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Marc Levine's upset victory over a powerful state Assembly incumbent in 2012 signaled a battle for the soul of California's Democratic Party.

Two years later, that fight still resonates in Levine's bid for a second term against a field of candidates who want to portray the San Rafael Democrat as being out of step with core party values.

"What this race really is symbolic of is the fundamental challenges Democrats are facing statewide within their tent," said David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University.

Levine's challengers for the 10th District Assembly seat spanning Marin County and the southern half of Sonoma County include first-term Santa Rosa Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom, Marin College trustee Diana Conti and Gregory Allen, a Novato corporate recruiter and the lone Republican entered in the race.

Former Santa Rosa Councilwoman Veronica Jacobi also appears on the ballot, although Jacobi has publicly endorsed Conti. The top two vote-getters in the June primary, regardless of party, advance to the general election in November.

The 10th District contest has divided core Democratic Party constituencies including labor and environmental groups. It's also attracted, in Levine's case, interest and money from groups that traditionally have fallen outside that bloc, including from big business and agriculture.

As a sign of the divisions in the race, Levine was the only incumbent in statewide office who did not receive the endorsement of his party. No candidate in the 10th District race received more than 50 percent of the delegates necessary to secure the endorsement.

McCuan said Levine reflects a new kind of Democrat who has moved toward the political middle and away from the party's more progressive roots. He said Levine as a result has demonstrated an ability to "work on both sides of the aisle."

Levine earned the endorsement of the California League of Conservation Voters, which gave him a 92 percent rating on its environmental scorecard. At the same time, Levine received dual endorsements from the Santa Rosa and San Rafael chambers of commerce, the first time in recent memory that the two organizations have thrown their weight behind one candidate, according to chamber officials.

The groups cited Levine's support for infrastructure projects along Highway 101 and the SMART train, and for his willingness to "not be driven by ideology," as the reasons for the endorsements.

"I've brought a thoughtful and independent-minded approach to policy-making in Sacramento," Levine said.

His opponents, however, label Levine a "corporate Democrat." It's a role-reversal for Levine, who in 2012 beat Michael Allen by portraying him as a Sacramento insider who was beholden to special interests. Allen, a longtime Santa Rosa Democrat who was vulnerable in part because his district was redrawn, lost despite having the overwhelming support of labor and environmental groups, and a nearly 6-to-1 financial advantage over Levine.

Now, Levine is fending off campaign attacks seeking to portray him as a tool of the interests backing him.

Levine said the attacks are "completely hollow," and that his record in office supports his contention that he is a "bleeding heart liberal." He cited as examples his support for an increase in the minimum wage, expanding worker protections and protecting revenue for schools.

Carlstrom also has been tagged by critics with the same "corpro-cat" label because of the financial support she has received from Santa Rosa developer Bill Gallaher and The Ratto Group, which dominates the garbage business in Sonoma County.

She noted the campaign donations she has received from multiple unions and said, "those don't sound like corporations to me."

The Democrats in the race have carved up labor support to the degree that the North Bay Labor Council representing more than 60 labor groups is not endorsing a candidate for the primary. The decision may be without precedent in North Bay labor history.

Carlstrom's endorsements include unions representing nurses, teachers, letter carriers and firefighters. Conti has received backing from the Service Employees International Union, representing thousands of local government employees in the area.

Levine has earned support from individual unions representing building trades, police officers, nurses and government workers.

Environmental groups also are split, with many organizations staying out of the fray for now.

Levine said one of his proudest accomplishments in office has been authoring a law that led to Caltrans reaching a settlement with environmentalists over the killing of federally protected birds during a highway construction project at the Petaluma River bridge.

But Levine also earned enmity from environmentalists for abstaining on a bill that would have given the California Coastal Commission the authority to levy fines. Some also criticized him for sending out a glossy mailer calling for a moratorium on fracking paid for by a Mill Valley private investment firm with ties to fracking interests in Texas.

"He's allied himself with corporate interests that aren't in line with the values of this district," said David Keller, a former Petaluma City Council member and current member of the Petaluma River Council who is backing Conti. "He's out of place. If he wants to be in office, he should do it in the Central Valley, because frankly, that seems where his loyalties are."

At a Santa Rosa forum last week hosted by the No Name Women's Group, Conti earned the loudest applause of the evening when she said Californians need to rid Sacramento of big money influence and corruption.

"No crime, no grime, no loopholes and no secret money," she said.

She said she supports rolling back student fees at California's colleges and universities and single-payer health care. On the environmental front, she said she supports a ban on fracking, tax incentives to promote the creation of green jobs and a severance tax on the extraction of oil in California.

Carlstrom also signaled support for a fracking ban and for giving the Coastal Commission the authority to levy fines "so that corporate polluters are held accountable." She also supports single-payer health care and said she would work to restore funding to the state's courts.

The 10th District race is likely to be won or lost in Marin County, given that 59 percent of likely voters reside there, according to Political Data Inc.

Seniors over 65 make up just 29 percent of the registered voters in the district but 43 percent of the likely votes.

McCuan said the race is "Levine's to lose, because of the amount of resources he's brought to bear."

The most recent campaign finance reports in March showed Levine with a war chest of $422,639, which at the time gave him about a 4-to-1 advantage over Carlstrom, his nearest fund-raising challenger.

McCuan said the June primary "is all about if another Democrat can get into the second place pole position."

He said Allen, the Republican candidate, has an outside chance of making the top two as a result of splintering among Democrats.

Allen, an Air Force veteran who was born and raised in Marin County, said his major focus in the race is on taxes and preserving Proposition 13.

He said he's also concerned about the density of affordable housing units that are to be built in Marin County to meet Association of Bay Area Governments mandates.

Under those guidelines, 985 new housing units for low-income residents are to be built in Marin County by 2022.

"I think it should be left up to cities and counties. I think ABAG is going to push it down our throats," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)

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