Underdog Yamada vying be first Nikkei woman in CA Senate


Mariko Yamada. photo courtesy of Mariko Yamada for Senate 2016

Mariko Yamada. photo courtesy of Mariko Yamada for Senate 2016
Mariko Yamada. photo courtesy of Mariko Yamada for Senate 2016

Former California state Assemblymember Mariko Yamada and freshman Assemblymember Bill Dodd are vying to replace termed-out state Sen. Lois Wolk’s seat in Senate District 3 in the state senate. Yamada, who termed out of serving in the Assembly in 2014, is the perceived underdog in the intraparty race against Dodd, who garnered endorsements from the State’s Democratic Party and Gov. Jerry Brown ahead of the Nov. 8 election.

According to Bill Wong, political director of the Asian American Small Business political action committee, Yamada would be the first Japanese American woman elected to the California state Senate and could potentially join a historically large Asian Pacific Islander Caucus. “The API Legislative Caucus is currently at 12,” Wong wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “It will lose two to term limits.

Assuming Yamada (leans Dodd), Ling Ling Chang (favored), Jane Kim in San Francisco (toss up) and Warren Furutani (toss up) all win Senate and Ash Kalra or Madison Nguyen win in Silicon Valley, we lose (Assemblymember) Young Kim (toss up), pick up Vince Fong (R), Phil Chen (R), Al Muratsuchi (D), Mae Torlakson (D), (and) Todd Gloria (D) we would grow to 19 members.”

Wong described Yamada as “a strongly progressive member of the state Assembly that did not go along, just to get along.” He described her as a “fierce advocate for progressive policies that protected the environment, women, the poor, seniors, workers and the disabled.”

Yamada, a Sansei, remains committed to those priorities, saying her three biggest priorities, if elected, would be aging and long term care; the state’s agriculture, water and environment; and social, economic and environmental justice. “I refer to it as my three legs on my public policy stool,” she said. “There’s many other very important issues — transportation, housing, education, health — but it’s all interrelated,” she said in an interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly.

If elected, she said she will work on establishing the first standing committee on aging and long-term care in the state senate. “There is no committee, no policy locus for these issues in the state Senate,” she said. As for agriculture and water issues, she said protecting the Delta is a top priority as well as insuring “the integrity of our food systems” through both land use and the protection of workers from abuse and exposure to pesticides. She also noted that climate change is a priority, and said she is wary of “big oil” interests in the state capital. As for social, economic justice, she said “skyrocketing tuition” and law enforcement training in de-escalation are of top concern.

Yamada said her perspective and policies as a lawmaker come from the 42 years she has spent working as a social worker. Since graduating from the University of Southern California with a master’s in social work, Yamada said she has been guided by the “core ethical principals that the social work profession is based upon.”

“I am someone that has pretty much dedicated her life and career to helping others and to providing for common basic human needs, focusing on prevention, on education, on protecting and preserving the environment and addressing social justice issues and focusing on systems approaches on improving people’s lives and lifting people out of poverty,” she said. She added that much of those values aligned with those of the Democratic Party.

To Yamada, it is clear what it means to be a Democrat, but she said the party is currently split between a “corporate wing” and “progressive wing.” Yamada said she aligns herself with the progressive wing of the party. Citing California as a “blue state,” she said that those wanting a more conservative or corporate-minded lawmaker have started to fund certain Democrats “to create winners and losers within the Democratic Party,” Yamada said. Despite differences forming even within her party, Yamada said it is not a matter of working out differences to “get things done,” but to “keep hammering away” until progress is made.

“I think lots of things have gotten done, but I don’t know about getting past political differences as much as insuring that the voices of people that are traditionally left out of the discussions of the hall of power. That’s who I stand for,” she said.

Yamada’s foray into elected office began after the 2003 California recall election. She was initially asked to fill a vacancy on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors. She she was the first person of color to sit on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors. From there she won a seat in the California state Assembly in 2008 and remained there until she termed out in 2014. Since then, she said she has been campaigning full time for a bid to the state Senate.

