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Profile: Joan Buchanan, the Big Dog Now

Democrat Joan Buchanan represents the 15th Assembly district, which covers a portion of Pleasanton. She beat out San Ramon Mayor Abram Wilson in 2008 for the seat but the two will face off again Nov. 2. Wilson thinks he'll win. Buchanan says h

Joan Buchanan is one tough cookie.

So when she hears that Republican challenger and San Ramon Mayor Abram Wilson thinks he'll walk all over her on Nov. 2, she chuckles.

"He thinks he smells blood in the water," Buchanan said, referring to

The 57-year-old Buchanan represents California's Assembly District 15—a swath of land that includes four of Northern California's five Delta counties, from Elk Grove in Sacramento to San Joaquin and Alameda counties, to Danville and San Ramon in Contra Costa County.

Buchanan knows the district and the people. After all, she's spent 18 years on the San Ramon Valley School District board, even after a divorce in 1992 left her to raise five kids as a single mother. Her ex died of cancer in 2000.

Eight years later, she threw herself into the scrum that is California politics, winning the 15th state Assembly district in 2008. She was the first Democrat in 20 years to do so.

Still wet from her win, Buchanan went for the trifecta—the U.S. Congressional 10th – and was thrashed by former Lt. Gov. John Garamendi. She shook off the loss, she said, and has no regrets. If you want to run with the big dogs, you've got to get off the porch, she figures.

Buchanan thinks the people of the 15th will vote for her again, and not against the Republican party, just as they did in 2008. She thinks the pro-Obama swell—a swell arguably now waning—had less of an effect on voters than Republican pundits think.   

"I do not think it had an impact on state and local races," Buchanan said. "I have lived in the 15th Assembly District for almost three decades. It has the most educated voters in the state. They understand the difference between national, state and local issues and have demonstrated that at the polls over and over again."

But those voters have consistently supported Republican candidates—at least until 2008. Buchanan, after all, is the first Democrat to take the seat in two decades. While Buchanan describes the district as "gerrymandered," she comes into the race with the edge.

Nearly 40 percent of the district's 300,000 registered voters are Democrat, 35 percent Republican and 20 percent unaffiliated. Two-thirds are white and 11 percent are Hispanic. The average income is about $70,000, with that statistic skewed by wealthy pockets like Danville and San Ramon. Whoever sways the undecided 20 percent wins and those undecided voters–registered as "decline to state"–are independents who don't subscribe to party politics. They typically vote for the person, not the party, Buchanan said.

"Even though the 15th is diverse, you'd be amazed at the consistency throughout," Buchanan said. "They have the same quality-of-life concerns: Schools, raising families. It's no different in Livermore, Mountain House, Weston Ranch in Stockton. Did you know that zip code has the highest foreclosure rate in the U.S.? And that Mountain House has the highest percentage of people with underwater mortgages?"  

Perhaps Buchanan's greatest challenge this year will be convincing voters that her failed run for the 10th Congressional seat against Garamendi in 2009 was not a sign that she isn't committed to the district.

A blogger with the handle "Renegade Republican" on the political blog www.halfwaytoconcord.com wrote after Buchanan announced her intent to run in the 10th Congressional that she was "setting the stage for—crazy as it seems—a Republican comeback in AD15."  

"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.?

"Sometimes you have to take risks," Buchanan said. "Look, there are only 17 women in Congress and congressional seats are rarely open. So the open seat presented me with the possible opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., and advocate for issues of great importance to the district, state and nation. For example, No Child Left Behind has been a failure, and it is important to get it right this time. As an 18-year school board member, I would welcome the chance to be part of the 'Race to the Top' and 'No Child Left Behind' discussions."

Today, Buchanan says she has "no regrets" about her run for Congress. In an interview on the blog Change.org in 2009, Buchanan said she was told that she "did not have enough experience" and that she should "wait her turn."

 But Buchanan ran anyway. It's a quality, she said, engendered by working-class parents, a public-school education and real-world experience. And while some have criticized her for running so soon after winning the Assembly seat, Buchanan figures the best strategy in this case is to not take the bait.

"We can't let the opposition drive the agenda and respond to them," she said "People are very committed to keeping me in this seat. I've probably got as much if not more support this election than last."

