Residents of the 10th Congressional District have a rare chance next month to select a new representative.
The district has been without a vote in the Capitol since June 26, when former Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher resigned to take a post as undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security with the U.S. State Department.
Voters faced with this big decision have their work cut out for them.
Drawn by the infrequent opportunity to run for an open Congressional seat, 14 candidates will compete in the Sept. 1 special primary election for either an outright win or a spot as their party's top vote-getter in the Nov. 3 runoff.
At stake is the district's voice on major national issues such as health care reform, reauthorization of federal education legislation and the country's about-to-expire blueprint for transportation spending.
Tauscher had risen to considerable prominence during her 13 years in Congress, where she served as the ranking Bay Area member on the House Transportation Committee.
She also played a key role on national security as one of the few women to serve as an Armed Services subcommittee chairwoman.
The candidates who hope to fill her shoes face considerable obstacles before they can start looking for a Washington, D.C., address.
Special elections unfold on a highly accelerated schedule and the primary campaign lasts a scant two months during the summer months of July and August.
Turnout is typically low in special elections and coupled with its timing during traditional vacation months, it could dip to new depths.
But despite the potential for flaccid voter interest, the prize remains a prestigious seat in Congress and considerable advantage as the incumbent on the 2010 primary ballot. Members of Congress run for re-election every two years.
The two candidates with the most money are well-known politicians, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Garamendi of Walnut Grove and state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier of Concord.
Garamendi is running as a seasoned statesman with a deep resume of statewide public office and experience working in Washington, D.C. Former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have endorsed him.
DeSaulnier, in contrast, is positioning himself as the favored son with local roots that date back to his time as a restaurant owner, Concord councilman and county supervisor. His endorsements include Tauscher, Rep. George Miller and a host of other local elected officials.
Political observers do not count out Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan of Alamo, either, despite her lackluster fundraising. As the only woman among the major party candidates, she has a distinct advantage at the polls.
The other two Democrats, Adriel Hampton of Dublin and Anthony Woods of Fairfield, are probably long shots. But both men offer progressive Democrats a choice outside the slate of institutional party candidates.
Woods, in particular, has caught the eye of Democrats looking for the next generation of political leaders. The 29-year-old Harvard graduate is a gay African-American veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq but left the Army earlier this year under the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy.
The six Republican candidates face an even steeper path to victory.
Democrats enjoy an 18 percentage point registration lead in this district. Most expect the top vote-getter among the Democrats on Sept. 1 will be the prohibitive favorite in the runoff.
Barring any major revelations that knock a campaign off track or a dramatic shift in the fundraising picture, the Republican front-runner is David Harmer, a former banking attorney from Dougherty Valley who recently lost his job after JPMorgan Chase bought the company where he worked, Washington Mutual, and closed its credit card division.
Harmer launched his campaign four months ago, well ahead of the other five GOP candidates. He is the only Republican who had raised money as of the latest federal finance reporting deadline.
An affable Mormon father of four and son of a former state Senator from Southern California, Harmer acknowledges the Democrats' registration advantage.
But he says he can win if he can successfully appeal to moderate Democrats and independents worried about federal spending, unemployment and the economy. Nearly one in five voters in the district is a "decline-to-state" voter and he considers those folks potential supporters.
Reach Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773 or www.ibabuzz.com/politics.
Under state law, a special primary is a blanket-style election in which all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, appear on the same ballot.
Likewise, all voters, regardless of affiliation, receive identical ballots.
The top vote-getter in each party will advance to the Nov. 3 special general election unless one candidate garners 50 percent plus 1 vote and wins the seat outright. Given the large field -- 14 candidates -- it is unlikely that someone will receive a majority vote.
The three minor party candidates have no primary competitors and will automatically advance to the Nov. 3 general election.
The winner will be sworn into office shortly after the election.
The candidates are: