Analysis: Decline of the Yolo County Democratic Machine?

Dan Wolk waiting for results at his party at Tres Hermanas Restaurant in Davis
Dan Wolk waiting for results at his party at Tres Hermanas Restaurant in Davis

In local races, the Yolo County Democratic Party would endorse Dan Wolk for Assembly, Norma Alcala for County Supervisor, Don Saylor for County Supervisor, Jesse Ortiz for Yolo County Superintendent of Schools, Rick Cohen for Yolo County Judge, Sheila Allen for Davis City Council and Angel Barajas for Woodland City Council.

If Dan Wolk indeed fails to place in the top two, it will mean only three of the seven will have won, and only Jesse Ortiz, in a surprisingly narrow victory, and Angel Barajas will have won in the six contested races.

It is a small sample size, but perhaps emblematic of the declining local influence of the Party in local races.

However, from our perspective, the Democratic Party has lost influence for several reasons. First, they did not put resources into the races – either money or precinct walkers – and therefore they relied only on their namesake. Second, they made odd choices in some of the contested races. Third, they backed flawed candidates in part because in some cases they dogmatically adhered to partisanship rather than ideology.

In addition, we cite two more factors here. The strongest machines in Yolo County were probably never the Democratic Party to begin with – we had the firefighters’ union in Davis which put real money and personnel into the races they backed and the Wolk-Craig Reynolds machine that has backed two Assemblymembers and a Senator, among others.

The first problem here is that the Democratic Party endorsement is in name only. It is not bringing in money. It is not bringing in volunteers to walk precincts. The result is that there is very little tangible support offered by being the party choice. While the majority of people in a partisan race will back their own party, at the local level, the labels disappear and people end up voting for the person and not the party or who the party is backing.

If the local Democratic Party wants to be influential, it needs resources – money, and volunteers to put teeth behind its endorsement.

We will take points two and three together, since they are related. The Democratic Party backed some odd choices, as well as some flawed candidates.

It made perfect sense for the party to back a Dan Wolk. Bill Dodd, as a moderate, former Republican was not going to appeal to the party base. Joe Krovoza was probably a good fit, but lacked the organization and party infrastructure to compete with Mr. Wolk at the state convention.

So Dan Wolk was the overwhelming choice, but he also had his flaws. His campaign struggled to gain traction with money early on. The money came late, much of it in the form of IEs that were likely double-edged swords.

Mr. Wolk himself had a lack of experience in public office – youth, and, for some at least, a sense of entitlement.

The Democrats selected Norma Alcala over appointed incumbent Oscar Villegas, who had been an elected official within most of his district for over a decade. Ms. Alcala had party support and grassroots support, but, given the nature of the district cutting out key bases of her support in Broderick and Bryte, this was under the best of circumstances an uphill battle for her against a seasoned incumbent.

Jesse Ortiz had a surprisingly strong challenge from Sam Neustadt and ended up prevailing with strong showings in Woodland and West Sacramento.

Rick Cohen was actually one of three Democrats in the race for judge, but the strongest candidate, Janene Beronio, was a Republican backed by all of the judges, all of law enforcement, the DA, and most of the legal establishment. By gaining 53% in the primary, she avoided a November runoff. Rick Cohen turned out to be the weakest of the three challengers and the party never even interviewed the person who finished in second place, John Brennan.

Sheila Allen was one of only two Democrats in the Davis City County race. Daniel Parrella was the other. Robb Davis is a Green, Rochelle Swanson an Independent, and John Munn a Republican. These were the top finishers in the race. The Democrats reportedly wanted to endorse Mr. Davis, but could not because he is not a registered Democrat.

Ms. Allen was a frontrunner at one point, but stumbled badly in February and March during a scandal.

Meanwhile, Angel Barajas parlayed his position on the school board into a win on the Woodland City Council. He becomes the only Democrat and Latino on that council that, for the last two years, was all-Republican, all-white and all-male.

The Democratic Party can strengthen its position by becoming more of a factor monetarily and with volunteer resources, but it could also become more of a factor by recruiting good candidates that can compete for local positions.

The story of the election is not only the decline of the Democratic Party, however.

In the Davis City Council from 2002 to 2008, the firefighters’ union backed seven of nine winners – all of them Democrats. The only two winners not backed by firefighters at that time were Lamar Heystek in 2006 and Sue Greenwald (backed by them in 2004) in 2008.