In 2008, the Democratic Party of California backed Buchanan's campaign with $1 million. That figure doubled with contributions on her behalf from trade unions, nurses and teachers. Her final campaign spending total: $2.5 million, dwarfing Wilson's $1 million. Buchanan captured more than 52 percent of the vote.

Together, the two candidates put the 15th Assembly District on the monetary map. It was the priciest Assembly race in the state in 2008. It could be again in 2010. If Buchanan loses Nov. 2 in the general election, it won't be for lack of support, money or trying, she said.

While records show Buchanan's campaign coffers today are slightly lighter than Wilson's–$190,027 versus $207,758—Buchanan's money comes from 135 sources while Wilson's comes from 401. To use a sports analogy: Buchanan's got a deep bench—and the game has just started.  

"I've got more support in Sacramento and locally than last year," Buchanan said. "Take a look at my support, all the different industries. I've got traditional Democrats, labor, environmentalist, education, doctors, nurses, high tech, insurance. It's very broad-based. And the speaker of the Assembly, John Nunez, is solidly behind the race."

Buchanan said she's running on her record. Capitol Weekly, which publishes an annual legislative vote-based scorecard using 19 bills in the most recent legislative session, ranked Buchanan a 94 out of a possible 100—100 being a "perfect liberal score."

The bills covered a broad ideological spectrum, from building a new NFL stadium to oil drilling to carbon offset credits to Harvey Milk Day. She voted no on the stadium, yes on carbon offsets, no on oil drilling and yes on Harvey Milk Day, among other votes.

To reduce someone to a number, however, is disingenuous, Buchanan said.

"Democrats have as strong an interest as anyone—Republicans or Independents—when it comes to education or taxes or anything else," she said. "I've proven that am an effective advocate and representative for the 15th Assembly District. I worked with the residents of Mountain House and the Lammersville Elementary School District to obtain a State Allocations Board approval for a funding appeal that brought over $7 million to their district allowing it to construct a new school.

"I've worked with council members in both Elk Grove and Livermore on bills to attract new businesses to their cities. I continue to work with leaders in Eastern Contra Costa (County) to find a funding solution to complete the Highway 4 bypass."  

Meanwhile, Buchanan flatly rejects any notion that she's not involved in the district. Her opponent this year, that Buchanan has had 360 abstentions since being elected and that 120 days after winning her Assembly seat, she ran for the 10th U.S. Congressional seat —all indications that she's not committed to the job, Wilson said.  

An abstention, Buchanan said a legislator once told her, is "a polite no vote; it doesn't mean I wasn't there," she said.

"I work 12 to 14 hours per day, six days a week, read all the bills," she said. "I work hard."

Instead, Buchanan said, the real test of her effectiveness is on the street, where she spends much of her time meeting with the community and often getting personally involved in tangled issues, such as the Lammersville school case.

"When I go out on mobile office visits, I hear the same thing: They tell us they've seen me and my staff more than any rep in recent history," she said.  

And the biggest concern she hears about is jobs. 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.

Wilson insists that only the private sector can create jobs. Buchanan disagrees, insisting that education is the key to job attraction and creation.

"It is not a coincidence that California leads the world in biotech, Internet and aerospace technology," Buchanan said. "The innovation that we have here cannot be duplicated anywhere in the world. And the reason is that we have the best universities in the world. The private sector can't create if you don't have the intellectual capital to do it."

It starts in the public schools, Buchanan says.

"I'm a graduate of Lowell High in San Francisco," she said. "The founder of Hewlett-Packard went there; we've had a Supreme Court Justice graduate from Lowell. I went to the University of California at Santa Barbara. Do you know that UCSB has the more Nobel Laureates than any other school in the country?"

Meanwhile, Buchanan said the people of California have to consider the big picture. China is becoming our banker. Tech and engineering jobs are being lost to China and India. The dividends from investing in education are exponential, she insists.

"Business don't care where they are, they can connect through the 'Net," she said. "But if we train them here, we'll keep them here. We can't afford not to do it. "

California has a shortage of nurses and other medical professionals, she said. She's co-authoring a bill with the Speaker of the Assembly to allow colleges to produce more medical experts by admitting more. She voted yes to pass a bill that allows for race, gender and other considerations, such as economic background, to factor into university admissions. In a surprisingly conservative move, she voted no on a bill requiring an employer to pay overtime wages to agricultural employees.

