On the road with Buffy Wicks: using grassroots organizing to capture Assembly District 15

Buffy Wicks poses with campaign volunteers on Oct. 21, 2018. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

On a foggy Sunday morning before noon, six high school students crowded into the Shattuck Avenue campaign headquarters of Buffy Wicks, the 41-year-old political consultant who is running for Assembly District 15. They were there to knock on doors in Oakland to tell voters about Wicks, part of an assignment for two different high schools, one in Oakland and one in Piedmont.

The students were told to download an app made by Political Data Inc., which would give them access to the names of the people they were to greet in various precincts. Then Amelia Matier, Wick’s campaign coordinator, asked a student named Ben to articulate why he was stumping for Wicks. It was a question he and the others would be asked when someone opened a door they had knocked on, Matier said. And if they weren’t sure how to answer, they should just be frank about what motivated them to work for Wicks, she said.

“We’re hitting about 10,000 doors,” this weekend, Matier told the group. “This race is going to be made on the ground. The more contact we make with voters and the more we explain why we support her,” the better. “Why are you, as an individual, here? That genuine interaction is important.”

Ben then shared his reasons for canvassing for Wicks: “She wants to make the East Bay more affordable and get more housing built near transit.”


The students were a small part of the approximately 500-strong volunteer corps that the Wicks’ campaign has said it has put together. By the time the polls close on Nov. 6, those volunteers will have knocked on around 100,000 doors in a district with 460,000 people, the campaign claims. They will hand out thousands of glossy flyers, many of which have a hand-written Post-It note attached with Wicks’ cell phone number and a request to call with questions. And on that Sunday, Wicks planned to attend her 226th and 227th house party.

It is a huge organizing effort but it reflects the heated race to replace Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, who is stepping aside to run for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Even though the winner will be just one of 80 members of the Assembly, the battle for AD15 is attracting millions of dollars in campaign donations and independent expenditures and mirrors the internal battle for the Democratic Party that is being played out around the country between President Barack Obama-like candidates (read: Wicks) and Senator Bernie Sanders-like candidates (read: Beckles).

Jovanka Beckles (left) and Buffy Wicks are competing for Assembly District 15. Photo: KQED/campaign websites

In AD15, which includes parts of Oakland, Berkeley, Piedmont, Emeryville, Albany, El Cerrito and Richmond, Wicks is the more moderate candidate, although she would be considered a left-winger in other parts of the country. Wicks has the support of Obama, for whom she worked in two presidential campaigns and in the White House. The Bernie-like candidate is Richmond City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles (even though Beckles voted for Jill Stein for president). Beckles, a mental health worker, calls herself a democratic socialist and has large union support. Her campaign stump speeches include phrases like “the billionaire class,” and “tax the rich.”

Wicks wants to reform Costa-Hawkins and is opposed to Proposition 10, which repeals state law that currently restricts the scope of rent-control policies: Beckles supports Prop 10. Wicks doesn’t think a single-payer medical system is doable in California now because Trump won’t let the federal government fund it; Beckles says it can and should happen now. Wicks wants to make charter schools more transparent; Beckles wants a moratorium on them. Wicks supports building more housing to help solve the state’s housing shortage and affordability crisis while Beckles wants to build just affordable homes.

Wicks has been endorsed by Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, and Obama, among others. Beckles has been endorsed by Rep. Barbara Lee and Our Revolution, the organization formed to carry out Sanders’ message.

Wicks finished first in the 12-candidate June primary. She garnered 31.6% of the votes to Beckles’ 15.7% of the vote. Wicks even took the city of Richmond by 167 votes, although Beckles won more precincts.

Despite that apparent numerical advantage as well as three times more money, Wicks’ victory is not assured. Many of the primary candidates, including Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb and Berkeley School Board Member Judy Appel, have thrown their support to Beckles, who also has the advantage of having held public office for eight years and developing a track record.


If there is any “secret sauce” to Wicks’ campaign, it is her organizing skills. Wicks, who has never held political office, got her start as an organizer for Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign for the presidency. She worked for the United Food and Commercial Workers union in a 2006 campaign to get better health care and higher wages for Walmart workers, a job that earned her the nickname “Buffy the Walmart slayer.” Then, at the age of 30, she became part of then-Senator Obama’s 2008 ground campaign for the presidency and ran his grassroots efforts in Texas and California. Wicks has been influenced by the organizing techniques of Marshall Ganz, a former organizer for the United Farm Workers who helped set up “Camp Obamas,” boot camps in organizing, in 2008. Ganz emphasized empowering each volunteer, helping him or her to use that sense of strength to go out into the community and advocate for a cause.

“Ganz encourages volunteers to share their own life stories with voters, in the belief that by speaking from the heart, they turn the tedious — phone-banking, door-knocking — into a communal mission,” according to a 2008 Los Angeles Times story.