If elected, she would become the first or among the first Japanese Americans to be elected to the state Senate. Yamada noted that former Assemblyman Warren Furutani, in Southern California, is also making a bid for the Senate. “As it was in the context of my first appointment and first election to the Board of Supervisors in Yolo County in 2003, it certainly would be an honor to have that distinction,” Yamada said. However, she noted that she did not run for the Senate under that premise.

“Being Japanese American and being a woman is part of who I am, but it’s not the extent of who I am,” she said. “When we have multiple hats, we don’t want anyone to typecast us, to stereotype us, to put us in a box or to try to assign certain values to who we are, based on that first impression. All of us are a lot more complex and have a lot more life experience than sometimes meets the eye initially.”

Yamada, however, recognizes that Asian Americans need to be present in the state’s elected offices. “This is maybe not an original saying, but it’s one that I use: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’ll be on the menu,’” she said. Yamada said the different perspectives and life experiences minorities bring to the state legislature need to be reflected in the policies they create for the nearly 40 million people living in the state. “Many times, there are issues or points of views that would be lost if we’re not at the table.”

She added that Japanese Americans should be “even more vigilant and aware of how international incidents can affect people right here close to home,” noting the Japanese American wartime incarceration experience and the rise in hate crimes prompted by Islamophobia affecting not only Muslims, but those mistaken for Muslims such as Sikhs.

Yamada currently faces a well-funded opponent. Dodd, a former Republican, previously served on the Napa County Board of Supervisors for 14 years, according to his Website.

According to the Sacramento Bee, he was elected to represent the state Assembly’s District 4 as a Democrat, but announced his candidacy for state Senate in July 2015, less than a year into his first term as a state Assemblyman.

Dodd has vastly outspent Yamada. According to the California Secretary of State as of Oct. 22, Dodd has spent $1.6 million dollars since January of this year to Yamada’s nearly $420,000 in their respective campaigns. Including independent expenditures, that figure becomes more than a 10-to-1 difference with Dodd garnering more than $4 million of support to Yamada’s $90,000.

While Yamada said she is proud to be in a race where the nation’s first woman could be elected president, she said running a campaign during a presidential election cycle can present both blessings and additional challenges to find the financial and political resources needed to run a down-ticket campaign. “There’s, right now, a sense of donor fatigue, but fundraising is a very critical and necessary part in every campaign,” she said.

Given the vast gap in spending between her and Dodd though, Yamada added she did not intend to compete for funds at the same level as her opponent.

“We’re a grassroots, people-powered campaign, thousands of individual donors as opposed to the corporate special interest that’s been pouring in,” she said. “To me it’s such a shame that we see all this money spent in campaigns when there’s so many pressing systems issues and people issues. That kind of money would certainly go a long way to help people in a more direct way, but this is the system under which we operate so we just do the best we can.”

Yamada told the Nichi Bei Weekly that in years past she has had a campaign office, but said she has been running her current bid for state Senate out of her kitchen.

“Money doesn’t guarantee victory and Yamada has clearly been campaigning hard in the field,” said Wong. “Her only hope is that women and Latinos side with her in this Democrat v. Democrat contest.” In the June 7 state primary, Yamada finished second in a field of four candidates. Dodd won 37.4 percent of the vote, while Yamada won 29.9 percent, a difference of more than 18,000 votes.

Yamada also noted Oct. 27 that, with the election only 12 days away, many Californians have already decided and voted. She said her campaign is now focusing on the remaining undecided voters as well as those who will go to the polls to vote on election day.

Despite the uphill battle, Yamada said she is “in it to win it,” telling the Nichi Bei Weekly she had not thought ahead to what she would do in the future if she loses in the Nov. 8 election.

District 3 includes the cities of American Canyon, Calistoga, Cotati, Davis, Dixon, Fairfield, Martinez, Napa, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Rio Vista, St. Helena, Sonoma, Suisun City, Vacaville, Vallejo, Winters and Woodland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *