Sacramento County voters will see something unfamiliar next June: real competition for the District 1 supervisor seat being vacated by Roger Dickinson.
Since 1994, Dickinson hasn't faced a contested election for supervisor, and now he's stepping aside to run for the state Assembly.
The departure of its most liberal supervisor could change the Board of Supervisors' political dynamics.
Three candidates have emerged as would-be successors to Dickinson: Grantland Johnson, 61, who has served at all levels of government and once held the seat Dickinson is vacating; Phil Serna, 41, a candidate with a famous name, money and substantial backing; and Keith Weber, 62, a local businessman hoping to turn grass-roots support into votes.
"This is an exceptionally rare race. You have a contest between a real experienced politician with a household name and a young, upstart one with a real magical name," said Robert Waste, professor of public policy and administration at California State University, Sacramento. "It could be one of those 'We don't find out until late at night' races."
Weber, Johnson and Serna have filed paperwork signifying intent to run for the District 1 seat. The district embraces downtown Sacramento, Natomas, North Highlands, Rio Linda, Elverta, Antelope, North Sacramento and parts of Tahoe Park and Oak Park. The area contains significant economic engines for the region including Sacramento International Airport and McClellan Park, as well as some of the region's most depressed communities.
While the formal nomination period has yet to begin, the three have formed committees and are raising money.
Early bets are on a "real interesting horse race" between Johnson and Serna, Waste said.
Johnson was a force in local politics for more than a decade, serving on the Sacramento City Council from 1983 to 1986 before joining the Board of Supervisors in 1987 as the county's first African American supervisor. His liberal bona fides helped him win a spot in the Clinton administration in late 1993 as a regional director in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. His departure made way for Dickinson's rise to power. Waste expects Johnson could draw significant support from labor groups.
Serna is an heir apparent. His father, Joe Serna Jr., was Sacramento's most powerful mayor in recent memory, serving from 1992 until his death in 1999.
Phil Serna acknowledged his name carries weight.
"I'm certainly very proud of not just my father but both my parents," Serna said. "I was raised in a home where civic engagement in leadership was kind of a way of life."
But Serna said he also hopes people recognize his qualifications as a candidate beyond his family name.
"I am not resting on the last name. I'm running this race, I'm in this race as my own person," Serna said.
Serna has worked as vice president of governmental affairs for the Home Builders Association of Northern California and more recently ran his own company, Serna Consulting LLC, where he worked on a number of development projects, including some with Angelo K. Tsakopoulos. He said his experience working on deals between property owners and local governments would serve him as a supervisor. Serna, who has been campaigning full time since June, said he's also reached out to community groups that were strong bases for Dickinson.
The political and business connections appear to have paid off. Serna raised close to $20,000 for his campaign by the end of June, just weeks after filing papers announcing his intention to run, according to campaign disclosure statements he filed in August. That's the maximum candidates could raise this calendar year.
Johnson's campaign committee – "Grantland Johnson for Supervisor 2010" – didn't qualify as an official committee until early October. County election officials said a committee qualifies as "official" when a candidate has raised $1,000.
Johnson's fundraiser, Toni Roberts, said the former supervisor's campaign has since raised close to the $20,000 maximum for the year. The next statements aren't due until the end of January.
Weber still hasn't filed papers to qualify as an official committee, although Weber said he's close to raising the $1,000.
Serna has compiled endorsements from a who's who of local politicians and power brokers.
The entire Board of Supervisors – minus Dickinson, who said he isn't prepared to endorse anyone yet, Mayor Kevin Johnson, former Mayor Heather Fargo, Sheriff John McGinness, former Sheriff Lou Blanas, the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the North State Building Industry Association and others have already thrown their support behind Serna, according to a list Serna provided The Bee.
"He's got the high ground politically, but if anyone can make up the distance, it's Grantland," Waste said.
Johnson did not reply to numerous telephone inquiries by The Bee. It's unclear how he plans to handle Serna's formidable challenge. Roberts said the former supervisor is definitely running to regain his old seat.
Fighting the odds – and the money – is Weber. The local businessman said he's well aware of the uphill battle he faces.
"It's a little bit appalling to think those are the only voices that get heard," Weber said of the recent history of campaign contributions in supervisorial races.
Weber, president of the Antelope-Highlands Chamber of Commerce, said he's trying to focus on "grass-roots support" and hopes he can represent the little guy, "all of us citizens going to work every day and just trying to live lives that are meaningful."
Weber, owner of USA Print Shops, grew up in North Highlands and has been a Rio Linda resident since 1976. He's running on a platform of scaling back government and providing more resources for public safety.
Weber said he's more than just a conservative.
"I've been an organic gardener since the 1970s," he said. "I think individual responsibility is a tremendous thing whether you're a liberal or conservative."