As one would expect for an open legislative seat, the race to replace termed-out State Assemblyman Rich Gordon has attracted a large field of candidates.
In California's new open primary system for state legislative offices, the names of all eight will appear on all ballots, and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, will face off in the general election in November.
One Republican (Menlo Park City Councilman Peter Ohtaki), one Libertarian (Mountain View City Councilman John Inks) and six Democrats are in the race, but it is likely that two Democrats will emerge at the top given the district's voting history and an expected low Republican turnout due to the now-settled Republican presidential nomination battle.
While the candidates would each bring unique qualities and experience to the job, we believe three attorneys -- Mike Kasperzak, Marc Berman and Vicki Veenker -- are the clear standouts.
Measured only by the depth and breadth of political and governmental experience, 14-year Mountain View City Council veteran Mike Kasperzak, 62, would be the hands down choice. He has been a dedicated and hard-working council member and is respected at both the regional and state level. An attorney who specialized in mediation, his orientation is toward problem-solving and building consensus and he has devoted most of his adult life to public service. While we haven't always agreed with him on local issues, such as his position favoring the VTA's express lane proposal for El Camino, his values and priorities have been sound.
Marc Berman, 36, finishing up his first four-year term on the Palo Alto City Council, has been active in politics since college and has built strong connections with the local Democratic party. Uninspired by corporate law practice, he shifted gears two years ago and was development director for the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, a resource and advocacy group seeking innovation in public education. Berman has much less governmental experience than Kasperzak, but he has been similarly drawn to politics as a way to solve problems and bring about social change. Kasperazak was a Republican two decades ago before he switched parties, but he and Berman share a similar moderate progressive agenda.
Vicki Veenker, 53, is a respected Silicon Valley intellectual property attorney, mediator and Palo Alto resident who has never held public office. She has chosen to focus her public service on advocating for the legal rights of low-income and other vulnerable local residents through the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, where she has served on the board of directors for 13 years and as board president for one term. In 2008, she also helped start a national women's professional soccer league, reflecting her commitment to expanding opportunities for women.
All three have similar traditional Democratic political views, although the nuances of their positions on policy issues will likely come into greater focus when only two are vying in the fall. The role and influence of unions and interest groups, which have mostly split their endorsements in the primary among these three, will be something to watch and assess in the fall. We will especially probe the finalists' views on education and the role of the California Teachers Association, which has endorsed Veenker and which, in our judgment, holds too much sway over the Legislature. Recent independent mailers costing almost $100,000 in support of Berman by the Realtors Association and California Dental Association raise concerns as well.
With the exception of high speed rail, which Kasperzak still supports but Berman and Veenker do not, all three identify increases in education funding at all levels, universal preschool, transportation infrastructure spending, climate change, affordable housing and transportation as priorities. They each support the legalization of recreational marijuana use (with appropriate state regulations) and increased state funding of affordable housing through tax incentives and bond measures.
Kasperzak and Berman are classic local elected officials seeking higher office. There are many Bermans and Kasperzaks in Sacramento, appropriately so.
But we believe Veenker is the rare candidate whose lack of experience as an elected official is outweighed by a strong legal background in a highly technical field, well-honed advocacy and negotiating skills and a passion for public policy and social justice.
She has represented Silicon Valley companies and served as a mediator in complex patent litigation with huge financial stakes, giving her an important window on what makes the Valley tick and how disputes are successfully resolved.
Without the visibility or limelight of elected office she has devoted much time and energy to the Law Foundation, a group that provides pro bono legal services to individuals facing housing and other forms of discrimination, obstacles to obtaining access to health care and mental health services, and advocates for legislative reform. (The Law Foundation has been representing the residents of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Palo Alto through the park closure process, still underway.)
We also strongly believe in the importance of electing more women to state and federal offices. Women currently make up just one-fourth of the state Legislature in California, barely above the national average and much lower than in Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Arizona. That's shameful in a state like California.
We look forward to the campaign narrowing to two candidates and a sharpened debate on the issues in the fall, and we recommend Vicki Veenker in the primary as a uniquely qualified candidate who would bring a fresh and important perspective to Sacramento.
Videos of candidate interviews conducted by Bill Johnson, the publisher of the Palo Alto Weekly and its sister papers, the Almanac and the Mountain View Voice, are online here:
Note: Seelam Reddy did not attend his scheduled interview.