Ceres Mayor Anthony Cannella today is announcing his run for the seat held by Republican state Sen. Jeff Denham, setting the stage for what promises to be a knockout fight for one of California's few swing districts next year.
Cannella, a Republican, and Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, a Democrat from Salinas, are lining up their parties' backing well ahead of the November 2010 race. Their groundwork this fall could sew up their nominations without a June primary.
It's a coveted seat because it represents one of the Democratic Party's best chances to achieve a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which would enable Democratic lawmakers to pass a budget without Republican input. Democrats are two seats shy of that margin.
"This will be the highest-profile legislative race in the state next year," said Mike Lynch, former chief of staff to former Rep. Gary Condit, D-Ceres. "Both sides will be fully funded. It's the most competitive race in the Senate."
Cannella, Ceres' mayor since 2005, is a hard-to-pigeonhole opponent for Democrats. His father, Sal Cannella, served in the Assembly as a Democrat from 1990 to 1996.
"I'm going to work with everybody," said Anthony Cannella, 40. "Just like on Thanksgiving when I sit down at the table with my father."
His priorities center on bolstering the Central Valley's economy by protecting agriculture and working with businesses to back job-generating initiatives.
"In the valley, we're almost in a Depression-era unemployment," he said. "This is ground zero."
Cannella's business, Modesto-based Northstar Engineering, is a union shop. He's respected among other San Joaquin Valley elected representatives as a hard worker who has prioritized public safety as his city has suffered deep declines in revenue because of the recession. He favored a half-cent sales tax increase for police and fire services that won the approval of nearly 75 percent of Ceres voters in 2007. "We're safer because of it," Cannella said.
"He's very committed to citizens," said Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour, a Republican supporting Cannella.
Senate District 12 spans five counties — Madera, Merced, Monterey, San Benito and Stanislaus. Its population tilts toward the valley counties in Cannella's favor, but its voter registration has become increasingly Democratic over the past eight years. Just 33 percent of its voters are registered Republicans, and 47 percent are registered Democrats.
Caballero, Salinas' mayor from 1998 to 2006, is working to raise her profile in the Central Valley counties, linking her work on agriculture and water resources to the valley's priorities.
She wrote a bill this year that would dedicate a $12.5 million bond toward water infrastructure, and she was tapped by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass to speak about the state's water issues at a U.S. Senate hearing earlier this month.
"The district is primarily agricultural and so the issues that we're looking at in the Salinas Valley are the same you're looking at in the Central Valley," she said, ticking off jobs, water and youth violence as her top priorities.
Denham, a Republican from Atwater, cannot seek re-election because of term limits. He is running for lieutenant governor. Kevin Spillane, one of Denham's political consultants, is working for Cannella's Senate bid.
Denham won a close race against former Assemblyman Rusty Areias in 2002 and sailed to re-election in 2006 against Dos Palos attorney George "Wiley" Nickel.
Former Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata funded a recall effort against Denham last year. It failed, with about 78 percent of voters casting ballots to keep Denham, but it showed the Democratic Party's determination to win the district.
Bee assistant city editor Adam Ashton can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2366.