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Mia Bonta Leads Early Returns in Special Election for East Bay Assembly Seat

Mia Bonta, the president of the Alameda Unified School District’s Board of Education, opened up an early lead on Tuesday in a special election to succeed her husband Rob in the state Assembly. But early returns from the 18th district, which includes Oakland, San Leandro and Alameda, showed Bonta falling short of the majority vote needed to avoid a runoff later this summer.

Bonta captured 38% of the vote in the first returns released by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters after polls closed at 8pm.

Social justice attorney Janani Ramachandran was in second with 21%, followed by Alameda Vice Mayor Malia Vella at 16% and Stephen Slauson, an electrical engineer and the lone Republican in the race, at 11%.

The special election campaign kicked off in late March, after Rob Bonta, the district’s five-term assemblyman, was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to be the state’s new attorney general.

The eight candidates who made it on the ballot campaigned in a three-month sprint, while the region was emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. All candidate forums were conducted virtually, although many of the campaigns conducted in-person door-knocking efforts across the district.

The 18th Assembly District is one of the most liberal in the state (65% of voters are registered as Democrats) and the leading candidates vowed to be reliably progressive votes in Sacramento.

Labor unions invested heavily in the race — spreading endorsements between Mia Bonta, Vella and Ramachandran and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Bonta and Vella.

The candidates did split in their approaches to the vexing issue of housing development. Vella offered wholehearted support for two proposals in the state Legislature that would ease construction of duplexes and small apartment buildings, while Bonta and Ramachandran said they would push to amend the bills to add more affordable housing requirements before committing their support.

Janani Ramachandran, social justice attorney and candidate for state Assembly in the 18th district. (Courtesy of Janani Ramachandran campaign)

Ramachandran broke from Bonta and Vella in her opposition to the Oakland A’s proposed development at Howard Terminal in Oakland, where the team hopes to build a new stadium along with housing, office space and retail.

Bonta was boosted in the race by her name ID and her consistent advantage in campaign spending.

Her 2021 campaign committee reported $324,272 in expenditures, compared to $220,018 for Vella and $57,473 for Ramachandran.

In addition, three independent super PACs, financed by groups representing teachers, school employees, doctors and dentists, along with health insurers and card rooms, spent $398,620 to bolster Bonta’s candidacy.

As the race’s frontrunner from the moment she launched her campaign, Bonta weathered attacks from her leading opponents, who said she was benefiting from her husband’s name and was receiving donations from companies who wanted to influence the new attorney general.

Malia Vella, the vice mayor of Alameda, poses for a portrait in Alameda on June 23, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At a candidate forum in late May, Vella alluded to opponents benefiting from “political patronage.” And last week, Ramachandran launched a more direct broadside, charging Bonta with “legalized corruption” for accepting donations from companies who are pursuing future statewide ballot measures, for which the attorney general will write the title and summary seen by voters.

Bonta denied any impropriety and described the race as an opportunity to introduce her own personal story to the district’s residents.

The competitiveness of the campaign is not likely to have spurred Alameda County voters to the polls, despite the continued expansion of vote-by-mail. Every voter in the district was sent a ballot by default, and the county set up 21 drop boxes and 10 voting locations for residents to drop off their ballots or vote in-person.

But the first returns released on Tuesday, which consisted of ballots cast before election day, saw just 42,575 ballots, or 14% turnout.

That’s in line with two prior special elections for state Assembly this year that saw low voter interest. In April, just 21% of voters cast ballots in a special election held in San Diego’s 79th Assembly District. Last month, only 14% of registered voters in Los Angeles’ 54th Assembly District voted in a special election.

Copyright 2021 KQED