The seven candidates vying to succeed state Sen. Jerry Hill in Sacramento tried to set themselves apart from the pack at a Palo Alto forum Wednesday night as they clashed over housing, transportation and a new proposal to have the state take ownership of PG&E.
The candidates, who include five Democrats, one Republican and one Libertarian, are all looking to represent Senate District 13, which stretches from South San Francisco to Sunnyvale. The top two vote-getters in the March 3 primary will move on to a showdown on Election Day in November.
The debate, which was sponsored by The Almanac, Palo Alto Weekly, Palo Alto Online, Mountain View Voice and CalMatters, brought a standing-room-only crowd of about 200 people to the Palo Alto Art Center to hear the seven candidates — Josh Becker, Michael Brownrigg, Alex Glew, Sally Lieber, Shelly Masur, Annie Oliva and John Webster — make their respective cases.
With the exception of Webster, a Libertarian who believes that government is the problem and who likened education spending to "socialism," each candidate indicated Wednesday that they believe the state has an important role to play in solving California's housing and transportation challenges, though they offered different takes on what that role should be.
Becker, a Menlo Park entrepreneur and creator of Full Circle Fund, an organization that provides grants to nonprofits, argued that the state should require tech companies to match their job growth with new housing. He attributed the Bay Area's housing crisis in part to the exponential growth of companies like Facebook and Google since the early 2000s.
"For big tech companies -- for every job they create, they should have to fund a unit of housing," Becker said. "It's not going to solve the problem, but it will stop the problem from getting worse -- which is a first priority."
Others called that proposal unrealistic and onerous. Masur, who serves as Redwood City's vice mayor, noted that it costs about $600,000 to create one housing unit. Requiring businesses to build housing to match their jobs is "not sustainable," she said. A more effective method, she said, is to rely on the impact fees that cities collect from builders through development agreements.
Annie Oliva, a Realtor who serves on the Millbrae City Council, also said she believes Becker's plan is flawed.
"I think it's pretty unrealistic to believe that if we're going to be a business-friendly space, to come in and spend $600,000 for housing unit," Oliva said.
Brownrigg, a former diplomat who has spent 10 years on the Burlingame City Council, offered another ambitious proposal, which borrowed from the carbon-credit market. Under his plan, a developer who creates housing would earn credits that can then be sold to commercial developers. That type of system, he said, would create incentives for new housing and ensure that commercial developers are part of the solution without requiring them to spend $600,000 per unit.
One area on which most of the candidates found some common ground was opposition to Senate Bill 50, a proposal that would have required cities to relax height and density limits for housing projects in, respectively, transit-friendly and jobs-rich areas (the bill failed in the state Senate last week). Masur was the only candidate who said she supported SB 50, whose author, Sen. Scott Wiener, is among her high-profile endorsers.
"As a local city councilwoman and a former school board member, I'm all about local control," Masur said. "In this instance, he's really jump-started the conversation and made us all pay attention."
Lieber, who served in the state Assembly between 2002 and 2008, alluded numerous times throughout the debate to her history of championing progressive causes, including efforts to tackle homelessness and to invest in public transit. While she didn't endorse SB 50, she also credited the bill for sparking a critical conversation.
"What's important is that it's kicked off a discussion that is so far overdue — that is the accountability of cities to not just plan for but actually see that affordable housing — extremely-low income and low-income housing and supportive housing is actually built," Lieber said.
Oliva argued that each municipality should be allowed to plan for its own needs and used as an example the residential and commercial developments around her city's transit hub.
"We do not need to solve the housing crisis by disrupting our single-home neighborhoods," Oliva said.
Glew, for his part, called SB 50 an "abomination." Housing policy, he said, should be handled by city councils and local commissions.
"We want the state to help us, not control us," Glew said.
The candidates largely concurred on transportation policies, with everyone agreeing that California's high-speed-rail project was a massive failure in the way it was executed. Most candidates said they support investing more funding in grade separations at rail crossings and other Caltrain improvements.
Masur said she would like to see better coordination among the Bay Area's 27 transit agencies and used as an example the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an agency that is charged with making sure that the various transit services are working together effectively.
