California's North Coast is nearly synonymous with a New Age-y strand of progressivism. For two decades, Rep. Lynn Woolsey has represented it in Congress by denouncing the wars waged by both major parties' presidents: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. She proudly identified herself as the first former welfare mother in Congress. Now Woolsey is retiring, and the campaign to succeed her prominently features two self-described progressives vying for votes in a June 5 open primary.
Woolsey is staying out of the endorsement game, so voters in her district have been left to make up their own minds. Elect Norman Solomon, who has rallied against America's adventures abroad since Vietnam, or pick Jared Huffman, who has five years' experience in the California Assembly.
"Congress is in danger of losing a lot of its lifeblood, its moral center. We can't afford to lose Lynn Woolsey, Dennis Kucinich, other voices for good alternatives to war," Solomon told HuffPost. "We've got to replenish the strength of antiwar and social justice representation in Congress. Our district and my campaign are crucial to that process."
Solomon, whose hair is streaked with silver and whose face easily melts into a grin, wields a resume more typical of a soapbox rabble-rouser than a congressional candidate. He's never been an elected official. He took Sean Penn with him to Iraq in 2002 to oppose a then-looming invasion. He directed a documentary adaptation of his book War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He touts his endorsement by Phil Donohue.
All of that, plus the support of liberal advocacy group Democracy for America, might make him seem liable to the same pitfalls that have befallen losing netroots candidates like Ilya Sheyman in Illinois. But Solomon is quick to argue that his candidacy has more than a virtual presence.
"For us the netroots support is important yet secondary," Solomon told HuffPost. "And frankly, that's the reverse of what some of the most publicized races have been. We started in the communities."
Over the last few years, he said, he's given at least 200 speeches and presentations in the district. He's built up a mailing list of 10,000 dedicated supporters who live in it. He has 850 dedicated volunteers, hundreds of whom pitch in for him every weekend.
When he visits his would-be constituents, Solomon said, he tells them they need someone to represent them who knows "the difference between compromise and capitulation." Someone who will carry on Woolsey's strident anti-war legacy. But Solomon added that his candidacy is about more than his opposition to war. Attending a fundraiser at Donohue's Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan on Tuesday, he wore button emblazoned with a "99%" logo.
"I was the Occupy candidate before there was an Occupy movement," Solomon said. "I started out of the gate in January 2011, declaring that our campaign is a campaign to challenge the undemocratic power of Wall Street."
Opponent Jared Huffman, the tem-limited California assemblyman who is also running for the 2nd District seat, said Solomon is kidding himself if he thinks he's the only progressive in the race.
"I've got a long and proven progressive record, and it's a record of actually getting things done as a legislator and public official," said Huffman.
Huffman has litigated on behalf of the National Organization for Women, served as a senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, and garnered "On The Street" support from the "pro-Israel, pro-peace" group J Street. But Solomon is trying to flank him from the left, arguing that the district's representative shouldn't be afraid to criticize President Obama.
"There's a real contrast in my approach to speaking clearly, challenging the Obama administration when it's wrong, and the sort of silence, mumbling that's typical of my main opponent," Solomon said.
That kind of rhetoric clearly irks Huffman, who wrote on his website that he would "push for a much faster end to the war in Afghanistan" than Obama.
"Not everyone was able to travel to Baghdad with Sean Penn," said Huffman. "If this comparison is about who is the most consistently sanctimonious and loud and self-righteous, he wins. If it's about who combines solid progressive values with an ability to function with others and get things done, I win."
There hasn't been a public poll in the 2nd Congressional District for months. But the Press-Democrat, a local newspaper, tagged Huffman as the front-runner. He raised $586,131 in donations last year, compared to $311,817 for Solomon and $455,959 for Stacey Lawson, a Democrat who garnered the endorsement of EMILY's List, a group that supports the election of pro-choice Democratic female candidates. One Republican, businessman Dan Roberts, is also running, but pundits say the district is so liberal that he is unlikely to have much of an impact.
The top two candidates in June will go on to face each other again in the general election, which means that in November California's 2nd District could be host to a relatively rare phenomenon in American politics: two self-described progressives duking it out for a seat in Congress.
CLARIFICATION: This article was updated to clarify the level of J Street's support of Huffman. He has received "On The Street" support from the group, which is a step below an outright endorsement.