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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."

Coffey Park Chronicles

As part of an ongoing series, The Press Democrat is following the residents and recovery of Coffey Park, the Santa Rosa neighborhood destroyed by the Tubbs fire.

Special coverage: Coffey Park Chronicles

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Rural homeowners, with some 800,000 properties across the state, have faced a $150 annual fee to defray the cost of fighting wildland fires. In the Democratic caucus, which is dominated by urban legislators, North Coast legislators say they have to go to bat for rural areas on the hot-button issue.

The fire fee was approved by the Legislature "and apologized for ever since as bad policymaking during difficult budget times," Levine noted.

"Even in the North Bay, we have rural areas," he said. "So many regulations are abstract and don't have an effect on our lives, but they actually do in the more rural communities."

Republicans tend to represent most of the rural areas across the state, but they are cemented in the minority, so North Coast Democrats are among the few outspoken rural advocates in positions of power, Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada said.

On rural issues, "you can be in another arena when we are working within our own caucus," she said, noting the Republican dominance on rural issues. "But I think we are expected to work across party lines for the good of California."

The North Coast also was struck by state park closures. When the state was making sweeping cuts during the budget crisis, the long-awaited hit list showed that a third of the parks slated for closure were in Evans' district.

"Someone representing the North Coast has to stand up and be heard on issues, because our issues are somewhat unique, so they aren't taken into account when deals are made with leadership and the governor," Evans said.

While the North Coast likely will be left out of the top two leadership slots in the Senate and the Assembly, some lawmakers from the region have served as key committee chairpersons and caucus leaders.

Evans, during her earlier stint in the Assembly, served as budget chairwoman, majority whip and Democratic caucus chairwoman. Similarly, when Assemblyman Wes Chesbro previously served in the Senate, he served as chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee.

Chesbro currently leads the Assembly's Natural Resources Committee and a select committee on the wine industry. Evans, a former Judiciary Committee chairwoman, recently joined the Health Committee.

Wolk and Yamada, who both hail from Davis, began representing Napa and Sonoma counties this past year because of redistricting.

Yamada, whose background is in social work, is known for her focus on seniors and persons with disabilities. She is chairwoman of the Assembly's Aging and Long-Term Care Committee.

Wolk, one of the most visible members of the Legislature, is chairwoman of the Government and Finance Committee and heads the committee dealing with the Delta and water issues -#8212; a key panel during the current drought.

But when it comes to the top leadership spots in the Legislature, lawmakers from districts with large rural areas are at a disadvantage.

"Generally speaking, your leaders come from the most populous area," said lobbyist and former North Bay Assemblywoman Bev Hansen, R-Napa. "For North Coast legislators, they have a lot more territory to cover than San Francisco, the East Bay, Sacramento and Los Angeles. These are big districts that makes representation a lot more work."

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