PART 1 OF 2 | Next week: Profiles of Mike Kasperzak, Peter Ohtaki, Seelam Reddy and Vicki Veenker
From the coastal communities of Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay to the sprawling campuses of Google, Facebook and Hewlett-Packard Co., the 24th District in the California Assembly is a place of scenic beauty and high-tech might, of affluent suburbs and blue-collar enclaves, of startup dreams and traffic nightmares.
Nature lovers and innovators have been flocking to this pocket of California for well over a century, since before Horace Greeley offered his famous dictum, "Go west, young man," to anyone who'd listen. In recent decades, the district's roster of pioneers has expanded to include the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
The district also has its share of problems: insufficient housing, aging infrastructure, gaping income inequality and an uneven education system. Located between San Francisco and San Jose, the district embodies some of the iconic of the features of both cities: an educated populace, a startup mentality and gentrification that, in many communities, creates barriers for newcomers and heartbreak for long-timers who cannot keep up with rising rents. There are also "quality of life" problems, like excessive airplane noise and insufficient parking, perpetual conflicts between developers and environmentalists and a mass-transit system that everyone agrees is overdue for a major investment.
The eight candidates vying to replace Assemblyman Rich Gordon in Sacramento all believe they have the solutions to the problems of both the district and California at large. They come from backgrounds as varied as the communities that make up the district. Gordon, who has been representing the district since 2010, will reach his term limit at the end of the year.
The ballot will include five sitting council members: Marc Berman from Palo Alto; Mike Kasperzak and John Inks from Mountain View; Peter Ohtaki from Menlo Park; and Barry Chang from Cupertino. Two other candidates Seelam Reddy and Jay Cabrera are each running dark-horse campaigns on shoe-string budgets (something each has done in the past). Vicki Veenker, a patent attorney, is the only candidate who has neither sought nor held an elected office in the past. She has, however, helped to co-found a women's soccer league and, in her current run, earned endorsements from both the California Nurses Association and the California Teachers Association.
The eight candidates will square off in the June 7 primary battle, with the two top vote-getters advancing to the Nov. 8 election ballot.
Over a series of interviews in recent weeks, each of the eight candidates has offered a distinct vision for the district and explained his or her views about the hot topics of the day: high-speed rail, legalization of marijuana, affordable housing, transportation, water tunnels and the broader threat of climate change. Over the next two editions, the Weekly will profile each candidate along with a rundown on where he or she stands on these issues and more. Here, in the first installment, are our introductions to assembly candidates Marc Berman, Jay Cabrera, Barry Chang and John Inks.
Marc Berman | Palo Alto city councilman
Marc Berman's Democratic evolution may be traced to the time when, as a 7-year-old, he took part in a private tour of the White House and spent the whole time talking about how much he hated then-Vice President George H. W. Bush a fury that Berman attributes at least in part to an abscessed tooth.
Or to his internship as an undergraduate student at Georgetown University in U.S. Anna Eshoo's office. Or to his work the following year on Mike Honda's first Congressional campaign. Or to the time he left Palo Alto with two suitcases and moved to South Dakota to help Tim Johnson defeat John Thune in the nail-biting 2002 Senate election.
A nephew of former two-term U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (who, along with his wife, Ellen, organized the aforementioned White House tour and who later had to write a letter of apology), Berman grew up steeped in politics though it didn't take long for him to realize that he and his Republican uncle weren't on the same sides.
"To a lot of people, when they're growing up, politics is what other people do. The family doesn't talk about it a lot. It's not tangible. For me, growing up, it was," he said.
Berman, 35, began dipping his toes into political waters as a teenager, becoming senior-class president at Palo Alto High School. He enrolled at Emory University and, after his freshman year, spent time in Eshoo's office in Washington, D.C., answering phones and assisting constituents. He transferred to Georgetown University and the following summer assisted with Honda's victorious campaign. The next year, he took a summer stint as voting analyst in the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, reviewing applications for changes to polling places from states that are subject to the Civil Rights Voting Act.
Berman's first foray into national politics came in 2002, when he moved to South Dakota to work on the Johnson campaign. And while Johnson's razor-thin victory over Thune was rewarding, the thrill didn't last. In 2004, Thune made national headlines when he defeated Senate leader Tom Daschle, on whose behalf Berman was working.
"Campaigns are great when you win; they're a kick in the gut when you lose," Berman said.
Chastened by the defeat, Berman enrolled at the University of Southern California law school and then went on to practice corporate law at two separate firms and began thinking about his own political career.
