The race to succeed Assemblyman Rich Gordon in Sacramento kicked off in earnest on Sunday afternoon at a forum in Los Altos when five candidates looking to represent the 24th District offered their thoughts on high-speed rail, affordable housing, the legalization of marijuana and other issues of interest to Silicon Valley.
Sponsored by the Peninsula Democratic Coalition, the panel featured Palo Alto City Councilman Marc Berman, Mountain View City Councilman Mike Kasperzak, Cupertino Mayor Barry Chang, patent attorney Vicki Veenker and technology entrepreneur Josh Becker, who entered the race earlier this month. They are hoping to represent a district that includes large portions of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, including the cities of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, Woodside, Portola Valley and a part of Cupertino, among other areas.
Gordon, who was elected in 2010 and who has endorsed Berman, will term out this year.
In a wide-ranging forum moderated by state Sen. Jerry Hill, each of the five Democrats made a case for why he or she is best equipped to represent the district. All of the candidates agreed that the state needs to invest more in education, particularly preschool; address the impacts of climate change; and provide more incentives for construction of affordable housing.
There was less consensus, however, on the subject of high-speed rail, a $62 billion line that is set to debut in 2025.
Kasperzak and Veenker were generally supportive of the project, with Kasperzak saying California is "geographically suitable for a system like high-speed rail."
"I think one day Californians will look back and think, 'How could we not have had HSR much like many of us in Santa Clara are now saying, 'Why do we not have BART?" Kasperzak said.
Veenker lauded the recent decision by the California High-Speed Rail Authority to start constructing the northern end of line. The proposal to begin building a stretch between San Francisco and Bakersfield was unveiled Thursday as part of the rail authority's new business plan.
"With respect to the state of California, high-speed rail is an environmentally efficient, go-to alternative to air travel because of the severe congestion in air travel getting between the metro areas in California," Veenker said. "I was heartened to see this week the decision to first build the section between San Jose and Bakersfield. I think that's a win for this area."
She added, however, that it's important to make sure that project is safe, which means finding money for separating the railroad tracks from intersecting roads through under- or overpasses.
Becker and Berman both took a much more skeptical stance toward high-speed rail, with Becker saying he doesn't believe the existing business model is viable. If elected, Becker said, he would use the Assembly's oversight power to address the deficiencies in the plan. Becker also said that the focus, when it comes to transportation priorities, should be closer to home.
"We desperately need transportation solutions here on the Peninsula," Becker said. "It's not, 'I can't get to LA fast enough.' It's, 'I can't get to work.'"
Berman agreed and said that the region's priority should be projects like Caltrain's electrification. He also said he has doubts about the agency spearheading the project.
"I don't trust the ridership projections. I don't trust the financial modeling. I don't trust the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which has shown no reason that we should trust them," Berman said.
Chang, for his part, didn't take any strong position, though he argued that if the rail line is constructed, it should be built underground in metropolitan areas.
"If you're going to do it, do it right and, in the metropolitan area, go underground," Chang said.
Candidates also weighed in on the state budget and generally concurred on the need to invest more in education. When asked what budget requests they would make to Gov. Jerry Brown, Becker had three: spend more on affordable housing, less on prisons and more on childhood education. Only 0.01 percent of the budget is currently allocated to affordable housing, even as $11.5 billion is spent on prisons.
The state will "have to make a difficult decision to close a prison that's the only way," he said. He also called early-childhood education a "an investment we can't turn down."
"Every dollar we spend is returned 8-to-1," Becker said. "This is an area we have to invest (in)."
Veenker said her message to Brown would be, "Education, education and education."
Specifically, she would request more funding for community colleges so that they can invest more in full-time faculty rather than rely mainly on part-timers.
Berman said he would urge Brown to increase funding for the low-income-housing tax credit and lobby for him to fully fund preschool for all low-income 4-year-olds throughout the state.
"Right now, the state isn't doing enough to make sure those kids are getting to start kindergarten and be kindergarten-ready," Berman said.
Kasperzak praised Brown's budget for its "restraint," including its inclusion of a rainy-day fund. Choosing not to spend money during a strong economy is not popular, but it's important, he said.
"Because we know every day gets us closer to the next recession. It will get there, we will have to cut and this will help us avoid painful cuts."
Chang said he would push for education and transportation to be higher priorities. Traffic, he said, is a nightmare and warrants more transportation funding.
There was some divergence on the topic of marijuana, with Becker, Berman and Veenker all saying that they expect marijuana to be legalized and arguing that that's not necessarily a bad thing. Berman said he supports legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana. He said he hopes that, if it's legal, "you'll get it out of the shadows."
"It will be sold in stores out in the open, with people checking IDs and making sure fewer kids are using marijuana," Berman said.
Becker said that in discussing the subject with various police chiefs recently, he basically made an argument that the "legalization train is coming" and that it's important for California to make sure it gets it right.
"There are issues we have to work through on this," Becker said. "But we have to look at Colorado and Washington, see what's worked well, see the mistakes they made and adjust accordingly."
Veenker told a similar stance. Legalization is coming, she said, and the "devil is in the details."
Kasperzak was more agnostic on the topic of legalization, saying he will respect whatever the voters decide. He also told the audience that he had never smoked pot and so the law wouldn't affect him.
Chang, meanwhile, volunteered he had smoked pot once when he lived in Boston. He said he didn't like it and does not support legalization of marijuana for recreational uses, though he supports it for medical purposes.
All of the candidates expressed support for increasing the supply of affordable housing, though through different means. Veenker highlighted her years of work with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, where she served as a board president and where she helped residents fight evictions. She said she believes in inclusionary zoning -- laws that require new housing developments to dedicate a portion of their units to affordable housing.
Kasperzak also said it's important to make sure local governments are able to adopt laws requiring below-market-rate housing (a task more difficult by a 2009 court case Palmer v. City of Los Angeles), while Becker said it's important to get more funding from state and federal sources. Becker called the existing situation a "perfect storm," with state and federal funding for affordable housing going down by 80 percent at a time when the crisis is worsening.
"This is an area where we do have to go and fight on this issue. We have to fight for the development dollars," Becker said.
The candidates concluded by discussing their Democratic bona fides, with each listing past stints as legislative aides, campaign volunteers and activists for progressive causes. Kasperzak, a former Republican who switched parties a decade ago, called himself a "proud Democrat."
"Jerry Hill is a former Republican. Hillary Clinton is a former Republican. Elizabeth Warren is a former Republican!" Kasperzak said. "That says to me that good people learn and change, and that's what I'd been able to do."