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.