Meanwhile, she understands that businesses need more help reducing red tape.

"I'm working on an Assembly bill now that would streamline the permitting process for business," she said. "Right now, it takes too long—up to two years—to set up shop. In some states, it's only six months. So I'm co-authoring a bill that will streamline the process."

She's working on a bill now that would help Livermore and Elk Grove to increase tax credits from 15 to 20 percent to attract more start-ups; she's working with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories to work in tandem to open a business park near the Lab, where she wants clean technology industries and open-source software developers to flourish.

On tax and business issues, Buchanan sounds like a fiscal conservative. For example, she refused to say if she would support taxing oil companies in California on their profits. Chevron is headquartered in San Ramon, and Buchanan said she wouldn't do something that would jeopardize the jobs of people in her district. Her stand against overtime wages for agricultural workers indicates that she is, perhaps, less "liberal" than some think.

"When I was on the school board, I was probably the most fiscally conservative of them all," she said. "One major problem we have in California is the volatility of our tax structure. It contributes to poor fiscal policies."

And while progressive Democrats generally shudder when they hear the words "tax" and "broad base" in the same sentence, Buchanan said she believes "the best taxes are broad based. It reduces the burden on any particular income group or industry, and, more importantly, reduces volatility, allowing us to sustain programs."

Wilson might have entered the 2008 race with better business credentials, but it's Buchanan who now enters this election cycle the more experienced candidate. She talks tough and directly to specifics.

Can Wilson get us out of this financial mess? No way, she says–it's guys like Wilson who got us into this mess. 

"Have you seen the YouTube video?" she asked, referring to a recorded candidate debate where Wilson, an ex-investment banker with Bank of America and Wells Fargo, pontificated that the two banks "bailing this economy out are Bank of America and Wells Fargo."

"He thinks the Bank of America saved the economy?" Buchanan asked. "Are you kidding me?

It was a questionable move on Wilson's part. In 2008, bankers were probably more hated than the IRS and another comment like that this election will likely not go unpunished when two meet again. Only this time, Joan Buchanan is the bigger dog.

This was the second of the two profiles on the candidates for the state Assembly District 15 race.

Coming soon: David Harmer--Don't miss it. In 2009, Harmer was the Republican nominee to represent the people of the 11th U.S. Congressional district in the  U.S. House of Representatives in Washington D.C.  in a special election held 2009. He lost. The district includes San Ramon, Danville, Dublin, Pleasanton and other cities. He's running again for the same job Nov. 2.

Sadie Berkhimer August 27, 2010 at 05:56 PM
Phil, Phil, Phil, I am sure that the profile of David Harmer will be completely open and unbiased now that you have set the tone with the following: "He's interesting and he might be as close to a Tea Party candidate as we'll see in the region. But he's also cloaked himself in the conservative aura of Ronald Reagan." No preconceived ideas here, right......... I do not know Mr. Harmer and quite frankly have not made up my mind on who to for for in this race but you can rest assured that I will not be looking to your article for useful information. Could you at least try to write with an open mind?
Phil Hayworth August 27, 2010 at 05:59 PM
You bet. Do you have any questions for Mr. Harmer? He's definitely an interesting candidate for an area that went Democrat in 2006, dumping Republican Pombo. Can he get it back for the Republicans? Look forward to more. PH
jack riley October 08, 2012 at 10:14 AM
btw, hayworth writes "average" income, not "median," as you insist. Average means "mean" -- arithmetic mean...and that CAN be skewed. Sorry dude, but you're wrong. You read it wrong.
jack riley October 08, 2012 at 10:17 AM
jack riley commented on your Article, Profile: Joan Buchanan, the Big Dog Now: "btw, hayworth writes "average" income, not "median," as you insist. Average means "mean" -- arithmetic mean...and that CAN be skewed. Sorry dude, but you're wrong. You read it wrong."
obiwan October 08, 2012 at 06:04 PM
jack - what you missed when this article was published two years ago is that Phil originally said "median", as I quoted. You can even see in the comment stream that he defended his use of the term "median", implying that the median can be skewed by pockets or bubbles (which it can't). After our exchange, the article was EDITED and the correct term, "average" was inserted. It would have been nice if Phil noted the edit, but he just changed the word.

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