Race to Sacto
Democratic primary winner will likely replace Salinas in the state Assembly.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
When Simón Salinas leaves his 28th District Assembly seat at the end of the year, the termed-out Democrat will likely be replaced by the Dem who wins the June primary: Watsonville City Councilmember Ana Ventura Phares or Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero.
Both women are competent leaders and longtime locals with deep roots in the community. Both know the issues facing the district, which stretches from south of King City, up the Salinas Valley to San Jose, and east to Hollister.
But despite all of the media play about the candidates’ similarities, Caballero and Phares are distinctly different leaders appealing to two separate factions within their own party.
Phares got her start in city politics in the mid ‘90s investigating violations of civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She then served on the Santa Cruz County Planning Commission before being elected to City Council in 1998. She was later elected mayor in 2005.
As a councilmember, Phares was instrumental in taking City Hall to residents, helping to implement a program where city trailers are parked in underserved areas of the community. There, residents can do everything from signing up kids for soccer to getting mediation services to solve neighborhood disputes.
During Phares’ tenure, the City also started a community mailer and a TV show. “It’s a 30-minute show that teaches everything from recycling to checking out books and using 911,” she says.
Phares announced her candidacy (and stepped down from her position as mayor) early last September, a full four months before Caballero’s announcement.
“My biggest hurdle in this election will be that I got in so late,” Caballero says. “But I needed to make sure I finished the job I started, which was to bring back essential city services.”
Caballero also started out on the Planning Commission before being elected to the Salinas City Council in ‘91. She became mayor in 1998.
Six years into the job, shortly after being elected to her fourth term in 2004, however, Caballero faced a political nightmare: The city didn’t have enough money to keep its libraries open. So, Caballero founded Rally Salinas!, and helped raise $800,000 to keep the facilities operating on a limited schedule. In November, voters approved long-term funding for libraries and other services.
After Salinas residents approved the half-cent sales tax, and Caballero was able to shake the stigma of being mayor of the largest city in America to close its libraries, she said she then felt it was reasonable to move forward. “The bottom line is, I needed to finish one job before I sat down and said, ‘So now what do you think about the state Assembly?’”
But while Caballero worked out her city’s fiscal woes, Phares was hitting the streets and garnering early support from big names: Monterey County Supervisor Fernando Armenta and the United Farm Workers.
“I was honored,” Phares says. “It was like a validation of the work I’d done.”
To many of Phares’ supporters, like UFW cofounder Dolores Huerta, La Raza, and the National Organization for Women, it’s Phares’ work for the underdog that positions Phares a step ahead of Caballero in Democratic fundamentals.
Born in Calexico, Phares followed her migrant family up and down the state. Her father, a farmworker, worked for Bud Antle. The family moved frequently through the Imperial and Salinas valleys.
After earning a law degree, Phares returned home to the Salinas Valley where she went to work for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). “I was an advocate from day one,” she says. “I saw the people who couldn’t speak for themselves, and I wanted to help.”
Phares says Caballero has lost sight of this cause, despite Caballero’s beginnings. Caballero, a Biloxi, Miss. native, also worked as a lawyer for CRLA before going into private defense practice.
Phares’ camp has described Caballero as a Republican in Democrat clothing, accusing Caballero of siding with “corporate special interests.”
“Caballero is taking thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and gathering support from Republicans, wealthy developers and corporate special interests,” reads Phares’ campaign literature. “If she is elected, that’s who she’ll be accountable to in the Assembly.”
Phares just missed out on the California Democratic Party’s endorsement, falling one vote shy, but still garnering twice as many votes as Caballero.
Caballero scoffs at the notion that she’s not true to Democratic ideals and is instead following the money trail to big campaign contributions.
“I see it as a credit,” Caballero says of Republicans jumping party lines to give her money. “In a partisan world, yes, it can be perceived as a negative. But I’m in city politics, and that means working with both sides. It’s a measure of the strength of my leadership. As an elected official, you’re elected to represent everyone, not just one side or another.”
While both campaigns have raised impressive funds—Phares has roughly $150,000 in her war chest while Caballero has about $185,000—the money comes from different sources.
Caballero’s lists of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of Salinas locals and powerful businesses: Unicool, Lombardo and Gilles, Tanimura & Antle, Applied Materials, Sheid Vineyards, Don Chapin Company, Creekbridge Construction, Mann Packing, Maya Salinas Theaters, Sun Microsystems, eBay, California Chamber of Commerce and PG&E.
Phares’ donors tend to be the workers themselves: unions, teachers’ associations, nurses’ associations, retirees, homemakers and office managers.
It will be a tough battle on June 6.
“This is the second largest district in the state,” Phares says. “Whatever happens, we’ve both raised awareness and become part of something really, really good.”