There was somewhat less consensus on the subject of PG&E and Wiener's proposal to have the state take over the utility. Masur noted that the takeover would not be legal under existing law, while Glew, an engineer who is the lone Republican in the field, said he opposes a public takeover of the utility.
Instead, Glew said, PG&E should be segmented, with different utilities serving the state's rural areas and its high-population hubs. He also suggested that the utility is now overregulated.
"PG&E is a business," Glew said. "If they’re going to fail, let them fail."
Becker, Brownrigg and Lieber all said they would support having the state take over the utility. Brownrigg said that while he has no problem with investor-owned utilities in general, he does have a problem with PG&E in particular. Making the company public, he said, would allow the state to take the company's 10% profit margin and invest it in infrastructure.
"The current structure isn't working," Brownrigg said.
After Glew suggested that reorganization may be a better option, Lieber noted the company has already completed a management changeover. The former executives, she said, "jumped off PG&E like rats off a sinking ship the moment their misdeeds came to the public." The state needs to plan for publicly owned, renewable and locally resourced energy, she said.
"They disproved the notion of 'too big to fail,'" Becker said of PG&E. "Because they're too big and they're failing."
Becker and Brownrigg also fielded questions about large donations that their campaigns have received, in some cases from independent committees. Becker received $500,000 from Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, through an independent committee, while Brownrigg received a donation of $460,000 from his mother, Linda Brownrigg, also through a committee.
Becker said he has worked with Hoffman at Full Circle Fund, which makes grants to nonprofits, and that he was "shocked" by Hoffman's contributions. He also noted, however, that Hoffman is spending $2 million to oppose President Donald Trump.
"I don't have money from tech companies, but I do have money from individuals and they want something we all want — they want great schools, great public transportation systems and they want California to be the national and global leader on climate change," said Becker, who is leading the field in fundraising.
Brownrigg and Lieber also talked about their decisions to contribute to their own campaigns. Brownrigg said he was told by his advisers that he would have to spend about three hours per day on the phone trying to get funds to get his message across the broad senate district. Instead, he opted to participate in house parties in cities throughout the district to talk politics, a decision that required him to rely on his own funds.
Brownrigg also said he was "incredibly touched" by his mother's donation, which came in the aftermath of her losing her partner of 45 years.
"The most my mom will ask of me is that I'll come visit more often," Brownrigg said. "And that will happen anyway."
Masur and Oliva were also asked about the major contributions that they have received from teachers' unions and Realtors, respectively. Both said that while they are grateful for the donations, they are not coordinating with these donors.
"I'm very humbled and honored that they noticed my work and I'm very grateful for their support," Oliva said when asked about the $409,000 she had received from the California Association of Realtors.
Lieber said she's had to use her own money in every campaign she's run. That, she said, has to do with the fact that most big-money interests aren't keen on donating to her "progressive campaign," she said.
"I think I'd get agreement that I'm the most progressive (candidate)," Lieber said. "That's not something that special interests appreciate. Having been in Sacramento, I've seen the emotional toll it takes on you to have to call lobbyists for money, when you're voting on a bill that they're lobbying on and that they're concerned about."
The tensest moment in the debate came during the discussion of charter schools, when candidates were asked what they would do to make sure these schools are accountable to the taxpayers who fund them. While Masur, a former Redwood City school board member, touted recent efforts to require charter schools to have open meetings and to make their records accessible to the public, Lieber broadly criticized charter schools, which she said should be ended.
"I have never voted for any charter school at any point in time and, frankly, that’s a difference we have," she said, alluding to Masur.
Masur responded by noting that Lieber had never served on a school board and, as such, didn't have an opportunity to vote for a charter school. Lieber then took a shot at Masur for supporting Rocketship, a chain of charter schools that has run into trouble over the past year for charter violations relating to inadequate financial reporting.
"Sometimes you just have to kick the ball downfield and try as hard as you can to block a troubled entity from coming into a school district," Lieber said.
Read our profiles of each candidate, alongside videotaped interviews with six of the seven contenders, on our Atavist page.