Part 2 of 2 | Last week: Profiles of candidates Marc Berman, Jay Cabrera, Barry Chang and John Inks. Click here to read their profiles.
The eight candidates for California Assembly District 24 come from different cities, professions and philosophical positions, but they share the same ambition: a chance to represent one of the most prosperous parts in the state.
Much like the district's constituency, the field is predominantly Democratic, though it does include a Republican (Menlo Park City Councilman Peter Ohtaki) and a Libertarian (Mountain View City Councilman John Inks). And they come from all over the district, from Ohtaki's hometown of Menlo Park to Cupertino, where Mayor Barry Chang is hoping to make the leap to Sacramento to replace termed-out incumbent Rich Gordon. And like the district's voters, some candidates are homegrown, while others came from afar to pursue their Silicon Valley dreams.
The 2016 race is the most competitive since at least 2010, when Gordon beat out former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto and technologist Josh Becker to claim his seat (he has been re-elected twice since). In addition to Ohtaki, Inks and Chang, the field includes Palo Alto patent attorney Vicki Veenker, Palo Alto retired engineer Seelam Reddy, Mountain View City Councilman Mike Kasperzak, Stanford community activist Jay Cabrera and Palo Alto City Councilman Marc Berman.
The eight candidates have different ideas about how to improve California's education system, fix up crumbling infrastructure and improve traffic and transportation. While Kasperzak points to his extensive experience in local policymaking, Reddy is an enthusiastic newcomer. Veenker believes her wide-ranging background gives her a unique perspective, while Ohtaki, a veteran banker, touts himself as the "numbers guy" in the race.
On June 7, the field of eight will be winnowed to two in a primary election. The two winners will then move on to the November contest to fight it out for the ultimate prize: a seat in the Legislature in Sacramento.
Mike Kasperzak | Mountain View city councilman
Why should Mike Kasperzak be picked to serve in the Assembly? His pitch boils down to the argument that he's by far the most experienced and by at least one measure, this is no exaggeration. He can point to four terms on the Mountain View City Council and, prior to that, many more years on various city commissions. He sums it all up as 21 years in public service.
"I really do think that experience matters in this world," Kasperzak asserted. "It's easy to talk about what you want to do, but I have a proven track record of accomplishments."
In his mind, the most noteworthy of those accomplishments is helping to craft Mountain View's rental housing impact fee the city's surcharge of around 8 percent on new development that helps fund affordable housing. The policy took about two years to fine-tune, he said, and is an example of how various stakeholders came together to achieve a solution. Last year, he helped spearhead Mountain View's policy to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2018, one of the first of its kind in the Bay Area.
"The thing I've been passionate about is affordable housing and how we can maintain the socio-economic diversity of the community," he said.
Some might argue that Kasperzak doesn't go far enough toward that goal. In recent months, crowds have packed Mountain View's council chambers demanding regulations namely rent control to rein in the area's unfettered housing market. Kasperzak declined to support such a measure, saying rent control would ultimately be a flawed policy. Instead, he crafted his own legislation focused on voluntary restrictions for landlords. While the idea didn't win him any friends among tenants' advocates, pieces of Kasperzak's proposal were ultimately adopted as part of the city's final policy.
If elected to state office, he would like to join the legislative committees on housing, transportation or water. He hopes to boost opportunities for construction of more affordable housing by streamlining regulations and creating incentives for cities that balance their jobs and housing supply. More state funding for subsidized housing would also help, he added.
As to water projects, he would like to boost funding for recycled water and desalination plants.
When it comes to transportation, he wants to improve road maintenance and alternative transit systems.
Now 62 years old, Kasperzak describes himself as someone who was inspired by his parents to be actively involved in local civics. Growing up in northern Michigan, he served in student government in high school and got the chance to attend a national convention for youth interested in politics.
Professionally, at the age of 16, he gained his pilot's license and worked at the local airport as a lineman and gofer. After graduating with a law degree years later, he spent about a decade as a trial attorney specializing in aviation cases. He later left his law firm and opened his own practice specializing in arbitration and mediation, which he continues to run to this day.
Around this time, he began to get immersed in local politics.