His first opportunity came in 2010, when he decided to jump into the Assembly race to succeed Ira Ruskin. Ultimately, Berman withdrew from the race and endorsed Josh Becker, one of three candidates vying for the seat (along with eventual winner Rich Gordon and former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto).
Shortly after the election, Berman said he met with Gordon, who advised him to get involved locally. Berman took the advice to heart and, over the next few years, served on a citizen oversight committee for a Santa Clara Valley Water District tax measure and on a blue-ribbon committee in Palo Alto that surveyed the city's infrastructure needs. He also joined the board of the Peninsula Democratic Coalition; became the founding advisory board member of the Silicon Valley chapter of the New Leaders Council; and helped relaunch Peninsula Young Democrats.
In 2012, Berman won a seat on the Palo Alto City Council. At a time when the council has been split between slow-growth "residentialists" and members more accepting of new development, Berman has typically voted with the latter. His voting record has been, for the most part, moderate (the slow-growth citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning in early 2014 gave him a 56 percent rating; only two avowed residentialists, Karen Holman and Greg Schmid, scored better). And on a council that at times favors lengthy speeches, granular micro-management and philosophical divisions, Berman is generally concise and invariably respectful.
There have been a few exceptions. In 2013, Berman gave a lengthy monologue accompanied by a video to demonstrate why he believed a proposed housing development on Maybell Avenue should be approved (many residents disagreed and voted to overturn the project later that year).
Later that year, he was one of only two council members to oppose a ban on vehicle dwelling, a decision that he said "started with my gut and then it became a position." The council ultimately overturned the ban.
More recently, Berman has become more involved in housing and education issues. He had recently spent a year as development director at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, resigning last fall to focus on his council duties and the Assembly race. At a recent candidates forum, he made a case that California has dramatically underfunded its schools and colleges and also advocated for the state to build more housing and reinvest in infrastructure.
He has also strengthened his party connections, raised $226,476 last year for this campaign (his total of $287,900 is second only to Barry Chang) and secured endorsements from Gordon, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former state Controller Steve Westly and Assembly Speaker pro Tempore Kevin Mullin, among others. Now, he hopes to channel their support, along with his experience, to win the seat and do his part to "level the playing field" in Silicon Valley.
"The side that carries the day for me is the side that believes that a lot of people get born into pretty rough situations in life due to no fault of their own," Berman said in a recent interview. "And that government can play an equalizing factor to make sure they get an opportunity to succeed, even notwithstanding the difficult situation they were born into."
Jay Cabrera | Community activist
Jay Cabrera wants you to know that he is a "Bernie" candidate.
Sure, the California Secretary of State recently rejected Cabrera's bid to include "Bernie" (quotation marks included) as part of his name on the June ballot. But while the nickname was scratched, the rhetoric remains. In a recent interview, Cabrera said he is a "firm believer in understanding that the economy is being rigged" and that "campaign finance is being rigged to benefit the richest of the rich."
Much like the senator from Vermont, Cabrera touts the fact that his campaign is based on small contributions and grassroots support a similar approach that he took in his prior six unsuccessful political campaigns (he was on the ballot for three of them: his run for the Santa Cruz City Council in 2008; a Congressional bid in 2012; and Palo Alto's school board race in 2014). He had also campaigned for the 24th District in 2010, though as a write-in candidate he did not appear on the ballot.
He recognizes that his current campaign is against "quite a steep hill, given the amount of money and organization that some of the big-money candidates have." But, as Cabrera said during a recent interview, "Winning is not the most important thing."
"The integrity of the system is more important," Cabrera said. "And being true to myself and making sure we are actually representing the people."
One of his major goals is to create a "21st century democracy" through which residents have more say in decisions. This means promoting direct democracy by giving people the technological tools to constantly communicate with government representatives and vote on issues as they arise. It also means encouraging more participatory democracy the sort where residents actually attend government meetings. Cabrera's goal, he said, is to find the right balance between the existing system of representative democracy and the other two types, which are more in line with his grassroots leanings. This means more debates and more interaction between the people and their elected leaders.
Cabrera, 36, believes California has enough resources to solve its top problems when it comes to education, housing and transportation. What's missing is political will. Inadequate campaign-finance laws, he said, have created a system in which "you have rich individuals putting big money into the election process and getting their special-interest representatives voted into the Legislature and into Congress."
If elected, he would work to reverse the trend and increase taxes on the wealthiest residents. He is fully behind Bernie Sanders' proposal to tax derivative- and fast-money transactions. The money could then be used to fix transportation and make college education "free and guaranteed."
