Running in 'Bernie Country,' a former Obama and Clinton staffer battles for state Assembly seat

Running in 'Bernie Country,' a former Obama and Clinton staffer battles for state Assembly seat
California Assembly candidate Buffy Wicks, left, holds her daughter as she speaks with Kimberly Ellis, then a candidate for state Democratic Party chair, at a May campaign event in Oakland. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Buffy Wicks was expecting the birth of her daughter on the same day she thought the country would be electing its first female president.

Josephine instead was born two weeks late — after the election of President Trump. As Wicks joined hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets for the Women's March on Washington a few months later, she felt inspired to run for office, even as a new mom.


"I realized Jojo couldn't be the reason not to run," Wicks said of her first child. "In fact, she is the reason to run."

Wicks, who worked as a White House aide to former President Obama and helped steer Hillary Clinton's victory in California, is now attempting to win a seat in the state Assembly. The 40-year-old Oakland resident is one of nine potential candidates in the 15th Assembly District, one of California's most diverse and politically progressive areas, covering Berkeley, Richmond and parts of Oakland.

Wicks says she jumped into the competition with a desire to apply all she learned in Washington. One could assume someone with powerful Democratic friends and political experience helping capture nearly 3 million statewide votes in a primary and 8.8 million in a general election might be an easy victor in a place like this. But she is facing some popular local contenders who see her as an outsider trying to parachute in.

That assessment of her candidacy is unfair, said Wicks, calling herself tethered to the Bay Area. She worked here as a community and campaign organizer a decade ago, and she bought her home in early 2016, long before the Assembly seat opened up.

"What I think voters care most about is who can go to Sacramento and get stuff done for them," Wicks said.

The June 5 top-two primary race seems to have echoes of last year's California Democratic presidential primary, which Clinton won in a closer-than-expected contest against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

The state Democratic Party is seeing bitter rifts between the perceived old guard and the newcomers. In May, there was the razor-thin defeat of "Berniecrat"-supported Kimberly Ellis against Eric Bauman for chair of the state party. And state party members could find themselves fractured again over the intraparty race between Sen. Dianne Feinstein and state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León.

More than two-thirds of registered voters here are Democrats — the second-highest of any Assembly district. And Wicks is billing herself as among the young new wave of Democrats seeking to take the reins.

Wicks grew up in a single-wide mobile home in the sleepy town of Foresthill, a Sierra foothills logging community northeast of Sacramento. Her father was a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. Her mother was a homemaker and later attended community college. Wicks followed in her footsteps and became an antiwar movement organizer in the Bay Area, later working on political campaigns.

During Obama's 2008 presidential bid, she helped develop a national grass-roots organizing model that borrowed from social movement strategies, mobilizing thousands of volunteers to work for a candidate they believed matched their core set of values.

As the White House deputy director of public engagement, she was one of the key staffers who helped pass the Affordable Care Act. Her most recent work has been with the California Kids Campaign, where as director she advocated for affordable child care and paid leave.

Now she is among dozens of former top Obama political aides and policy staff who, heeding his call to action after Trump's election, are running for seats across the country.

"Democrats are in a bit of soul-searching mode after the election, and that is natural in terms of what happens after a party loses: Who are we? What are our values?" she said. "But I ultimately believe that at our core, we will be stronger from this. In a hopeful way, we are in a renaissance of civic engagement. That to me is the most exciting thing."

Some nicknamed her "Buffy the Bernie slayer" during the primary. Wicks says now she appreciates what the Vermont senator has done for her party.


"We have more alike than we do apart," she said, and the community and nation should be "rallying together on the things we agree on."

Oakland Councilman Dan Kalb helped write a winning ballot measure to establish civilian oversight of Oakland police.
Oakland Councilman Dan Kalb helped write a winning ballot measure to establish civilian oversight of Oakland police. (Handout)
Richmond Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles is a longtime progressive advocate who helped enact strict rent control measures.
Richmond Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles is a longtime progressive advocate who helped enact strict rent control measures. (Dennis Hearne / Handout)

Wicks, who has not held office, faces well-known candidates in the race for the seat held by outgoing Democratic Assemblyman Tony Thurmond: Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb and Richmond City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles. Thurmond is running for state superintendent of public instruction.

Kalb has worked on tenant protection and gun control issues while on the council, and he helped write two winning local ballot measures — one to strengthen Oakland's Public Ethics Commission and another to create its first police oversight commission run by civilians.

Beckles is a longtime progressive advocate and helped Richmond enact strict rent control and eviction measures. In 2010, she became the city's first openly lesbian councilwoman.

Both candidates have fought local environmental battles. Kalb helped block a proposal for a coal terminal in Oakland. Beckles has been a frequent critic of one of Richmond's biggest industrial presences, Chevron.

Beckles said Wicks is in a race with people who have deep roots in the area, and national fundraising won't help. Campaign finance records for the most recent period show more than half of contributions to Wicks came from outside California.

"Folks are aware and awake to the fact of who has been in the community and who has been doing the work," Beckles said. "To move here and expect people to support you is insulting."

Others pointed to Thurmond's own background — he served on the Richmond City Council and an area school board before his election to the state Assembly.

Kate Harrison, a member of the Berkeley City Council, has backed both Beckles and Kalb, saying it's important candidates maintain "that community base."


"We have an embarrassment of riches here…. We have a lot of great candidates," Harrison said.

If elected, Wicks said she would work on affordable housing issues, advocate for a single-payer healthcare model, invest in community colleges and create one integrated public system of affordable child care for parents.

Sen. Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom have endorsed her, and powerful Obama connections — including David Axelrod and Laurene Powell Jobs — are among her campaign donors, as are elected officials including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.

"She has had to talk and work with a lot of different people," said Pat DeTemple, a political consultant who worked with Wicks on the Obama campaign. "Because of that she has a deep knowledge of how to get things done, of how politics really works."

Following similar grass-roots strategies she helped develop for Obama, Wicks is out greeting voters at 20-plus house parties a month and having the long, one-on-one conversations she says she prefers.

At a campaign event at DeTemple's Berkeley home in August, the conversation switched from rising healthcare costs to the impact of California's housing shortage in an area many residents see as ground zero to a crisis. Wicks opened with a credo she learned from Obama.

"I know what I know, and I know what I don't know," she said. "But what I don't know, I want to find smart people to help me know."