How far to the left will Democrats veer? An East Bay Assembly race may answer that

The East Bay Assembly race between Richmond City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, a Democratic Socialist, and Democrat Buffy Wicks of Oakland is testing how far to the left some California voters are willing to go.

Wicks is a former Obama administration official who was key to passage of the Affordable Care Act and before that worked to organize workers at Walmart. Obama and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris have endorsed Wicks.

“She is tough, smart and will be a real force if she is successful,” said Gavin Newsom, the front-runner to become California governor who donated $3,400 to Wicks’ campaign earlier this month. “She is just at another level. She is a special person. She is a special talent.”

Wicks has raised almost $1 million, much of it from Obama’s donors and former members of his administration. She also has tapped gun control advocates, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a 2011 assassination attempt.

Wicks’ husband, Peter Ambler, was Giffords’ deputy chief of staff and is executive director of Giffords’ Courage to Fight Gun Violence.

But in the district that includes Richmond, Berkeley, and part of Oakland, Wicks’ progressive cred is suspect.

“We view them as mainstream Democrats who respond to the corporate moderate Democrat part of the party,” Beckles’ campaign spokesman Ben Schiff said, referring to Obama, Newsom, Harris and other Wicks backers. “When [Beckles] arrives in Sacramento, she will be continuing her career responding to the people rather than corporate interests because she won’t owe anybody.”

Beckles voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein for president in 2016 and is endorsed by Green Party organizations.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a Berkeley Democrat seeking to ascend in leadership, also is backing Beckles, citing her stands for a $15 minimum wage and rent control. Sen. Bernie Sanders is heading to Oakland this weekend and is expected to tout Beckles’ candidacy.

Outside groups have spent $1.5 million to help elect Wicks, and $344,000 to boost Beckles’ prospects. A review of donors to the candidates and outside groups backing them reflects many of the rivalries on the left.

The Service Employees International Union Local and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who represent public employees, are campaigning for Beckles. Unions that represent retail clerks and building trades are working to elect Wicks.

Charter public schools advocates support Wicks. Unions that represent public school teachers back Beckles.

Wicks has made housing development and affordable housing a core issue. Beckles has cast votes that would limit development.

Beckles calls for free college and single-payer health care for all. Given Wicks’ knowledge of the nuances of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, she has the backing of physicians and other healthcare providers.

“Wicks’ extensive, deep experience in healthcare public policy made her the clear choice for support,” Richard Stapler of the California Dental Association said.

The race has turned mean as intra-party fights are wont to do. Beckles attacks Wicks, the former union organizer, as being beholden to corporate money. The East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America created a website detailing several of Wicks’ donors, suggesting she would do their bidding. Wicks has taken no campaign checks from corporations.

Beckles’ website confronts what she says are smears against her. One is a claim that she believes in mind-controlling space weapons. Not true, she contends.

She did, however, win passage of a Richmond city council resolution in 2015 expressing sympathy for “targeted individuals” who believe they have been victims of such hostile technology.

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