SACRAMENTO -#8212; In the state Capitol, North Coast legislators are a rare breed. They represent liberal districts unlike any other in the state. Nowhere else in California is there a region quite as rural and quite as liberal.
Coming from such a distinct area, North Coast legislators must be fierce advocates to have their agenda heard in a Legislature dominated by geographically smaller districts in heavily populated regions to the south.
A tough prospect, but it can be done.
"The North Coast is a little treasure chest that can be exploited," said former Assemblyman Michael Allen, a Santa Rosa Democrat. "We have large amounts of geography and state resources, so essentially we have a few representatives that are vying for a large part of the state geographically."
"The challenge has been met with legislators by explaining our concerns to others in the state, and those concerns are taken into account when decisions are made," Allen said.
State lawmakers from the North Coast, all Democrats, have little chance at snaring one of the top two leadership positions -#8212; Assembly speaker or Senate president pro tempore -#8212; even though their party controls both houses of the Legislature with supermajorities. With the Senate and Assembly both poised to change leaders, the top leader in each house likely will hail from voter-rich Southern California.
Three of the five legislators now representing the North Coast face term limits or will step down at the end of 2014. That leaves Sen. Lois Wolk, whose term runs through 2016, and Assemblyman Marc Levine, who is running for re-election.
Levine, who defeated Allen in 2012, still is making a name for himself and could remain in the Assembly until 2024 following a voter-approved easing of term limits. But the San Rafael Democrat is facing a stiff challenge from other Democrats in his district, in part because he defeated Allen, an incumbent who was strongly supported by labor groups.
Labor is not happy, but Levine is trying to counter by taking a strong role on environmental issues that are important to voters in liberal Marin County, where more of his constituents live.
Most recently, he sought a ban on plastic bags and a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves injecting huge volumes of water mixed with chemicals into the ground to extract natural gas.
He also opposed dense housing developments that are typical in suburbs but don't fit Marin's character.
"He's obviously very aware of his constituents' desire to have a representative to not just care about the environment because most Californians do, but also be passionate on the environment," said Bill Allayaud, director of government affairs in California for the Environmental Working Group. "He's going to be a leader on California environmental issues."
As for labor, Levine said he is mending fences. "We are important partners as we move forward. It's been very positive," he said.
Another challenge for North Coast legislators is representing rural communities in Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt, Trinity and DelNorte counties. While Sonoma, Marin and Napa are distinct, they have issues similar to other urban and suburban coastal districts across the state, and they are part of the influential nine-county Bay Area region.
But the far north is different.
"This is a very rural area, and it creates its own challenges," said Sen. Noreen Evans, who represents a sprawling section of the North Coast. "A Democratic rural district that is this size is sometimes out of the mainstream of the usual Democratic issues, and one example is the fire fee that hits rural areas harder than urban areas."