Assembly candidates square off in Democratic forum

Five rivals looking to replace Rich Gordon sound off on high-speed rail, marijuana and affordable housing

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."

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8 people like this
Posted by Long-time Cupertino Resident
a resident of another community
on Feb 21, 2016 at 10:31 pm

Barry Chang was also a Republican. Did he disclose that as well?

He did not explain why he is so concerned of the nightmarish traffic in the Bay Area, including many parts in the AD24, but he rigorously supports building high-density office complexes that inevitably generate hundreds of thousands of new car-trips daily on the major highways and local streets along I-280 and Highway 85.

His campaign cites concerns of climate change and his support of environment as his track records. However, massive build-up of mega office complex only invites further ait pollution from mobile source -- cars, trucks and buses.

3 people like this
Posted by coooper
a resident of another community
on Feb 22, 2016 at 12:13 am

Chang's $1000/employee tax proposal indicates he will not be shy about raising taxes in the Assembly.

1 person likes this
Posted by Sea Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 22, 2016 at 3:48 am

This is Sea Reddy

I am a candidate for 24th District Assembly race.

I am not seeking donations.

I have informed that to many people. I am a democrat.

Here are my ideas

- No high speed rail. Improve Caltrain systems
- Lower regulations for businesses so they can pay more to low end workers
- Keep 24th district as good as it is.
- Low growth or slow growth
- Do not spoil what we have
- Put money to improve our schools, mental health, safety of our children
- Come up with innovative way on transportation
- support wage increases to pay for rent
- Integrity, innovation and inclusion


27 people like this
Posted by Voter
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 22, 2016 at 9:11 am

[Post removed. Criticisms of candidates should be supported by specific references to their positions or examples of behavior that is objectionable. Attacks directed at a single candidate will be removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Young Democrat
a resident of The Greenhouse
on Feb 22, 2016 at 10:00 am

[Post removed due to deletion of referenced comment.]

6 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 22, 2016 at 11:33 am

Annette is a registered user.

Party affiliation isn't as meaningful as it once was because as is sadly evident, neither party is being sufficiently effective. Somewhere along the line the meaning of public service got diminished to campaign slogans and the reality we live with is an enormous, expensive and ever-growing government (at all levels) and a complicated list of problems that don't get resolved no matter who is in office. A candidate who is pragmatic, has a good water plan, a sound fiscal policy, relevant experience, and good ethics is the sort I am looking for. Add to that list: one who cares enough about his/her job to be prepared for meetings and discussions.

9 people like this
Posted by Justacitizen
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 22, 2016 at 12:52 pm

Justacitizen is a registered user.

Councilman Berman seems to have the most reasonable views on high speed rail, legalisation and other topics. High speed rail is such a massive waste of money and valuable real estate here. And we've seen the benefits of legalisation in so many other places. Not legalising seems naive. Berman is also a keen councilman and has driven a number of projects to successful resolution during his time in public service. His approach to transparent and prudent budgeting on the city council has been impressive and welcomed by citizens who want better financial outcomes.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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