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In the North Coast's congressional race, it all comes down to second place.

The June 5 primary election will narrow the field of 12 candidates down to two finalists, who will compete in November for the $174,000-a-year job awarded by about 400,000 registered voters from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman of San Rafael is considered the favorite based on his $865,000 in campaign funding, 800-plus endorsements and name recognition after six years in the Legislature, securing approval of more than 60 bills.

A feisty competition for second place pits Marin County Supervisor Susan Adams, businesswoman and political newcomer Stacey Lawson and activist/author Norman Solomon.

The other eight — four more Democrats, two Republicans and two candidates with no party preference — are long shots, their chances diminished by lack of funding, obscurity and Democrat domination of the district.

A series of candidate forums established little difference among the Democratic contenders on issues such as Afghanistan, health care and the environment. But two of them focused attention on Lawson, a well-funded political newcomer.

The winner will replace Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a Petaluma Democrat whose liberal politics, including early and vocal opposition to the Iraq War, endeared her to North Bay Democratic voters for 20 years.

Woolsey's retirement and California's redistricting set up a wide open race in the 2nd Congressional District, which covers a long stretch of the entire North Coast, excluding Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati and the Sonoma Valley.

Huffman is competing as the only Sacramento legislator, termed out of the Assembly; Adams as a county lawmaker with a health care background; Lawson as an entrepreneur and Solomon as a liberal advocate with a national following.

"In this district, you have to be progressive, you have to care about working people and you definitely have to care about the environment," said Lisa Maldonado, North Bay Labor Council executive director.

Adams, Huffman and Solomon said they would join the House Progressive Caucus, which Woolsey previously led, but that group's influence is waning, said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.

Assuming Republicans retain control of the House, the progressives, in the wake of Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich's primary election loss, will have "marginal influence" in the chamber, McCuan said.

Running on record

Huffman, 48, a former environmental attorney, is running on his record of getting bills passed amid the partisan gridlock in Sacramento. "I'm the only candidate who's been tested that way," he said.

His favorite measures, Huffman said, include a law that compensates residents for surplus energy they spill into the grid from renewable sources such as wind and solar arrays, and lighting efficiency standards that have been adopted into federal law and will cut electricity use for lighting in half by the end of the decade.

His endorsements include more than 50 current and former female elected officials from around the district, a clear bid for consideration by voters who may consider the North Coast a "woman's seat" in Congress.

Huffman also pointed to endorsements from across the political spectrum, including environmentalist Bill Kortum and business-oriented former Sonoma County Supervisor Tim Smith.

But the notion that he's the front-runner, Huffman said, is "a dangerous thing to start thinking in politics."

In April, the campaign — by then about 9 months old — turned testy as Adams, Lawson and Solomon began publicly trading shots.

"There's no doubt this is a fierce competition," Solomon said last week.

Adams and Solomon faulted Lawson's voting record, missing eight of 12 elections from 2003-08, and some of her business credentials.

Lawson, a self-made millionaire in business who moved into the district three years ago, apologized for her spotty voting and bristled at the other attacks that she said were off the mark.

"There's no secret why folks are coming after me," Lawson said, describing her candidacy as a "big threat" to the other Democrats.

Huffman, or any other Democrat, would easily defeat a Republican in the November election. Democrats account for 50 percent of registered voters in the six-county district, compared with 23 percent Republicans.

But in a two-Democrat runoff, seen as the more likely outcome, Huffman would face the greatest challenge from Lawson, perceived as the most moderate of the leading Democrats.

Touts county experience

Adams, a three-term supervisor, said it was "fair game" to challenge the credentials proffered by another candidate. "That's debate, not negative campaigning," she said, regarding her public criticism of Lawson.

A single mother with a background in nursing, Adams, 55, said her 10 years as a supervisor, balancing a county budget and dealing with issues such as energy, health care and transportation, distinguish her candidacy.

Adams cast the deciding vote in 2008 to establish the Marin Clean Energy program, which aims to provide county residents with electricity 50 percent to 100 percent from renewable sources.

Her gender will be an asset in Congress, where 16 percent of members are women, Adams said. "Women are usually better at collaboration and cooperation."

Adams brushed off Lawson's criticism that she and the other Marin supervisors were to blame for filmmaker George Lucas' withdrawal of plans to build a studio at Grady Ranch, injecting millions of dollars into the county's economy.

Adams said she worked with Lucas for 18 months on the "fast-tracked" project, which was derailed by the threat of litigation from neighbors in Lucas Valley.

Focus on jobs, economy

Lawson, 41, a virtual unknown when she announced her candidacy last year, made a splash by raising more than $740,000 — second only to Huffman — in a race on pace to spend a North Coast record total of more than $3 million.

Her campaign focus on jobs and the economy sets her apart, Lawson said. "It's the No. 1 issue on people's minds," she said. "None of my opponents have effectively addressed that issue at all."

A sound economic engine, she said, provides the revenue to support education, social services and public facilities.

Lawson's business career took a turn in 2004, when she visited India and met a guru named Baskaran Pillai, and began cultivating her spiritual life.

In 2007, she participated in Emerge California, a political candidate training program for Democratic women and connected with Susie Tompkins Buell, a San Francisco Democratic fundraising powerhouse.

History of activism

Solomon, 60, calls himself "an independent, progressive Democrat" with a history of activism, research and writing that dates back to his teenage years.

While some Democrats promote the need for bipartisan engagement with Republicans, Solomon said there are issues — such as women's reproductive rights and defending Medicare and Social Security — on which no compromise is possible.

"If your hand keeps getting cut off, why would you keep reaching across the aisle?" he said.

Solomon said he vocally opposed the bank bailout and troop surge in Afghanistan before either step was taken, and neither has achieved its ends.

Asked if he needs to expand his support beyond progressive circles, Solomon said the North Coast, a "deep blue, deep green" region, is a perfect fit for his politics.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)

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