But the Vanguard has made backing by the firefighters into a political issue and, as a result, in 2010 and 2012, none of the candidates for city council took firefighter endorsements or money. Prior to that, firefighter endorsements meant bundled contributions up to $4000, as well as an independent expenditure campaign that saw door hangers and sometimes a mailer.

In 2014, Sheila Allen became the first candidate to accept an endorsement and money since 2008. However, her backing was a shadow of its former self – simply an endorsement in name and a $100 direct contribution.

Ms. Allen also got caught up in a mini-scandal. When firefighters and some other city employees had a celebration for the departure of City Manager Steve Pinkerton, Sheila Allen, along with Dan Wolk, Lucas Frerichs, Don Saylor and Alan Fernandes were in attendance.

The decline of the firefighter’s influence has changed the nature of the council. In 2008, all five of the members of the council were Democrats. In 2014, only two will be: Lucas Frerichs and Dan Wolk. It is not a turn to the right, as clearly Robb Davis (Green) and Brett Lee (Independent) would be considered left-leaning. What it is, is the rise of independent politics in Davis, unassociated with party or machine.

There is another factor – for two decades, Craig Reynolds who has backed, among others, Helen Thomson and Lois Wolk, has been instrumental in the link between local politics and the state legislature. Mr. Reynolds has served as chief of staff since Helen Thomson was first elected to the legislature in the mid-1990s.

Now, Dan Wolk, at this time, is a bit on the short side. Though he still has a chance, a combination of factors has undermined his candidacy. Publicly, there has been an outcry that Dan Wolk and Joe Krovoza split the Yolo County vote and thus the more liberal vote in the district. There has been a lot of finger pointing as to whose fault that is.

The bottom line is that likely one of the two would be in the run off if only one had run. Less clear is whether either would have been able to beat Bill Dodd in a runoff. Had it been Charlie Schaupp, a Republican, the Democrat would be the overwhelming favorite.

So, is the Democratic Party brand declining? Our view is that the party cannot have influence by name alone, the endorsement must mean something. However, other factors have played a role in the outcome, as well including the decline of the firefighters and the peculiarities of the Assembly campaign.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. wdf1

    Vanguard: There is another factor – for two decades, Craig Reynolds who has backed, among others, Helen Thomson and Lois Wolk, has been instrumental in the link between local politics and the state legislature. Mr. Reynolds has served as chief of staff since Helen Thomson was first elected to the legislature in the mid-1990s.

    Would you mind clarifying this statement? Why is Craig Reynolds a factor? What did he do or not do that affected the race this year? I know who Craig Reynolds is, but it seems like you started to make a point and didn’t finish it.

    1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      Perhaps what David was saying here is that the defeat of Dan Wolk spells the end for Craig Reynolds’s run once Lois terms out?

      According to Craig’s bio, his work in the legislature goes back well before Mrs. Wolk and Mrs. Thomson. It goes all the way back to his work for Speaker Willie Brown in 1986:

      “Chief of Staff – Asm. Lois Wolk 2002-2008; Chief of Staff – Asm. Helen Thomson 1996-2002; Chief of Staff – Asm. and Senator Lucy Killea 1988-1996; Aide – Speaker Willie L. Brown 1986-1988.”


      My guess is that if we don’t have anyone from Davis in the legislature after Lois leaves, and Craig Reynolds wants to continue his work there, he will have no trouble being hired by one of the incoming Democrats, perhaps even Bill Dodd. And if Craig would prefer to do something different–for more money perhaps–I am equally sure one of the lobbying groups would hire him in an instant and pay him many times what he now makes as a chief of staff.

      1. wdf1

        I agree with you. It’s hard for me to believe that Reynold’s career is really done. With term limits on legislators, I see that the value of staffers has only grown. The staffers better retain the institutional memory and are more familiar with the infrastructure of the legislative and political machinery. I know that most of the staff of the Assembly Speaker remains as each speaker rotates through.

      2. South of Davis

        Rich wrote:

        > According to Craig’s bio (at

        Thanks for the heads up on this site very interesting.

        > his work in the legislature goes back well before Mrs. Wolk

        I always wondered if Craig came from a family that had a connection to politics/power (other than starting DPNS in the 50’s). I found it interesting that his LinkedIn page says he went to Phillips Academy Andover (after GW Bush had graduated but where his brother Jeb Bush was still a student).

        Plenty of Davis kids with connections to the education world (aka the education industrial complex) with professors (or law school deans) as parents with connections went to Stanford (or Ivy League colleges) but Craig is the only person I have heard of from Davis that “prepped” at Andover.

