The race in District 15 is the most crowded Assembly field in the state, and 11 candidates have together raised more than $1.7 million. Map: Ballotpedia

With the June primary just over a month away, the candidates clamoring to replace Assemblyman Tony Thurmond have collectively raised nearly $1.7 million, according to campaign filings submitted last week.

With 11 candidates, District 15 is by far the most crowded Assembly race in the state, and some of the hopefuls have attracted a lot of cash.

As of last week, Buffy Wicks, a former Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaign director, had raked in $617,140, more than twice as much as runner-up Judy Appel, a Berkeley School Board member who has reported $265,875 in contributions. However, Appel has raised the most in 2018 so far — around $102,000 to Wicks’s $97,000, according to figures they reported to the state.

Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb’s campaign is the third wealthiest, with $236,604.

Berkeley City Councilman Ben Bartlett has reported $155,438 in contributions, Richmond Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles has $139,321 and East Bay Municipal Utility District board member Andy Katz has raised $143,994. Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto, a nurse and El Cerrito councilwoman, has reported $140,160, though the nurses’ union has also independently spent more than half that amount in support of her. Candidates Pranav Jandhyala, Sergey Piterman, Cheryl Sudduth and Raquella Thaman did not report any contributions.

A 12th candidate, Owen Poindexter, announced last week that he is dropping out of the race and endorsing Beckles.

Most of the District 15 candidates, running in the heavily Democratic East Bay, see eye-to-eye on many local issues. But some differ on divisive issues like the best solutions to the region’s housing crisis, and they come to the race with a range of political and professional experiences. Jandhyala, a UC Berkeley student, is the only Republican running. (Check out individual profiles and other AD15 updates to learn more about each candidate’s background and positions.)

Wicks has never held public office but has nevertheless significantly out-raised her opponents. Her coffers have come under some scrutiny, as a chunk of her donations has come from outside the district or the state. Just 66% of contributions to Wick’s campaign were from within California, according to Voter’s Edge, a tool from Berkeley-based MapLight. About 9% are from Washington, D.C. Wicks has been credited with creating Obama’s successful 2008 campaign approach, and worked in his administration and on his 2012 campaign as well.

Buffy Wicks has received more than $600,000 in donations, by far the highest amount raised by any Assembly District 15 candidate. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Many of Wicks’s individual donors have met the maximum individual contribution limit of $4,400, including environmental philanthropist Tom Steyer, Laurene Powell Jobs, Emerson Collective executive and widow of Steve Jobs, and several members of the Fisher family. LinkedIn executive Reid Hoffman has contributed $8,800, as has the Govern for California Network Committee.

Govern for California is a political action committee headed by David Crane, a Stanford public policy lecturer and former advisor to then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and created with tech investor Ron Conway and Walmart chairman Greg Penner. The PAC’s site is sparse on information but includes links to many articles, most written by Crane, advocating for lower pension obligations for school districts and criticizing the political power of teachers unions and other public employee unions. Crane has also individually contributed $4,400 to Wicks.

Govern for California has a webpage describing  why the group is supporting Wicks, explaining, “Buffy would be a powerful advocate for poor children, families and high quality public education. As someone who escaped poverty through public education, she understands the importance of world-class public schools. She will fight to ensure all schools and teachers are held to high standards.”

The Fisher family is best known for owning The Gap. The family has long invested in charter schools and other education reform efforts like Teach for America, along with local sports teams, and has supported many Republican and some Democratic candidates. Wicks has also received two $4,400 donations from employees of Bad Robot, the production company that created Lost, Alias and other popular TV shows and films.

Wick’s campaign manager Amelia Matier said in an email that the candidate has received a lot of support from people “she has worked with in progressive politics for the last 20 years, including many donations from her colleagues from the Obama White House.” Over the course of the campaign so far, Wicks has hosted 130 house parties and attracted more than 500 volunteers, and collected more than 1,000 signatures in AD15 to get on the ballot, according to Matier.

Asked about the criticism around the Govern for California and pro-charter support, Matier wrote, “Buffy’s donors support other progressive champions like Kamala Harris, Gavin Newsom, Nancy Skinner and others. Buffy has consistently called for more accountability and transparency for charter schools and is campaigning on more funding for public schools. As a girl who grew up in a trailer and worked in the White House, Buffy understands that her path was through California public schools, including community college.”

AD15 candidate Judy Appel, who serves on the Berkeley School Board, has raised the most money of any candidate in 2018. Photo: Guy Marzorati/KQED

Appel’s largest contributors are mostly labor groups. The California Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association, along with the Berkeley firefighters union, have each donated the maximum $8,800 to Appel’s campaign. The LGBT Caucus Leadership Fund has as well.

“I’m proud to have the support of our state’s educators. They’re supporting me because I am THE public education candidate,” Appel, former executive director of the California School-Based Health Alliance, wrote in an email. “I’m proud of the contributions I’ve received, and I think that they reflect my values and the values of the voters in this district – educators, community members, long-time activists. Momentum is building behind our campaign, and it reflects the decades of work I’ve done with and for our community and the dozens of volunteers and events we’ve had.”

Appel also loaned $15,000 to her own campaign, according to state filings.

With donations from big businesses in the spotlight in this race — Beckles is running on a “corporate money free” platform, pledging not to accept any donations from big corporations — critics have pointed out that Appel received $2,500 from Verizon.

Asked about that contribution, Appel wrote: “It’s a small contribution to my campaign that is a reflection of our work together when I was fighting for equality for the LGBTQ community.” She said she worked with Verizon and other companies on workplace equality during her time at Our Family Coalition.

Kalb also contributed heavily to his own campaign, to the tune of $49,750, according to his filings with the Secretary of State. Kalb’s other top contributors are mostly individual donors, including Howard Wenger and Nico Enea, who contributed $4,400 each. Wenger is a former executive for the solar power company SunPower and Enea is listed as a leader with the California Student Aid Commission, though a Nico Enea is active in the cannabis distribution and management consulting field in Oakland.

In addition to direct donations, some candidates have support from groups working independently of their campaigns. These independent expenditure committees are harder to track and are exempt from individual donation limits.

Eleven candidates (some pictured here at a February forum) are vying to fill the Assembly seat Tony Thurmond is vacating. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

While Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto has raised less than many of her opponents, a California Nurses Association group — Pardue-Okimoto is active in the union — acting under the name Nurses, Patients and Guaranteed Healthcare Advocates for Pardue-Okimoto for Assembly 2018 has already spent upwards of $78,000 on mailers and billboards supporting the candidate, according to Secretary of State records. The CNA PAC also donated $8,800 to her campaign, as did a plumbers union.

Bartlett’s largest contribution is $8,800 from tech executive Scott Patterson, and the Berkeley official has also received a handful of $4,400 donations from individuals and local companies. Beckles’s biggest donations have most come from labor groups, including $8,800 from an SEIU committee. Katz loaned himself more than $50,000, and many of his other largest contributions appear to be from his family members, along with the EBMUD employees union.

On June 5, two candidates will emerge from the primary and compete against each other in November to succeed Thurmond, who is running for state superintendent of public instruction.

The 15th Assembly district encompasses spans Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville, Piedmont and some of Oakland in Alameda County, and Richmond, El Cerrito, Kensington, El Sobrante, San Pablo and Hercules in Contra Costa County.

East Bay residents will get to vote for a number of other representatives in the primary as well, including district attorney, sheriff, governor and lieutenant governor, Congress member, senator and more.

This story was updated after publication with additional information about donors to Buffy Wicks. 

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...