Senate candidates clash over housing policies, PG&E's future at Palo Alto forum | News | Palo Alto Online |

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Senate candidates clash over housing policies, PG&E's future at Palo Alto forum

Some say it's time for state to take over struggling utility, others decry too much government control

From left, state Senate candidates Josh Becker, Michael Brownrigg, Alex Glew, Sally Lieber, Shelly Masur, Annie Oliva and John Webster offered their positions on housing, transportation and other hot-button issues at a Feb. 5 forum at the Palo Alto Art Center. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

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.

Becker agreed.

"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.

Related content:

Oil tax? Wealth tax? Prop. 13 reform? Senate candidates debate how to pay for new programs for state's youngest residents

CHART: Where the candidates on housing, homelessness, SB 50 and other top issues

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Comments

27 people like this
Posted by Not fine
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 6, 2020 at 10:04 am

Main takeawy from this article is - do not vote for Masur. Supporting SB50 is as dangerous as supporting Trump.


16 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 6, 2020 at 10:18 am

Posted by Not fine, a resident of Charleston Gardens

>> Main takeawy from this article is - do not vote for Masur

My main takeaway is that Becker, Lieber and Brownrigg are all credible candidates with good ideas and good track records. I hope that they don't split the "rational" vote and have two other candidates float to the top.


19 people like this
Posted by The Architects of the Iowa Caucuses
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 6, 2020 at 11:28 am


I’m looking for a candidate who will help overturn AB5, and also vote down SB50.


14 people like this
Posted by RT
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 6, 2020 at 11:41 am

Except that most of them had enough brains not to support SB50, my take-away is that most of them are trying to be the most "progessive" candidate...not what I am interested in.


18 people like this
Posted by What Will They Do Next
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 6, 2020 at 12:13 pm

Vote for the Republican and break the cycle of progressive liberalism in Sacramento.


13 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 6, 2020 at 12:31 pm

Posted by What Will They Do Next, a resident of Old Palo Alto

>> Vote for the Republican and break the cycle of progressive liberalism in Sacramento.

The Republican Party, as popularized by Abraham Lincoln, was originally *liberal*:

"Liberalism, political doctrine that takes protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual to be the central problem of politics. " Web Link

As indeed, were the first six Presidents, in their distinct ways. Andrew Jackson was the first anti-liberal President. The struggle over slavery was obvious: no one who advocated freedom of the individual could accept slavery permanently. The Republican Party "formed in 1854 by former Whigs, Free-Soilers, and some Democrats who were united against the spread of slavery in the West and against the Kansas-Nebraska Act".

The Republican party was liberal, or, at least had a large liberal wing, through Eisenhower. Buckley+Goldwater turned that around, culminating in the Trump Party, which is anti-liberal and against freedom of the individual.

As you might expect, I'm a supporter of "freedom of the individual".


13 people like this
Posted by Family Friendly
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 6, 2020 at 12:58 pm

[Post removed; off-topic]


11 people like this
Posted by What Will They Do Next
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 6, 2020 at 1:40 pm

[Post removed; off-topic]


27 people like this
Posted by Independent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Feb 6, 2020 at 2:17 pm

Please don't vote for Masur, as she supports SB 50, and building tall market rate towers next to your single family home. Also, teacher's unions just put $225,000 behind her candidacy. Teacher's unions resist any accountability for student performance, even though our state's public schools are performing poorly. This is wrong. All our students need to be proficient. No to Masur.

The only candidate I've heard clearly stand up for local control against SB 50 has been Michael Brownrigg. Go Brownrigg!


7 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 6, 2020 at 3:56 pm

[Post removed; off-topic]


9 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 6, 2020 at 5:10 pm

I came away with this thought about Becker: obviously smart and capable but too aligned with and supported by the establishment that hasn't done much to make ANYTHING better. The Newsome endorsement is especially concerning; how independent will he be? Will he go up against that machine? I tend to doubt it.

I think we need new thinking instead of more of the same old same old that has, frankly, failed us. After last night I will be paying more attention to Brownrigg and Glew.


15 people like this
Posted by Downtown PA
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 6, 2020 at 5:29 pm

The Republican is actually leading in the polls.

Web Link


14 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 6, 2020 at 11:08 pm

Excerpt:
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.

Comment: surely this candidate can see how nonsensical her claim to be "all about local control" is.

Glew, on the other hand, called SB50 an abomination and said that what we want is for the State to help us, not control us. That is eminently sensible.