Thus Matier’s suggestion to the student volunteers: if someone asks you a policy question about Wicks that you can’t answer, don’t worry. Be sure to share your reasons for working for her.

Wicks started organizing for her campaign early — in May 2017. She and her husband Peter Ambler, a former aide to Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, had moved back to California in 2015. Wicks had spent six years in the Obama White House, where she worked as the deputy director of public engagement and helped get the Affordable Care Act passed, among other responsibilities. While Wicks had been born in Forestville, a small town two hours from the Bay Area near Auburn, she had lived in Berkeley in 1996, in the Bay Area from 2001 to 2004 and then on and off from 2007 to 2008. “It always felt like home,” she said.

Wicks started working for Common Sense Media, a children’s media advocacy group started by Jim Steyer, the brother of fund manager-turned deep-pocketed Democratic power player Tom Steyer. Wicks headed up a parents’ campaign to make kids’ issues more of a state priority. For two months in 2016, she also served as Hillary Clinton’s field operator for the California primary.

Donald Trump’s win over Clinton served as a moment of reckoning for Wicks. Her first child, a girl, was due on Election Day and Wicks had reveled in the idea that JoJo would come into a world led by a female president. As she grappled with her “place in the new world order,” Wicks flew to Chicago in Jan. 2017 for a gathering President Obama had called to thank current and former staffers for working on his behalf. Obama, obviously devastated by Trump’s win, told those gathered that they should “get a clipboard and run for office,” said Wicks. “I said, ‘That is interesting. That could be a plan.’”


A few months later, Wicks heard rumors that Thurmond was not planning to run again, which is why she focused on the Assembly seat. Dealing with statewide issues rather than running for Oakland City Council spoke more to her strengths, she said.

“The state is where we can make substantive changes that impact people’s lives,” said Wicks.

Since then Wicks has spent a lot of time in people’s living rooms — 17 months to be exact.

“To build an effective grassroots campaign you need a long runway,” she said.

The house parties reflect Ganz’s, and now Wicks’, political philosophy. Spending time in the community and hearing people’s concerns builds relationships. It is a way to engage people on a personal level and then parlay that initial interest into active organizing.

“I love the house parties,” said Wicks. “I love being in people’s living rooms. I like the intimacy of house parties better than bigger events.”

Wicks also knocks on doors. I got to see Wicks in action that foggy Sunday when she went to canvass with Matier on McGee Avenue near Buena Avenue, not too far from King Middle School. It is a serene middle-class neighborhood with one and two story single-family homes. Some even had “Buffy Wicks for Assembly,” signs in the front yard. Using the PDI app, Wicks approached the homes of likely voters. Before she even knocked, the app told her the names of the houses’ occupants so they could be greeted personally. All the campaigns use PDI, said Matier.

At one of her first stops, a brown-haired woman in her late 50s opened the door and told Wicks’ she knew about her campaign. She listened to Wicks’ stump speech, nodding her head but not smiling. When Wicks asked if she had any questions the woman mentioned that she had heard a lot of money had been contributed to Wicks’ campaign.

Wicks acknowledged that a number of billionaires, including George Soros and Tom Steyer, had donated to her campaign, but she quickly added that eight of the 10 mayors in the AD15 district had endorsed her. She also said that Gavin Newsom, who is likely to be California’s next governor, endorsed her. “Relationships in Sacramento will matter,” Wicks told the voter.

Wicks’ opponents would have been glad to hear that voter express concern about the money flowing into Wicks’ campaign both directly and indirectly from independent expenditure campaigns. The amount is large: almost $2.4 million compared to Beckles’ $673,000. It is an issue they have been raising constantly.

The Wicks campaign later pointed out to me that Wicks’ spending levels are in line with other Assembly candidates. When Tony Thurmond first ran for the AD15 seat in 2014, he spent $746,000 in the general election, said Matier. Wicks plans to spend $766,000 on the general election, she said. She spent $584,000 on the primary. On the day after I canvassed with Wicks, her media liaison, Debbie Mesloh, sent a breakdown of the 1,975 individuals who have donated to Wicks. Of the total number, the average donation was $516.74, said Mesloh. “Thirty-six percent of donors donate $100 or less, 58% of donors donate $500 or less, and 64% of donors donate $1,000 or less,” she wrote in an email.

But the question posed to Wicks by the brown-haired woman revealed that the negative campaigning against her was effective. The message driven by Beckles and many of the groups backing her had stuck in that woman’s mind: Wicks, the carpetbagger who just moved into the district, must be beholden to special interests. She had gotten a huge amount of cash from Washington insiders and multi-millionaires who don’t even live in the district. They include former Apple CEO John Sculley, the Fisher family, who started The Gap, Ron Conway, the high-tech investor in San Francisco, Reid Hoffman, a founder of PayPal and LinkedIn, and others. Moreover, some of her backers are strong proponents of charter schools who have spent millions in California making sure that charter schools don’t face more regulation. Thus, Wicks must be a supporter of charter schools, they claim.

