Joaquin area. The opportunities are endless, but they've got to be sustainable."
Too many California business have gone overseas, Wilson admits. While bringing "call centers" back to the region from places like India—another Wilson idea– sounds nice, call-center jobs won't likely pay the mortgage. He'll have to do better than that to keep people in their homes.
Making a living while companies make a profit–the core of sustainable job creation—is the answer. Just how, now that's where the hard work comes in, Wilson says.
"There isn't just one answer," Wilson says. "I'll have to sit down with people in Sacramento, in San Joaquin, in Contra Costa, and talk about it."
He hasn't decided if taxing oil companies on their profits—something that hasn't been done in California—is a good idea. He's fairly convinced Medicare for all won't work in California. He hates "unfunded mandates." He doesn't have a set list of commitments, but he will, he says.
"If you believe in something, then you vote for it. You stand by it," he says. "My opponent has had more than 360 abstentions since being elected. And 120 days into her tenure, she wanted to leave, to go and find another job," he says, referring to Buchanan's failed 2009 run for the 10th U.S. Congressional seat now occupied by Garamendi. It was, perhaps, the best thing that could have happened for Wilson's campaign, some pundits observed, and begged the question: Do democrats have a death wish in the 15th?
"I don't know why she did what she did," Wilson says.
"Buchanan is setting the stage for—crazy as it seems—a Republican comeback in AD15," wrote one blogger with the handle "Renegade Republican" on the political blog www.halfwaytoconcord.com, after Buchanan announced her intent to run in the 10th Congressional.
"The state Democratic party dropped a huge bundle of cash on her race to remove Republicans from their last partisan, elected office in Assembly District 15 and now the thrill is gone from that win," Renegade wrote.
Was Buchanan, as the writer suggested, trading "Cow Town" (Sacramento) for Washington, D.C.? Wilson won't speculate.
"I only know that she voted on the worst budget for education in the history of the state," he says. "She doesn't vote on bills she supports. If you believe in a bill enough, read it, understand it and be a champion of it."
It's early in the election cycle and Wilson still has his job as San Ramon mayor to do. He's better off now than he was at this time last election when he didn't even know he was the Republican candidate for the Assembly until half the votes were counted in mid July of 2008. It was a primary he described as "brutal."
The general election soon after left him dazed by his first-ever loss in the political ring. But he's back. Today, he's the Republican Party's undisputed champion in the 15th. He's also had another year and a half to build on his reputation as a mayor with sound fiscal management.
"We had a structural deficit 12 years ago and not a good relationship with business," he says.
Today, San Ramon can boast that it's the headquarters for Chevron Corporation and 24 Hour Fitness. The city has a respectable reserve of about 50 percent of the general fund, thanks in part to Wilson and the council vetting "questionable" investments in 2007, avoiding potential losses as the financial shenanigans of Wall Street plunged the country and world into chaos, he said.
"Our money came from property taxes, sales taxes, it was really a booming market in the early days. We were fortunate to have a solid tax source and we didn't spend it. We invested it," he says. "We are one of the few cities in the state with a triple-A bond rating."
Can Wilson make the jump from small-town mayor to state Assemblyman? And, perhaps more important for San Ramon, what does he leave behind?
"He does seem to care deeply about San Ramon. A lot of civic pride there," writes Steve O'Brien, a San Ramon resident, in an email to San Ramon Patch.
O'Brien is a vociferous opponent of the City Council's–and Mayor Wilson's–general plan update because it includes a provision to expand the growth boundary into the Tassajara Valley, an issue that will also be put to the voters on the ballot Nov. 2. But O'Brien and others don't like the way the Wilson handled Tassajara.
"It is never a two-way dialogue with the public," O'Brien writes. "The Council emerges with the answer and that's it. Public hearings are viewed as a nuisance (or) necessary evil. He and the Council tend to like to limit public forums on most issues. In the 18 months I spent on the housing advisory committee, we were never asked to provide a viewpoint on anything to council. When I tried to push the issue, I was told our views weren't necessary to the process–which is why I resigned. It seems they want the appearance of these advisory groups, but don't really want to hear from them."
"Hey, we don't have any plans to build. But if it happens, let it be spas and vineyards," Wilson says, "so that the land owners could liquidate if they want to, but not build concrete and homes."
Take Dougherty Valley, Wilson says: 11,000 homes built under the auspices of Contra Costa County–3,000 more than San Ramon would have liked–and now San Ramon spends about a $1 million a year providing services to residents of the Dougherty Valley, which has not yet been annexed into the city, thereby keeping those property taxes out of the city's coffers.
"By bringing Tassajara into the city, we'll prevent that from happening again. We don't want to be an ATM for the county. The county supervisors could care less about us," Wilson says.
"Ultimately, I think he wants to develop Tassajara Valley, but in a limited way," O'Brien writes. "But he can't say that if he wants it to pass with voters. Most voters have had enough with the growth in the city, at least for now. He's figured out that his position makes virtually no one happy, so he refuses to expound on it publically. He says he personally wants to control growth there, but won't put teeth into the UGB expansion proposal to protect those lands. He is taking his typical 'trust big daddy, I know what's best' approach. He wants maximum flexibility to do what he thinks is right."
So what will San Ramon politics look like with Wilson gone to Sacramento?
"There are four others on Council now just like him. So I predict not much change," O'Brien writes.
And that's OK for many San Ramon residents, who like things the way they are.
"We are one of the only places that is not bankrupt," says resident Al Boehler, 42. "We should thank him for the great job he is doing. Great schools, great parks. Why would anybody want change in San Ramon?"
Coming soon: Profile: Joan Buchanan, incumbent, California 15th Assembly District.