I see a lot of reference to a local Democratic Machine these days. It is an interesting concept, but I’m not sure it really applies all that well.
I saw a comment posted by Charlie Schaupp, who is running for Assembly against Bill Dodd. He writes, “You already know there is a political machine in Davis. This stuff is not new. They supported Dan Wolk over Joe Krovoza and the result was they ended up with ‘New Minted Napa Democrat’ Bill Dodd as their candidate. I also noticed that there is a huge number of Adams, Archer and Sunder yard signs in the precincts I have walked in Davis. It’s politics as usual!”
Following the June election, we wrote an article: “Decline of the Yolo County Democratic Machine?” We noted that, in local races, the Yolo County Democratic Party has endorsed 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.
How many won? Just Don Saylor (unopposed), Jesse Ortiz and Angel Barajas.
As we noted, “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.”
Furthermore, “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.”
A classic party machine controls the entire process – they train and recruit the candidates, they run their slate of candidates, they put in money and resources to back their candidates, and anyone who is not on their slate is attacked and bludgeoned.
That is really not what we see in Yolo County. Occasionally you see a candidate who is recruited to run, but more often a candidate emerges on their own.
Recently, Bob Dunning wrote, “City Council elections in Davis, of course, are nonpartisan, even if every candidate with any chance of winning in this town is a Democrat.”
That’s actually no longer true – if it ever was. On the current council, three of the elected city councilmembers are not Democrats. It is true that none of them are Republican, but Rochelle Swanson, Brett Lee and Robb Davis are not Democrats.
The bottom line here is that there is not a true machine in Davis, much less Yolo County.
First, there are too many candidates that emerge on their own rather than being recruited by a larger organization.
Second, there has never been monolithic control by a single entity or organization. We have often cited the firefighters as controlling the city government through four election cycles.
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.
And yet, even then, from 2006 to 2010, it was only a 3-2 vote that the firefighters held, which was sufficient to keep their agenda flowing, but far from dominant.
Moreover, it really didn’t take a whole lot to break the firefighters’ hold on the council. 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.
Third, based on that, there really is no overall control. Three of the five councilmembers in Davis are non-Democrats. The Democratic Party has had only mixed success on their endorsements.
Much has been made of Davis holding the Assembly seat until Bill Dodd is elected in November, but even there, Mariko Yamada was the outsider who upset Christopher Cabaldon in 2008. Prior to that Helen Thomson and Lois Wolk were backed by Craig Reynolds, and Lois Wolk successfully moved from the Assembly to the Senate, whereas Helen Thomson had her district altered which prevented her from attempting to move to the Senate.
Congress has been controlled by Mike Thompson and John Garamendi, both figures from outside of the immediate area and prominent in their own right. Both came to Yolo County through re-districting – they did not emerge in Yolo County.
What we do see here is:
First, Democrats are by far the majority party in Davis and, by extension, Yolo County
Second, there may be intra-party battles but, come November, if the race is Democrat versus Republican, Democratic establishment and voters are going to back the party pick.
Look no further than the Assembly. That was a hugely divisive primary race, as Charlie Schaupp points out. But by September, Dan Wolk and Joe Krovoza had both endorsed Bill Dodd and hosted a fundraiser in Davis for him.
That is not really evidence of a machine.
From our perspective, the biggest impact here may be the efforts by individuals or groups of individuals to gain control of various local government apparatus. Again, a prime example might be the firefighters, who align themselves with politicians that they consider favorable to their policies.
But the evidence increasingly is that there is no control.
As we asked in June, is the Democratic Party brand declining? Our view is that the party cannot have influence by name alone, the endorsement must mean something. The Democratic Party is not backing its candidates with money and campaign volunteers, therefore, they have lost influence.
What the Democratic Party does have is numbers, and that means that most voters are going to support like-minded candidates.
—David M. Greenwald reporting