"It's a way to give back to the community and to participate in solving problems," he said. "It's an experience that I really enjoy because it's intellectually stimulating."
Fun fact about Kasperzak: His newest hobby is beekeeping. He recently started his own backyard hive despite having a close call with the bugs in his younger days. When he was 5 years old, he stepped on a hive and the swarm attacked, stinging him to the point that he fell unconscious for hours.
"They pulled 25 stingers out of my foot!" he said. "But now I've become fascinated by bees; they're really interesting."
As of the lastest campaign-finance filing, Kasperzak had raised $169,000 in contributions.
Peter Ohtaki | Menlo Park city councilman
Peter Ohtaki, the only Republican candidate running for the District 24 state assembly seat, says that if elected, his approach would emphasize "more limited government focused on solving key issues such as infrastructure" and increase the use of public-private partnerships.
Ohtaki grew up in Menlo Park, attending La Entrada Middle School and Woodside High School, where he participated in student government. Four cold winters at Harvard University in Boston as an undergraduate and another four in New York prompted him to return to the milder climes of the Peninsula to attend Stanford University for an MBA. Since then, he said, he's lived, worked or spent time in all of the cities within the district.
Ohtaki now works for Wells Fargo as vice president and regional emergency manager in Northern California. He was previously executive director of the California Resiliency Alliance, a nonprofit that develops public-private partnerships to help with community disaster response, recovery and adaptation to climate change.
Before that, from 1994 to 2005, he worked as the chief financial officer of a consumer electronics startup in Marin called NetTV. Further back, he worked in investment banking at Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and C.E. Unterberg Towbin.
In terms of civic involvement, he has served on the board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and is in his second term on the Menlo Park City Council, after being elected in 2010 and 2014. He was mayor of Menlo Park in 2013.
Through his different roles, he said, "I've developed a reputation as being a numbers guy." That reputation, he said, comes from his background in finance and from balancing the annual budgets of the City of Menlo Park. He said he balanced a structural deficit one year by paying down unfunded pension liability, thereby reducing interest the city would pay to CalPERS. Last year, he used a surplus in the budget to pay for forthcoming sidewalks on Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park, he said.
He would like the state to build more partnerships with businesses, rather than automatically seek new taxes or fees. For example, Ohtaki said, the state should partner with businesses to support underfunded state parks. It should also work with cloud-based technology companies to make it easier for businesses to register, pay taxes and comply with state regulations.
Over the past decade, he said he has developed public-private partnerships in his work to promote emergency preparedness across the Bay Area.
Those efforts required him to coordinate with city, state and county agencies, and about 70 businesses to develop plans and guidelines in case of disasters such as earthquakes or fires. In the process, he developed protocols for agencies to use to request resources from the private sector.
He said he also has worked with Assembly members to pass legislation, citing the experiences as examples of his being a bipartisan problem-solver.
In 2008, he worked with Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara) to pass a law that extends "Good Samaritan" protections to business and nonprofits that register willingness to provide services or goods in states of emergency without fear of a lawsuit.
In 2014, he worked with current District 24 Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park) to bring forth AB 1690, a bill to give cities greater flexibility in housing zoning to allow mixed-use construction.
The big problems he said he expects the state will need to address in coming years are transportation and water infrastructure, unfunded pension liability, and the state debt.
He said the current budget surplus in California contains one-time funds from capital gains and should be used to fund one-time capital improvements like transportation infrastructure and to pay down unfunded pension liabilities.
His enthusiasm for investment in transportation infrastructure, though, doesn't extend to the state's planned high-speed rail system. The $64 billion could be better used to address transportation infrastructure needs for Bay Area commuters, such as grade separations of roadways and railroad tracks, the electrification of the Caltrain commuter rail line, increasing Caltrain's capacity, and maintaining the area's highways, he said. He also supports building infrastructure to allow recycled water to be used for irrigation, especially in new construction projects. He'd also like to see investments in capital improvements in poorer school districts.
In general, he wants Silicon Valley technology to be applied to state services so that they operate more efficiently.
There's a saying in Silicon Valley that innovation comes from doing things "smaller, faster and better," he said. "That's something that Sacramento and the state government could learn from."
To start with, he said the state's Employment Development Department should teach and encourage job searchers to use LinkedIn.com, which it currently does not.
