War has broken out in the neatly tended suburbs east of San Francisco Bay, over a simple question: Is only one kind of Democrat allowed in blue California?
In a special election for a single seat in the state Senate, millions of dollars have been spent in a pitched battle for the answer.
The combatants are organized labor and a man it has spent three years trying to bury, Orinda Mayor Steve Glazer, an unlikely foe given his lifelong role as a political strategist for labor-backed Democrats and their causes. The only reason Glazer may survive Tuesday's election is that he has some moneyed guardian angels who have pumped in hundreds of thousands of dollars on his behalf.
Nature abhors peace, at least in politics, so it was inevitable that in a state controlled by one party the schisms would begin to show within. But like a family gathering where niceties suddenly give way to an explosion of long-nurtured grievances, it has gotten quite brutal.
In Walnut Creek and Concord and the neighboring environs, voters are being barraged with messages decried by the opposing side as nasty or misleading or flat-out devious. It's all that and more, powered by money, money and more money.
"From the outside people say, 'California, this great blue state,'" Glazer said. "When you look beneath the surface it is not so cozy. It's not about Democrats versus Republicans. It's now back to what type of Democrat is an acceptable Democrat."
Or, as labor leaders would put it, it's about preserving the gains for which they have long fought — against Democrats, if need be, just as they have fought against Republicans.
"We will continue to educate voters … about the candidate's views on issues critical to our members, confident the vast majority of voters share our middle-class agenda," said Jon Youngdahl, executive director of SEIU California, the coordinator of the biggest anti-Glazer effort.
The stakes are huge in every direction. For Democrats like Glazer who have embraced labor-opposed changes to teacher tenure or government pensions, it is about retaining a foothold in a party where union views are dominant. (His biggest benefactor, Bill Bloomfield, a wealthy Southern California businessman, backs education changes fought by unions, one of the reasons he cites for spending more than half a million dollars to boost Glazer.)
For unions, it is about reminding current and future politicians that their money comes with a demand of loyalty, an exchange that has grown more important as voters veer from their desires.
Union-inflected free-for-alls have surfaced in several recent races.
Two years ago, Eric Garcetti defeated fellow Democrat Wendy Greuel to become mayor of Los Angeles by exploiting her support from public employee unions. Similar conflicts arose this year in Chicago, where Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel was forced into an April runoff by a relative unknown backed by teachers' unions.
The divide may play out in the 2018 race for governor if former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is among the Democratic candidates. Villaraigosa angered unions as he sought to keep the city afloat during the recession.
The vitriol surrounding Glazer started in 2012, two years after he helped shepherd Gov. Jerry Brown into office, when Glazer was placed on the state labor federation's "do not hire" list for supporting Democratic alternatives to two union-backed candidates.
In 2014, he ran for an Assembly seat but lost when labor girded against him. That race served as the template for this year's state Senate warfare, with a few twists tossed in.
Much of organized labor is backing Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla. Teachers and home-building trades have sided with former Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan. Both are Democrats; the sole Republican in the race, Michaela Hertle, withdrew and endorsed Glazer. But her name remains on the ballot, which has given rise to one of the weirder aspects of the campaign.
The Asian American Small Business PAC has spent almost $70,000 to elect Hertle, despite her capitulation, and an additional $55,000 to defeat Glazer, according to the nonpartisan California Target Book. The committee received much of its money from organized labor.
It's a rare turn when the state Republican Party files suit against an organization that is asking people to vote for a Republican, but that is what happened last week. GOP officials cited the unauthorized use of the party's symbol, the elephant, on pro-Hertle mailers. State GOP Chairman Jim Brulte, in a statement, said the committee's mailers were meant to "intentionally deceive."
Not so, said Bill Wong of the PAC, who called the suit "frivolous" and Hertle's candidacy still viable.
The biggest labor effort against Glazer includes a website that tars him as the handmaiden of a Chamber of Commerce PAC for which he worked in 2012, "a committee funded by tobacco, oil, pharmaceutical and insurance companies. He represents special interests, NOT YOU."
It says nothing about his 40 years in the Democratic vineyards, working for candidates who shared labor's goals.
That has left Glazer and other blackballed Democrats looking on with a mix of horror and chagrin. Gloria Romero, a former state senator from East Los Angeles who has endorsed Glazer, noted that she voted with labor almost 100% of the time but still fell out of favor over her support for giving parents more power in education.
"You challenge on particular issues that are critical to you, whether pension reform or education reform, and it's kind of like a new take on zero tolerance," she said.