The theme of getting the richest to contribute more toward general welfare extends to other issues as well. Take the state's housing crisis, for example.
"I don't think affordable housing is a complicated issue. It's just a priority issue," Cabrera said. "We just need to force organizations, when they're building, (to devote) a certain percent ... for the community and the public."
He also believes the money is there to address the city's transportation challenges. He said his priority is a modernized Caltrain system, but he also supports the state's proposed high-speed rail line (though he also said he understands the public's frustration with the way the project has rolled out).
"High-speed rail is a normal thing to have in an industrialized first-world country, and we are the richest state in the richest country in the world," Cabrera said.
Cabrera is particularly passionate when it comes to sustainability. He is well-versed in the intricacies of Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to build two tunnels to carry water from Sacramento to more populous regions in the southern part of the state. He currently opposes the plan because he believes it doesn't do enough to protect and enhance the environment. He challenges the assertion that building massive tunnels and taking water away from the Sacramento River is good for the river.
"I think it's very important to separate what humans need (from) what the environment needs," Cabrera said. "We need separate plans and separate goals."
On the broader issue of sustainability, he believes society should treat the "human economy" as a subsidiary of the "natural economy." He believes in "rights of nature," a legal system in which any person can represent nature in court.
He also wants to make sure that in California's production of goods, all objects are reused, recycled and environmentally sustainable.
"We'd outlaw landfills, and designers and engineers would have to design projects to be infinitely reused," he said.
Cabrera has plenty of other ambitions: Break up big banks. End Super PACs. Increase the minimum wage. Most of his goals are aligned with those of Sanders, a candidate whom he began to follow in 2015.
It's too early to predict how many votes Cabrera will get in the June primary, but whatever happens, Cabrera is unlikely to end his democratic crusade any time soon. And while his campaign is based in the 24th Assembly district, his top priorities go well beyond the district's or, for that matter, the state's boundaries.
"I'm collaborating and working with the movement to support building a grassroots, bottom-up participatory democracy modeled to change and transform our political system in the United States," Cabrera said. "If our government is truly going to represent the people, we need normal people running and winning."
Barry Chang | Cupertino mayor
In his campaign materials, Cupertino Mayor Barry Chang's top goals include environmental protection, job growth and boosting education. But to hear him talk, his passions are clearly most riled up by transportation, particularly the non-stop congestion that clogs Silicon Valley's roads on a daily basis.
Perhaps more than any candidate, Chang, 64, is making the area's transit woes his campaign centerpiece, and he doesn't shy away from pointing fingers and blaming county transportation officials.
"The north county and west valley's transportation problems are being ignored, and that's what's causing these problems," he said. "The money is supposed to be spent evenly and where the gridlock is congested most, but it hasn't gone that way."
It is an "embarrassment," Chang said, that the south bay lacks a speedy transit alternative. Transportation officials would point to efforts to extend Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority light rail and BART, but Chang blasts the current priorities as misguided. It makes little sense, he said, to bring BART to San Jose instead of the Peninsula or to begin constructing the California high-speed rail system through the rural Central Valley rather than the urban coastal cites.
Chang wants to portray himself as the candidate who will to go to the mat for the greater good. Traffic is awful and getting worse; tech companies need to contribute more; polluting industries need to be held accountable and Chang says he's the best man to solve those woes. He points to his experience haggling with Apple Inc. over the company's extensive new headquarters as proof that he can work as a shrewd negotiator. In recent weeks, he unveiled a plan to charge a new employee-headcount tax as evidence he believes tech companies need to do more.
"We're getting into a situation where if you don't solve the traffic situation and the housing crisis you're going to have an impact on the economic growth here," he said. "That's why I'm running."
Chang can rightly claim some know-how when it comes to transportation. Trained in Taiwan as a combat engineer, he worked on a variety of infrastructure projects including the country's first freeway. He later immigrated to the U.S. to complete a master's degree in civil engineering, which eventually brought him to the Bay Area to work on designing nuclear power plants. He later decided to switch careers and go into real-estate sales.
He is married and is proud to have two daughters and a son. He and his wife together own and operate a home-and-loan brokerage company in Cupertino.
Chang's entrance into politics came through the local schools. He was active in parent groups and later successfully ran for a seat on the Cupertino Union School District board in 1995. After eight years on the school board, he decided to enter city politics, first as a volunteer safety commissioner. He was elected to the Cupertino City Council in 2009 and will be termed out from running again in 2018. He made an unsuccessful run for the District 24 Assembly seat in 2014.