Ohtaki lives in Menlo Park and is married with three children ages 10, 8 and 7.
"One of things I most love about this area," he said, is that it "continues to be a great place to raise a family."
Overall, Ohtaki said he's trying to attract voters "who would like to see Sacramento be more innovative and more supportive of Silicon Valley" and "people who like to see that their tax dollars are used for the right purposes."
Ohtaki has so far gathered $10,900 in campaign funding from three contributors: $4,200 from William Regan, retiree; $4,200 from Charles T. Munger, physicist; and $2,500 from Steven Eggert, real estate developer, according to Cal-Access, a state database that reports campaign fundraising.
Seelam Reddy | Retired engineer
Ever since he splashed onto Palo Alto's political scene two years ago, retired engineer Seelam Reddy has offered the public his opinions on a wide and eclectic range of issues, big and small, local and regional. His interests have ranged from the closure of the YMCA on Page Mill Road to a new grocery store for College Terrace to the state's high-speed rail project and minimum wage.
His comments are often unscripted and, at times, unpredictable, as when he called on Palo Alto City Councilman Marc Berman (his opponent in the Assembly race) last month to resign his council seat and hand it over to Lydia Kou, who finished sixth out of 12 candidates in a race for five seats in 2014.
Reddy also took part in the 2014 council race, finishing eleventh. He picked up 1.7 percent of the votes, or 1,270 in total. But he does not view the result as a failure so much as a learning experience. As he told the Weekly in a recent interview, he is a "glass half full" kind of guy.
In addressing the council or answering questions about his positions, Reddy focuses on big "ideas," with the understanding that details are yet to be worked out. He wants to "create more jobs, jobs, jobs," as his business card proclaims, while also raising the hourly wage to $15 to $20.
He wants to "uplift" East Palo Alto. He also would like Palo Alto residents with large houses with empty bedrooms to share their space with those who cannot otherwise afford to live in the city.
His request to Berman (which Berman swiftly rejected) came despite the fact that the council, as a democratically elected body, cannot unilaterally add members that weren't elected. These are details, and Reddy, as he will reiterate, is interested in "ideas."
Reddy, who goes by "Sea," was born in India, immigrated to the United States to attend Texas Tech University and has spent the past three decades in California. A retired engineer, he worked at high-tech and aerospace firms such as McDonnell Douglas, Boeing Company and, more recently, VMWare. He began attending council meetings in 2014, just after he announced his campaign for that body, and has remained a regular presence at City Hall ever since.
In his run for the Assembly seat, he plans to follow a similar blueprint from 2014. He once again touts the fact that, unlike other candidates, he has no connections among Silicon Valley's elite classes and talks about his opposition to "shady deals." Once again, he emphasizes the fact that he isn't seeking any donations.
But in some ways, his thinking has changed: He's given a lot of thought to broader issues. He calls Palo Alto a "heavenly place to live" and wants to keep it that way and to do the same for Woodside, Los Altos Hills and other communities in the 24th District. When asked about his top issue of concern, Reddy said airplane noise a subject that has been generating a loud citizen outcry locally over the past year.
When it comes to affordable housing, another hot-button topic, Reddy said he would oppose building large dense developments in single-family neighborhoods. Instead, he would prefer to see people who live alone in large houses to "open up rooms to allow other people to live in their houses." He also would like to see Silicon Valley's big corporations step up and build housing developments for their employees. Yet when it comes to development in general, Reddy describes his philosophy as "no-growth/slow-growth."
"We don't really need to grow any more than we've already grown," Reddy said. "We just need to sustain the things we already have and just make things better."
On the subject of education, Reddy said he would like to see more innovation, an approach Reddy favors and readily mentions in discussions. He supports increasing funding for education, encouraging the establishment of more charter schools and calls for greater parental participation. And while he opposes California's high-speed rail system, he believes the state needs to invest more in transportation.
"Traffic is killing us. We need to relieve congestion," Reddy said.
Given the crowded field of candidates and his low-budget methods, Reddy knows he has his work cut out for him. His campaign budget is around $2,000, and he said he will not be depending on banners or other forms of advertising. And if he doesn't prevail in this election, the odds are you'll see him again in the near future, basking in the civic limelight and offering solutions to problems-of-the-day during the public-comments segment of City Council meetings.
