Sandre Swanson and Nancy Skinner agree on most
issues, but he’s hoping East Bay Democrats find him
more principled in his approach.

In 2009, Sandre Swanson, then an assemblymember representing Oakland and Alameda, bucked his party’s push to pass a heavily negotiated spending measure to close a staggering $41 billion budget deficit. Then-Assembly Speaker Karen Bass proceeded to levy the harshest punishment possible–she stripped Swanson of his committee chairmanship.

Fast forward nearly seven years and Swanson is hoping to use the incident to his advantage.

Transforming a perceived weakness into a strength has long been a hallmark of political campaign strategy. In his campaign against fellow East Bay Democrat Nancy Skinner, also a former assemblymember, Swanson is hoping the final result pivots on his past insubordination.

The 2009 budget package was particularly brutal to the poor. A portion of the package included a hourly cap on wages for in-home care workers and limited assistance payments to the seniors, the poor and disabled, both issues that still persist today. It also included the groundwork for putting the state’s so-called “jungle primary” on the ballot later that year. The new open primary was eventually approved by voters and will likely foster an intraparty clash in this race come November.

Following the punitive action against Swanson, he remained defiant, even widely disseminating articles about his dismissal. “To ask members not to protest these cuts—it’s a violation of my principles when I know workers are there to serve the elderly, catch a person when they fall,” Swanson told the Oakland Tribune, at the time. “Particularly at a time when this budget had $1 billion in tax breaks for corporations.”

The loss of Swanson’s chairmanship nearly seven years ago is now the linchpin of his argument to East Bay progressives for highlighting the difference between him and his opponent, former Assemblymember Nancy Skinner.

At numerous events in recent weeks, Swanson has used the chairmanship incident as evidence of his unwavering progressive principles. “I would do it again because we need that kind of courage going forward,” Swanson said two weeks ago at an endorsement meeting in Alameda. He issued a nearly identical stump speech to Alameda County Democrats two weeks prior.

During the early campaign season, Swanson has often attempted to draw differences between he and Skinner in a campaign where a vast majority of the issues they wholeheartedly agree. Swanson often highlights his previous opposition to the dissolution of redevelopment agencies that many believe has made it far more difficult for cities to do among other things, build additional affordable housing.

He has also taken shots at the open primary election system that he opposed during the same 2009 budget deal. On this issue, Swanson’s fears of two strong Democrats having to wage a battle for the same seat has come to fruition. Most observers expect Swanson and Skinner to advance from to the June primary to a hard-fought and expensive general election campaign in November.

However, in the early going of this high-profile state Senate race, there are signs Swanson’s declaration of ideological purity could succeed in contrast to Skinner’s description of herself as a pragmatic progressive leader during her time in the Assembly. Skinner often describes herself as an “operational progressive,” meaning she is more willing to broker compromises in order to achieve her overreaching goals.

Skinner building her strategy around pragmatism has allowed Swanson at recent events to use her record against her, while portraying himself as selfless when standing up for the district’s values. “I was representing this district in a way that didn’t offer any compromises on things that were important to the constituency,” Swanson said of his time in the Assembly. “I think my candidacy offers more of the same of that.”

For Swanson, getting that message to voters will be difficult in light of Skinner’s access to nearly $1.1 million in campaign cash and her ability to inundate the area in media buys and direct-mail pieces. Swanson, meanwhile, reported just over $100,000 in reserves to start the year. But, since labor unions are primarily backing Swanson, expect a deluge of independent expenditures to make up the large difference between campaign coffers.