Chang's current attempt at state office recently was handed a setback when the state's Fair Political Practices Commission announced he had failed to follow disclosure rules on his 2014 contributors. Chang's campaign failed to provide full information on 160 donors, and they fined his campaign $3,500.
Asked about this, Chang said the problem stemmed from his volunteer treasurer, who was under intense stress after losing his job and had to quit abruptly. The campaign struggled to replace him, Chang said, and this ultimately caused some political filings to lack information, such as donors' occupations and employer information.
Chang said he takes responsibility for the slip-up, and he is adamant that it won't happen again.
"It's my fault. I'm the candidate, and I should have looked into it more carefully," he said. "I'm sorry it happened this way, but it won't happen again."
As of February, Chang's campaign had accumulated a sizable war chest, totaling about $328,000.
John Inks | Mountain View city councilman
How does a Libertarian get elected to political office in Silicon Valley?
That's the big question for John Inks, one of eight candidates vying this June for an Assembly seat, and he admits the search is still on for a solid answer.
The Mountain View city councilman is confident that a growing number of voters favor the principles of small government and personal freedom, but he said he isn't clear on how to translate those values into votes. Part of his inspiration to run, he said, is so that people at least have a candidate with those priorities as a choice.
"I want people to know there's someone like me who cares about property rights and will be an advocate for taxpayers," Inks said. "Individual liberty and freedom: Those are the kinds of things that if we don't exercise it, we lose it."
Not infrequently, those ideals have left Inks as the lone voice of opposition on some crucial decisions during his tenure in Mountain View politics. Among some examples, he opposed raising Mountain View's minimum wage, imposing a cap on carbon emissions and raising development fees to fund affordable housing. He readily admits in some cases the political winds of the south bay are going one way, and he's headed in a complete different direction.
"I use my Libertarian tiller; it keeps me straight and it makes it easy to make tough decisions," he said. "In my tenure on the council, I've tried to be an advocate for freedom and liberty, but (local politics) have gone the exact opposite way."
Inks said he is encouraged by recent discussions over issues like rent control in which a large contingent of people voiced support for private property rights. If elected to state government, Inks said he would support the legalization of recreational marijuana, lower taxes and efforts to create market-driven solutions for state challenges, such as handing over roads maintenance to private contractors.
Even though he acknowledged he would have fundamental disagreements with many stakeholders, Inks said he can be an able communicator willing to talk with the experts to create policy.
Inks has lived in Mountain View ever since moving out for his first job with Lockheed Martin, and he worked for more than 40 years as an engineer. It was during his early years in the area that Inks began forming his political views. When a Republican colleague accused him of being a Libertarian, there was no going back, he said.
His entrance into local civics came gradually, starting with pouring ciders at the local holiday tree-lighting ceremony and transitioning to volunteering for other candidates' campaigns. He later joined the city's Parks and Recreation Commission. After retiring from his job in 2005, Inks decided to make a run for city politics. He lost his first bid for Mountain View City Council in 2006, but he won two years later.
With his term ending later this year, Inks said his supporters encouraged him to run for the Assembly. The 66-year-old is upfront that if he doesn't win, he can find plenty of other ways to spend his retirement years.
"I enjoy leisure; I like travel; I love ballroom dancing," he said. "There's plenty of things to keep me busy."
Next week: profiles of candidates Mike Kasperzak, Peter Ohtaki, Seelam Reddy and Vicki Veenker
Cities in District 24: Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Mountain View, Woodside, Portola Valley, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Sunnyvale, a part of Cupertino and the San Mateo County coastside from El Granada to the Santa Cruz County border
Where the candidates stand
For an interactive online presentation showing the candidates' stances on top state issues, go to arcg.is/1RCk2fL.
Watch it online
Videos of candidate interviews conducted by Bill Johnson, the publisher of the Weekly and its sister papers, the Mountain View Voice and Almanac News:
Note: Seelam Reddy did not attend his scheduled interview.
A candidates forum hosted by the Peninsula Democratic Coalition and moderated by state Sen. Jerry Hill on Feb. 21 has been posted on YouTube. To watch it, go to youtu.be/jzgiYqGDSLk.
At the time of the forum, the candidates included Marc Berman, Barry Chang, Vicki Veenker, Mike Kasperzak and Josh Becker, who has since dropped out of the race. They discuss their positions on a range of topics from high speed rail to early childhood education to legalization of marijuana.