"Running is part of my life. I'm not going to stop running," Reddy said.
Vicki Veenker | Patent attorney
Vicki Veenker isn't a typical Assembly candidate.
She's not a City Council member looking for a grander stage. Nor is she a grassroots activist trying to make a statement on a shoe-string budget.
But she has helped launch a professional soccer league, served as president of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, represented a Nobel Prize winner, mediated cases for federal court and worked on what became Stanford University's top revenue-generating patent.
"I'm not following a traditional path," Veenker said during a recent interview. "But for me, my experiences and skills that I've developed translate directly to this."
For all of its unorthodoxy, her leap from the private sector to the state Assembly race isn't any bigger, in her view, than that of any of her opponents in the crowded race. That's because from her youthful days organizing community forums for the Kettering Foundation at her alma mater, Indiana University, to her more recent legislative-advocacy duties for the Law Foundation, public policy has long been a topic of personal and professional interest. And the issues she's dealt with whether inequality, the environment or education are so much bigger and more complex than what City Council members typically deal with, she said.
Veenker considered running a decade ago but forewent the opportunity to pursue two others: helping to establish Women's Professional Soccer (for which she served as general counsel) and serving on the board at the Law Foundation, which offers free legal services to low-income clients. Both were places where Veenker said she felt she could make a major impact.
Now, she believes the time is ripe to bring her ideals and experiences to Sacramento. She raised $200,000 for the campaign in 2015 (trailing Barry Chang and Marc Berman) and has picked up a host of endorsements in recent months, including from the California Nurses Association, the California Teachers Association, the Sunnyvale Democratic Club, state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt.
Veekner has been eschewing the "standard path" ever since she was an undergraduate at Indiana University, when she pursued degrees in both political science and biochemistry at a time when interdisciplinary studies was a rare concept. She went on to law school at Georgetown University and enjoyed stints at law firms Fish & Neave (which ultimately merged with Ropes & Gray) and Sherman & Sterling before starting her own firm. In discussing the joys of patent law, she said it "hit my love of science and society."
Veenker in 2002 was named by California Law Business as one of the state's top 20 lawyers under 40. Her list of clients included corporations, universities and Brian Kobilka, a Stanford physiologist who in 2012 won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Among her most memorable applications is one she began working on in 1985 and that was finally completed when the patent was issued in 1998. That application, jointly pursued by Stanford and Columbia universities, pertained to recombinant antibodies. Today, it is Stanford's top royalty-generated patent, Veenker noted. What makes her particularly proud is the fact that those royalty dollars go back to the two universities to support more research, she said.
Directing more money to schools is also something she hopes to do if elected to the Assembly. Specifically, she wants to see school districts that currently have fewer resources funded so that they can "level up" to those that are better off. She also would like to bring STEM education to all students in the Bay Area so that, no matter where they live, they would be viable candidates for Silicon Valley jobs.
"Education needs to be a more even opportunity so that what public education you have access to doesn't depend on where you live," Veenker said.
She also believes the state can do better when it comes to transportation planning and believes decisions about major investments should be done on a regional basis. The only way to get highways and roads to be less congested is to "promote mass transit in better ways," she said. To that effect, she supports current efforts to modernize the Caltrain commuter rail line and to extend BART. But when it comes to high-speed rail, she likes that idea but finds many problems with the way the project is being rolled out.
"I don't support the version of high-speed rail that's under way today," Veenker said. "I think most people support the vision of high-speed rail that was originally put forward, but I don't think the funding has been procured at a sufficient level yet."
At a February forum of the Assembly candidates, Veenker said she is running to fight for "progressive values": excellent education, affordable housing, improved transportation, gun control, reforms to address campus sexual assault and economic issues like equal pay. She is proud of her efforts to promote equality, both in founding the soccer league (which folded in 2012, several years after she left, and was succeeded by the National Women's Soccer League) and in providing legal services for the underprivileged.
"I believe we can work together to close the opportunity gap and solve the income inequality," Veenker said at the forum. "Because if we want to have a brighter future for any, we have to have a brighter future for all."
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.