Billed as one of the most hotly contested races in the state, the battle for the 11th Senate district pits a seasoned Democrat against a young Republican and a Libertarian dark horse.
Eight-term Democratic Assemblymen Byron Sher is squaring off against first time office seeker Patrick Shannon, a Republican. Also in the race is Jon Matonis, a Libertarian candidate from El Granada.
The election is a unique one because it involves two races in one: a special election to fill former Senator Tom Campbell's seat - due to expire at the end of the year _ and a primary for the full four-year term to be filled in November. Campbell was recently elected to Congress.
Sher and Shannon are competing in the special election to fill the current vacancy. Matonis is not on that ballot, but is on the ballot for the primary. All three are unopposed in the primary and will advance to the November election.
Sher, 68, who must give up his Assembly seat because of term limits, had all but decided to step out of politics until Campbell's seat became available and made him a "born again candidate."
A former Stanford University law professor, Sher said the state Legislature's rightward tilt threatens to overturn important legislation, including some written by him.
"I thought I had a good chance of winning this seat and (thought) I could help keep the Senate in a more moderate mode," he said of his reasons to enter the race. California politics mirror the swing to the right seen at the national level, Sher said, but he believes the pendulum will soon swing back.
With 16 years in the Assembly, Sher says his political longevity is due to his strong track record defending the environment, education, and the economy.
"I reflect the district pretty well. People have been generally satisfied that I reflect their values which are strong support for public education, strong support for preserving our natural resources and protecting the environment."
As chairman of the Assembly's Natural Resources Committee, for example, Sher points to his authorship of the California Clean Air Act, the California Integrated Waste Management Act, and the California Safe Drinking Water Act as examples of his legislative successes.
Given the potentially confusing nature of the two elections and the internecine battle for the Republican presidential nomination, Sher concedes he faces a tough fight.
"There's nothing to attract Democrats to the polls . . . none of that works to my advantage. This campaign is like nothing I've had to do before. It's a big money campaign." It is also a campaign that has not been free of accusations of impropriety.
The California Democratic Party has accused Shannon of accepting $35,000 from WalMart executive John Walton and violating campaign contribution laws. The Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) is currently looking into the matter.
The Democratic Party's complaint is that because Shannon and Sher are running for two elections, they are required to separate contributions into two accounts.
Proposition 73 imposes spending limits from $1,000 to $5,000 during a special election. The Democrats allege Shannon has not split up his contributions into two accounts and is spending above the legal limit. Shannon, on the other hand, contends that the FPPC told him one account is all that is needed.
"I think that story is still unfolding," Sher said.
On another matter, Sher has had to wage a little damage control of his own.
When the Assembly passed into Republican control, it was learned a Sher staffer had used the computers of an Assembly committee to produce campaign materials, a violation of Assembly rules. Sher confirmed the incident, but said he knew nothing about it and has filed an official letter of reprimand in the individual's personnel file.
"It was just totally contrary to the rules in my office," Sher said. Although the matter has cooled down, Sher said he expects Shannon to revive the issue.
"It's quiet now . . . but they're going to use it. We know that."
Shannon, 31, argues that the election is a contest between the ideas of the past and those of the future.
"I will provide forward-looking, progressive leadership and Byron Sher is a representative of the old school of politics. I think he's out of date."
Shannon recently served as Gov. Pete Wilson's Bay Area Policy Director and previously worked as the Governor's law enforcement adviser where he directed Wilson's legislative agenda on crime, business issues, and tort reform.
While in Sacramento, Shannon said he grew frustrated seeing good public policy fail to pass because of political infighting.
"I decided to make the jump into elective office myself to try to move a policy agenda that I think is good for California and also to get some fresh blood in there where people are going to emphasize policy over politics."
Shannon has a three-fold agenda that focuses on crime, education, and promoting business.
On the crime front, Shannon supports tougher sanctions for violent criminals.
"I think we need to crack down on the most violent offenders with tough penalties and get the worst of the worst criminals off the street so they won't reoffend."
In particular, he points to his support of two bills, Propositions 195 and 196, which would authorize the death penalty for carjacking and drive-by killings. While a Wilson staffer, Shannon wrote the legislation for the two laws.
He also supports crime prevention measures for youth, such as mentoring programs, Midnight Basketball, and "boot camps" aimed at disciplining and rehabilitating youth offenders.
Shannon also advocates measures to penalize so-called "meritless" lawsuits, suits brought against corporations solely for monetary gain.
"We need to take the jackpots out of justice," he said.
An admitted underdog, Jon Matonis is waging a quiet, but persistent fight for the Senate based on the laissez-faire philosophy of the Libertarian Party.
Matonis supports "unbridled capitalism" and a dramatic scaling back of government. At the base of his political philosophy is a belief that individual liberty must take precedence over the group. This liberty, he argues, will lead to a free society.
Matonis, 34, is waging his campaign on a platform that includes abolishing state income tax, doing away with public education, and an end to virtually all state and federal immigration policies.
Although he does not have the money his opponents do, through radio interviews, newspaper articles, and his new Web page, Matonis hopes to get his message out.
"I'm not trying to take popular views just to get elected," he said. "I want the Democrat and Republican votes. . . I want people to vote on issues and not the party."
The 11th Senate District runs from Redwood City to San Jose and includes Half Moon Bay.