Flush with cash, endorsements and legislative accomplishments, state Assemblyman Jerry Hill is riding a wave of momentum in his quest for the state Senate seat in the 13th District.
With less than a month to go until Election Day, the San Mateo lawmaker has plenty of reasons to feel jubilant. After a strong performance in the June primary, when he received 55 percent of the votes in a four-candidate field, he has been racking up endorsements from California's Democratic heavyweights -- including Gov. Jerry Brown and Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom -- and major advocacy groups such as the California Federation of Teachers, California Labor Federation and Sierra Club of California.
"The level of support and endorsements has been overwhelming," Hill said in a recent interview.
His opponent in this race, former Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, wouldn't want it any other way. Lieber, whose legislative efforts have focused underdog groups such as female prisoners and the homeless, now finds herself in the position of the underdog. As always, she savors the challenge. And while her campaign chest of $187,570 pales in comparison to Hill's $426,000, she feels she has more than a fighting chance against Hill.
Lieber, who finished the primary as Hill's distant second with 22 percent of the vote, is no stranger to the election upset, having scored one in 2002 when she went up against Rod Diridon Jr. in the primary for Assembly. She said she knew all along that she would need all her funds for the November showdown. As a result, her campaign has been painfully stingy during the primary season, spending only $66,000 for the June election.
"Our strategy all along was to spend as little as possible toward the primary and to save our money to communicate with voters in the General Election," Lieber said.
Both candidates paint themselves as independents, though as their campaign records show, each exhibits independence in a distinct way. Hill has attracted funds from a wide array of companies and lobbying groups, including the Personal Insurance Federation of California, which contributed $2,500 to his campaign; the California Real Estate PAC, which gave him $7,800; and the State Building and Construction Trades of California, which donated another $7,800. Hill has also received $3,900 in contributions from various unions, including plumbers, electricians and the Service Employees International Union.
Tech firms have also been major backers. Hill has received major contributions from giants such as Microsoft and Genentech, each of which contributed the maximum amount of $3,900, and eBay, which donated $3,000. The industry group Technet, which represents high-tech interests, gave Hill another $3,900.
Hill sees his ability to pool funds from so many different interests as evidence of his ability to work with people and reach compromises. He sees his major edge in endorsements and contributions as a sign of confidence by others in his legislative abilities.
"I've aggressively raised the fundraising because to me, these are the two things that show support. One is endorsements, which shows that people have confidence in you. And if they support you and have confidence in you, they also want to give money," Hill said.
He also points to his recent legislative achievements as clear evidence of his ability to balance competing interests and bridge differences. He is proud of the fact that 18 of his bills were signed into law in the current Assembly term, more than any other state lawmaker. Some of these were niche issues far from the radar of the average voter -- licensing requirements for funeral-home directors and an effort to crack down on attorneys who don't pay for their deposition transcripts. Others were more substantive. The two bills he is particularly proud of are Assembly Bill 45, which holds drivers of "party buses" responsible for underage drinking on their vehicles; and Assembly Bill 578, which requires the California Public Utilities Commission to respond to gas-safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board.
The latter hit particularly close to home. In the aftermath of the 2010 gas explosion that killed eight San Bruno residents and decimated a neighborhood in his Assembly district, Hill has been one of Sacramento's leading critics of Pacific Gas & Electric, which owns and operates the area's gas pipes.
When asked about the biggest distinction between himself and Lieber, Hill responded: "I work well with people."
"The proof is in the number of bills," Hill said. "I take on the tough challenges. I value the innovative economy we have, and I want to sustain it because I realize that the quality of life we enjoy depends a lot on it."
Lieber sees things differently. She sees her financial disadvantage and the fact that most of her checks have been smaller and have come from individuals rather than groups as a sign of her "progressive" bona fides (though she did receive checks from several groups, including $250 from the Dean Democratic Club of Silicon Valley, $3,900 from the Women's Political Committee and $750 from the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee). She said she looks forward to finally opening up her campaign chest and beginning to talk to voters about issues she is primarily concerned with -- education and the environment.
When asked about the main difference between herself and Hill, Lieber stressed her independence in the Assembly, where she served from 2002 to 2008 and where her legislative achievements included raising the minimum wage and authoring a bill that combated human trafficking. While much of the Democratic establishment backs Hill, Lieber sees herself as the true "progressive" voice in this race.
"I think I have a much stronger legislative record," Lieber said. "I've authored legislation independent from special interests, while he's done more sponsored bills.
"There's no question that the big corporate PACs are supporting Jerry Hill, and I've known all through this race that we're going to have to fight it out with less money and keep our spirits up and keep pushing our issues forward."
Hill, for his part, isn't taking his advantages for granted. He said he's been campaigning seven days a week and spending more time in areas outside his traditional stronghold of San Mateo. He also expects the voters who turn up for the General Election to be different from those who cast their ballots in June.
"In this election, we will have many more voters who aren't necessarily as familiar with the candidates," Hill said. "They're the ones that in many cases turn out every four years to vote for president. It's our job to communicate with these voters."
Lieber also savors the challenge of communicating to voters in both counties in the coming weeks. She said the issues she'll be focusing on -- "strengthening education and protecting the environment" -- will really resonate with the voters of the newly drawn 13th District. The district holds much of the territory currently represented by Sen. Joe Simitian, including most of San Mateo County and northern part of Santa Clara County. Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and Mountain View are all part of the 13th Senate District.
Hill also believes his record and policies will appeal to the residents of the 13th District, which he lauded as both the "innovation capital of the world" and the district with "the best quality of life anywhere."
"You have to have a balanced approach to maintain that quality of life, sustain that innovation economy and protect the environment," Hill said. "I believe my record in public service addresses each of these areas."