The East Bay chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, a group to which Beckles belongs, has gone the furthest in trying to drive home that message. The group, which saw a surge in membership after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Rep. Jim Crowley, the Democratic Caucus chair, in a New York Democratic primary earlier this year, created a website called Buffy Wicks Dot Money. The site tries to draw direct links between the politics of Wicks’ donors and her politics.

“Buffy claims to be a progressive, but her campaign benefits from a staggering amount of cash — $1.4 million and counting — spent by the megarich and their PACS across the country,” the website states.

The site has short bios of various donors accompanied by grainy images that create a sinister feeling, much like an old tabloid newspaper. On Tench and Simone Cox, who have contributed the maximum of $4,400 each to Wicks, the website reads: “What does Buffy Wicks have in common with Mitt Romney, Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and the Republican National Convention? All four benefit from significant spending by ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley couple Tench and Simone Cox.”

The website reserves its harshest rhetoric to those who are behind the PACs that are supporting Wicks, such as EdVoice, started by Netflix founder Reid Hastings and John Doerr, a venture capitalist, Govern for California, funded in part by David Crane and other pro-charter school activists, and the “Coalition for East Bay Health Care Access, Affordable Housing and Quality Public Schools, supporting Buffy Wicks for Assembly 2018.” The backers of that independent expenditure committee, which only formed on Sept. 24, include Ed Voice for the Kids PAC, which contributed $406,500; Govern for California PAC which gave $38,190, the California Dental Association, which gave $169,500, the California Medical Association, which gave $81,500, the California YIMBY Fund, which gave $35,000, and Ron Conway, who contributed $45,000. By law, independent expenditure committees cannot consult directly with a candidate but must work independently.

But the East Bay DSA website intimates that Wicks is close to those donors. For example, they ran an article about Ashlee N. Titus, who is listed as the assistant treasurer of the PAC. Titus works for a well-known Republican law firm in Sacramento, Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, that often does the paperwork for IE organizations. The law firm and the pro-Buffy PAC share an address and phone number.

DSA pointed out that Titus is the president of the Sacramento chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group that produced a list of potential judicial nominees for President Trump. The headline read, “Meet the pro-Kavanaugh Republican running the newest Buffy Wicks PAC.” It had a grainy photo of Wicks with a red arrow pointing to Titus with another red arrow pointing to Kavanaugh. The message: Wicks=Kavanaugh.

In an email to Berkeleyside, Titus said her role in that campaign committee was just professional.

“I am partner in a law firm that provides campaign finance compliance advice and services,” wrote Titus. “In that capacity, I serve as treasurer or assistant treasurer for dozens of political action committees. I am not involved in campaign planning, candidate selection, endorsements, or decisions on tactics or fundraising for any of these political action committees.”

There was no fact checking on the article, said Frances Reade, the author, and East Bay DSA’s spokeswoman. Reade did not reach out to Titus to verify the article’s assertions. Nor has she ever tried to talk to Wicks, she said.

The campaign has created a “myth vs. fact” section on Wicks’ webpage to refute some of the allegations against her.

When independent expenditure campaigns backed by oil and tobacco companies poured money into Thurmond’s 2016 re-election campaign, he spoke out against it. While Wicks has pronounced that she will not “accept donations from charter school advocacy organizations, “ she has not criticized some of her donors and the PACs behind the IEs. I asked her why.

Wicks said she has not accepted any corporate money in the campaign. But she does not intend to speak out against her donors.

“There are some individuals who have supported charter schools who have donated to me, but their donation to me is not based on my position on charter schools. It’s based, I think, on the fact they think I am an effective leader. They also fund Kamala Harris, Gavin Newsom and lots of other Democrats.”

She said Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, is a case in point. Powell sits on the board of KIPP, a pro-charter school organization, but she also funds groups that work on immigrant rights and she supported the Common Sense Media campaign to get more funding for public schools. Govern for California may be pro-charter school but it supports other Democratic candidates.

“There are things I agree with and don’t agree with them on,” said Wicks.

Wicks said she thinks the Citizens United ruling has been destructive to democracy and she would like to see campaign reform as well as public campaign financing. But for now, Wicks believes that she can only focus on the things she can influence, which is why she is refusing corporate money.

“All I can control is the money I take in for my campaign. I cannot control the Independent Expenditure campaign. This is the challenge, the handcuffs our system has created that I find incredibly frustrating. No one wants an IE out there advocating for them or against them. I want to give my own message. What I have chosen to do is to invest my resources in organizing.”

A short time later, Wicks told me she had to go. House party number 226 was waiting.