Smeyesing–smiling with your eyes–is something
Tim Sbranti can’t seem to do during this campaign.

ASSEMBLY | 16TH DISTRICT | If you place 16th Assembly District candidate Tim Sbranti in the mayor’s seat during Dublin City Council meetings you will see a gregarious young politician running the hearing with the energy of a late night talk show host. If you know Sbranti is a big fan of high school football in the Tri-Valley and even provides energetic color commentary of games on local cable, it becomes doubly odd to see the dour, low-energy Sbranti that shows up for candidates forums over much of this year.

As far back as last February—during the primary—Sbranti seemed to disappear when appearing at the same table as his fellow Democratic opponents, primarily Steve Glazer. The lone Republican in the primary—Catharine Baker—never appeared with the group of Democrats until an endorsement meeting with the Bay Area News Group late in the campaign. Baker won the primary over Sbranti by eight points, but even with the field narrowed to two in this moderate Assembly district, Sbranti still doesn’t look like he feels comfortable. At least, that’s what his body language is showing.

At a forum in Walnut Creek last Wednesday the contrast was even more noticeable since Baker arrived at the event 25 minutes late. The forum began as scheduled and Sbranti was posed a series of questions while seated next to an empty chair. Sbranti capably answered the questions, but with some of the same lack of passion seen before. Granted, one of the main topics was high-speed rail.

Sbranti said he supports the transportation proposal. However, he added, “Without private investment the system cannot go.” He also backs BART’s planned expansion to Livermore, saying he wants to mimic the growth that followed BART to Dublin. In addition, both BART and high-speed rail running through the spine of the state will encourage retail and housing growth along the train’s path, said Sbranti.

Later, when Baker arrived at the dais and took questions from the moderator—some new to both and a few residual queries the challenger had already answered—Sbranti looked completely disengaged. He stared blankly with a mixture of depression, melancholy and mild annoyance for long periods of time as Baker spoke. Sbranti also made few attempts to connect with the small, intimate audience.

Baker said one of the main distinctions between the candidates is high-speed rail, which she does not support. In fact, much of Baker’s rhetoric is rock-ribbed Republican ideology that seems almost retro in an era when the national party is routinely hung up on divisive social issues. One three occasions Wednesday evening Baker portrayed Sacramento as dysfunctional, while defaulting to support for local control. “Stop micro-managing our small businesses,” Baker said of job creation in the state. “Stop the spending spree,” she said later while admonishing the state when it comes to fiscal discipline.

Sbranti’s tepid performances may be a byproduct of a difficult Assembly district for Democrats to retain. No other race in the Greater Bay Area has a better chance of being flipped by Republicans than this one representing parts of the Tri Valley and Contra Costa County. In the sixteenth, voter registration only slightly favors Democrats. In addition, the district as a whole is solidly moderate. For Republicans, it also doesn’t hurt to have a first-time candidate like Baker who not only has a firm grasp of conservative ideology, but the look of a politician and the ability to act like the Alpha dog in this race.

Furthermore, most candidates forums are purposely devoid of confrontation, but that didn’t stop Baker from alluding to her Democratic opponent without using his name. In her closing, she argued against supporting “reinforcements for the status quo” and more pointedly challenged Sbranti’s decision not to reveal answers he may have offered on union questionnaires. The issue is a vestigial tail from Glazer’s anti-union stance in the primary. Meanwhile, Sbranti sat through the attack like a long-time spouse merely trying to weather another night of mental abuse.

Nevertheless, the local Democratic Party’s are placing the effort to get Sbranti’s elected to the Assembly a top priority and he is the likely the front runner despite failing to master the art of smeyesing–smiling with your eyes–or, what voters might comprehend as a candidate acting like they want to be there.