  2. Good Government

    Again, Joe Krovoza finished dead last in two counties behind the kid who never campaigned (Dustin Call). The idea that he and Wolk both had a good shot in this race is just not supported by the facts. Krovoza also tried for the Democratic Party endorsement in their process. He talked to delegates just like everyone else. Only two of them ended up voting for Krovoza. These are grassroots Democrats from throughout the district. Some from Yolo and Napa indeed know who Senator Wolk is. But those from Lake, for example, don’t know and don’t care. Both Dan and Joe had equal opportunity to court them and they independently chose Dan. I’ve been a party delegate before. I know how it works. The “machine” you speak of is just a group of individuals who can make their voice heard in this pre-endorsement vote. They did just that. And only two out of 100 voted for Joe.

    1. South of Davis

      Good Government wrote:

      > Joe Krovoza finished dead last in two counties
      > behind the kid who never campaigned (Dustin Call).

      Any ideas who paid Dustin (the kid that signed up but did not campaign) to put his name on the ballot to split the GOP vote?

    2. Davis Progressive

      yes, he finished behind call in the two most conservative counties colusa and rural solano where schaupp finished first and republican had a good shot of winning. why are we continuing to harp on this point.

  3. Good Government

    Also, if Joe weren’t in the race, Dan would have gotten the environmental endorsements, which were the only organized groups supporting Joe. If Dan were not in the race, it is quite a bit less clear that Joe would have gotten any if the organizational support Dan enjoyed. Democratic Party? Joe only convinced two delegates to support him. Unions? Joe is not union-friendly and would not have gotten their support, and possibly would have been campaigned against by the unions had they viewed him as a threat. Statewide and legislative leaders? They don’t know Krovoza and might have lined up behind Dodd (as some of them did). Maybe Joe would have gotten the Davis College Democrats?

      1. South of Davis

        Don wrote:

        > Based on what?

        When was the last time environmental groups endorsed a Republican (or someone that was recently a Republican before changing parties)?

          1. South of Davis

            David wrote:

            > They could have stayed out of the race as well.

            Can you name an election where environmental groups “stayed out of the race” when the Democrat was a guy that biked to work every morning?

  4. Good Government

    On the broader point of the Yolo Democratic Party, they really only endorsed two candidates where they had other Dems to choose from: Dan Wolk and Norma Alcala. To my knowledge, Jesse Ortiz, Don Saylor, Rick Cohen, Angel Barajas and Sheila Allen were the only Democrats in their respective races. I agree they can and should do more if they want their endorsement to mean something.

    1. Davis Progressive

      cohen ran against two other democrats, and sam neustadt was a democrat. so the only races that fit that description were barajas and the unopposed saylor. try again.

  5. Rich RifkinWDE 73

    “To my knowledge, Jesse Ortiz, Don Saylor, Rick Cohen, Angel Barajas and Sheila Allen were the only Democrats in their respective races.”

    Daniel Parrella is a Democrat, and the local party chose not to endorse him. I asked Daniel about that, but I honestly don’t recall what he told me. However, I know that in the past, the local party endorsed EVERY Democrat running, even if more were running than seats open. For example, in 2012, they endorsed Lucas Frerichs, Sue Greenwald, Stephen Souza and Dan Wolk (but not Brett Lee). That is, they endorsed four folks for three seats and lost on two of those four plus the one they did not endorse.

    1. David Greenwald

      I didn’t get confirmation, but I’m fairly sure Neustadt is a Democrat. Cohen was one of three Democrats in the race and Sheila Allen one of two Democrats in her race. So only Saylor (unopposed) and Barajas were the only Democrats in their race.

  6. Dave Hart

    For most voters who can’t bring themselves to support a Republican (a large majority in this Assembly District) and who aren’t interested in the internal Democratic Party discussions, there was no big difference between Krovoza and Wolk. I have no reason to think that if either of them were not in the race, most of the votes cast for either one would have gone to the other. Unless the vote count has changed dramatically, we would be looking at a Dodd/Wolk_Krovoza election in November and Schaupp would be number 3.

    That is a pretty dramatic shift. The only real point of interest to me is that there seems to be a lack of party discipline. You have what looks to be a close election and personal egos reign supreme. If the existing vote count trend holds, traditional Democratic and Dem-leaning voters in Assembly District 4 will hold their noses in November and Dodd will cruise to an easy victory. No surprises at all with the caveat that Dodd really did NOT have something to do with the Bay Bridge.

    1. Davis Progressive

      this area has always been about personalities over party. it’s just that davis is so heavily democratic, that most of the personalities have been democratic.

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