State Senate race heated ahead of June primary

Two democratic politicians are in a tight race to represent Petaluma in the state Senate, a primary contest that also includes a third Democrat and a Republican.|

Two democratic politicians are in a tight race to represent the 3rd District in the state Senate, a primary contest that also includes a third Democrat and a Republican.

Assemblyman Bill Dodd and former Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada have emerged as the front runners and have split the lion’s share of North Bay endorsements ahead of the June 7 primary.

Dodd, a former supervisor from Napa who once was a Republican, has positioned himself as the moderate in the race. Yamada, who was termed out of the Assembly in 2014, is a self-styled progressive from Davis.

Also in the race are Democrat Gabe Griess, a retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. from Vacaville, and Republican Greg Coppes, a small business owner from Dixon. The incumbent, Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, is not able to run due to term limits.

Despite serving less than two years in the Assembly, Dodd, 59, said he is ready to move up to the smaller Senate, where he said he can get more accomplished. He said his top priorities include education, including funding for preschool and English language learning.

“The gap in achievement is clearly a problem,” he said. “We ought to be focusing on what we can do better for education funding. Our current policies don’t recognize the importance of early childhood education.”

Yamada, 63, has positioned herself to the left of Dodd on many issues including environmental protection and income inequality. She has supported single-payer universal health care and decriminalization of marijuana, though she does not support legalization of recreational marijuana.

Another of her key issues includes long-term care for the state’s aging population.

“I took on the nursing home industry,” she said. “We don’t do a very good job of caring for our elders.”

Underscoring the two candidates’ differences is their list of local endorsements. Yamada has been endorsed by the two most progressive members of the Petaluma City Council, Mayor David Glass and Teresa Barrett. Dodd has picked up endorsements from the other five more moderate council members, Dave King, Gabe Kearney, Mike Healy, Chris Albertson and Kathy Miller.

The top two vote-getters in the June primary will move on to the November election, regardless of political party. Analysts expect only one of the two top Democrats to emerge from the primary with a clear path to winning the November election against the Republican candidate.

State Senate District 3 includes Petaluma, Sonoma, Rohnert Park and Cotati, and also takes in all of Solano and Napa counties and most of Yolo county, places with a higher percentage of Republican voters. The areas just west and south of Petaluma are represented by Sen. Mike McGuire, who is not up for reelection this year.

Coppes, 60, the Republican past commander of the American Legion, said, his key issues include drought protection, assistance for veterans, creating jobs and local control for schools. An electrical contractor and a delegate to the California Republican Convention, Coppes said he was confident in his grassroots campaign, though he has only raised $35,000 so far.

Coppes has never held elected office, but he said he has worked in Sacramento advocating for bills on veterans issues and education.

“I do a lot at the Capitol already,” he said. “I know how Sacramento works.”

David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist, said that Dodd is leading the fundraising battle and has a slight lead in polls. He said Dodd and Yamada will likely split the democratic vote, allowing Coppes to move on to the general election.

“Bill’s got lots of money and he should be the prohibitive favorite,” he said. “If Yamada can get voters out, she could move into the top two.”

He said the last thing the Democratic Party wants is an intra-party fight in the general election.

“I think it will be Dodd versus a sacrificial Republican,” McCuan said. “It would be big news if (Yamada) is the second vote-getter and we move on to dem on dem violence.”

Yamada is backing Bernie Sanders for president, while Dodd is a Hillary Clinton supporter, a fact that McCuan said helps understand their differences.

“She is running an outside insurgency campaign that tries to out hustle Bill,” he said. “He is going to try to lock up all the establishment endorsements and resources.”

On issues that affect Petaluma, both Yamada and Dodd identified a need for more transportation funding for projects like widening Highway 101 and improving Highway 37. They both supported raising the state minimum wage to $15 per hour and said more needed to be done to build affordable housing.

Dodd, who described himself as being the more business friendly of the two, said he switched his party affiliation from Republican five or six years ago while on the Napa County Board of Supervisors. He said Republican opposition to a sales tax measure for road repairs influenced his decision, as well as other democratic positions that he held on climate change marriage equality and immigration reform.

“I saw all these issues and I realized it just wasn’t who I was,” he said.

Griess, 42, the third Democrat in the race, has never held public office, though he served in the Air Force for 20 years and has experience working at the Pentagon. He said his main issues are improving the water supply, making college affordable and championing funding for mental health services and special needs children.

He said his outsider status should help him in the current political climate.

“Politicians are good at identifying problems, but they never give a solution,” he said. “I’m the only non-career politician in this race. I have a habit of seeing problems and fixing them. I offer leadership and I know how to make politics work.”

(Contact Matt Brown at

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