Another Oakland surprise

Audie Bock beats the state Democratic machine to become the first Green member of the California Legislature.

Published April 6, 1999 7:00AM (EDT)

When she wheeled into Sacramento Monday morning on the 8:15 Amtrak Capitol, Audie Bock was just an east-Asian scholar from Piedmont, Calif. But by afternoon, Bock made history as the first-ever Green Party member to be sworn into the California Legislature.

Bock stunned political insiders last week with her 327-vote victory over former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, a Democrat, in a special election in which only 15 percent of registered voters came to the polls. She became the anti-establishment candidate, running on the motto "Vote Green, Not Machine," and attracted votes from Republicans, Democrats and third-party proponents.

The first signs of trouble for the Harris campaign came after the Democratic Party sent out a controversial mailer during the run-off election in February. The mailer, sent to predominantly African-American communities, rewarded voters with a free chicken dinner if they provided proof they went to the polls. Bock and others criticized the mailer following the primary, calling it a bribe with racial overtones to drive black voters to the polls.

"I guess the chickens came home to roost," joked Berkeley Democratic Rep. Dion Aroner.

The loss was an embarrassment for Democrats, who enjoy an overwhelming registration advantage in the district. Democrats account for 65 percent of all registered voters, while Greens make up only 1.2 percent. Bock becomes the first Green Party candidate ever elected to state office.

Even Bock's campaign manager, Greg Jan, acknowledged that the election was as much a referendum on the former Oakland mayor as it was about his candidate. After eight lackluster years as mayor, Harris chose not to run again at least partly because of questions about whether he could be reelected. His decision to run for the Assembly instead, where he had already served six terms before becoming mayor in 1990, exemplified the arrogance of career politicians to many voters.

He beat back strong opponents in the primary thanks to the help of state Democratic Party leaders and Sacramento legislators, who funneled money and election workers to his campaign. Rumors that San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, the former Assembly speaker, was helping Harris line up votes to be the next speaker before his Oakland constituents even elected him further hurt his cause.

The voters had the last word. In a five-way primary six weeks ago, Bock received just over 3,000 votes. Last Tuesday she garnered more than 14,000 in the head-to-head matchup with Harris.

"This was a diverse coalition of disaffected Democrats, Republicans and some other third-party folks," Jan said. "Voters sent a clear message that they wanted to defeat Harris and bring change to the area."

Bock's election also means that Oakland, a city with a plurality of African-American residents, now has a white mayor, a white state senator and a white assemblywoman.

After the loss, Democrats were looking for a scapegoat. "Clearly someone dropped the ball," said Bob Mullholland, political director for the state Democratic Party. "This was like the downing of the stealth bomber: There will be a full inquiry."

Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, D-Los Angeles, who sent staffers to Oakland to walk precincts for Harris both in the primary and the run-off, did not appear terribly stung by the defeat. Villaraigosa got involved in the three-person Democratic primary in part as a favor to his predecessor, Willie Brown, who was concerned about the dwindling representation of African-Americans in the Legislature, now down to six out of 120 Assembly members and senators.

"I feel good about my performance in this election, but unfortunately it was not enough," Villaraigosa said. "We were not able to convince enough of Elihu's base to come out and vote. But I look forward to working with [Bock]. We share a lot of the same progressive ideas, and you have to give her credit for running a great campaign."

Villaraigosa's intervention on Harris' behalf angered some members of his caucus who had backed attorney Frank Russo in the Democratic primary. One of those members, Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, said she was not surprised by Tuesday's result.

"It became clear that, even though there were members of the caucus who worked very hard to support Elihu, there was no real local infrastructure of support," she said. "You can't prop up from the outside what's missing in the middle."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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