6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Meadow Park
on Feb 7, 2020 at 4:20 am

I'm fairly new to the area, so I have some homework to do to figure out who I want to represent me. I will say this though.... I don't agree with Glew's comment of "PG&E is a business. If they’re going to fail, let them fail." The stakes are too high to let an organization fail when it provides such a vital service to our communities, one that evidently can be massively destructive when mismanaged. I also disagree that PG&E is overregulated. If it had been regulated sufficiently - either via state government or self-monitoring - there wouldn't have been billions in damage and loss of human life due to the company's negligence in maintaining its power grid. Glew's statements about PG&E disqualify him from getting my vote.


4 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 7, 2020 at 10:18 am

Posted by Downtown PA, a resident of Downtown North

>> The Republican is actually leading in the polls.

Exactly what I'm afraid of, a Glew/Masur contest. I feel slightly sick. I feel disenfranchised already. The best that I can hope for is that at some point, two of the three, Becker, Lieber and Brownrigg, will drop out and support the third candidate. Maybe one of them can run as a write-in for Assembly.


4 people like this
Posted by Ironic
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 7, 2020 at 10:25 am

> The struggle over slavery was obvious: no one who advocated freedom of the individual could accept slavery permanently.

^^^yet we are are all slaves in one way or another.

Freedom is essentially an illusion & a delusion for some.


4 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 7, 2020 at 10:38 am

Posted by Ironic, a resident of College Terrace

>> ^^^yet we are are all slaves in one way or another.
>> Freedom is essentially an illusion & a delusion for some.

Yes, and consciousness is -- {Buddhist view, various other historical views, Daniel Dennett/modern cognitive scientist philosophers, etc.}. You could fill a library with interesting books.

All I was trying to do was a shorthand history to get to the word "liberal", explain what it means, and point out that the Republican Party once was, but is no longer, liberal. But, I can assure you that, philosophy aside, the lash of the overseer's whip was a "real" consequence of "slavery", whatever philosopher's view you choose to embrace.


6 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 7, 2020 at 11:00 am

Posted by Resident, a resident of Meadow Park

>> I don't agree with Glew's comment of "PG&E is a business. If they’re going to fail, let them fail."

A frankly revealing comment from Glew which shows his blind acceptance of right-libertarian dogma-- and, "dogma" is precisely the correct word. Even Milton Friedman understood that there are such things as natural monopolies, and that their misbehavior and failure may not tolerable.

>> The stakes are too high to let an organization fail when it provides such a vital service to our communities, one that evidently can be massively destructive when mismanaged. I also disagree that PG&E is overregulated. If it had been regulated sufficiently - either via state government or self-monitoring - there wouldn't have been billions in damage and loss of human life due to the company's negligence in maintaining its power grid. Glew's statements about PG&E disqualify him from getting my vote.

I agree. We let PG&E raise rates to pay for maintenance and then use the money to pay bonuses and dividends. We don't have to allow an electricity supplier to burn up a suburban block or burn down huge areas or kill a bunch of people. It would be dumb for us to allow the situation to continue as it was. If Glew's philosophy recommends that we be that dumb, there is something fundamentally wrong with his philosophy.


9 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 7, 2020 at 11:23 am

I am not sure where to turn for the best assessment of PG&E and it's future but I can't imagine state ownership is the answer. I do think the PUC should have done a much better job of overseeing PG&E operations.

About letting PG&E raise rates to pay for maintenance only to see them use it for dividends and bonuses - how is that any different from CPAU funds being diverted to the general fund or revenue from a general tax being spent on expenses other than the promised (and campaigned for) purpose of the tax? There are numerous tax measures coming before us this November. I think there may be two for the Foothill-DeAnza district. It's hard to conclude that $ is being well managed when the reach for new tax revenue is as frequent as it is.

I am going to be looking and listening to all these candidates to see what they have to say about fiscal responsibility. And as of now I plan to vote NO on any tax that is not specific.


7 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 7, 2020 at 11:33 am

Posted by Annette, a resident of College Terrace

>> I do think the PUC should have done a much better job of overseeing PG&E operations.

Agreed. If "regulated private monopoly" is what we choose, we have to make sure that PG&E does required maintenance. So, I agree with you about 86%.

>> About letting PG&E raise rates to pay for maintenance only to see them use it for dividends and bonuses - how is that any different from CPAU funds being diverted to the general fund

The difference is that PG&E actually diverted maintenance funds with the result that it killed people and did billions of dollars in property damage. That is a huge difference. The CPAU utility diversion was voted/agreed to by taxpayers, and, it functions as a tax. We all agreed to it and agreed to use the money in the general fund. The only "subterfuge" is that Prop 13 didn't envision us being able to do it, but, our lawyers figured out a legal way. Advisable or not... PG&E's actions have been criminal both literally and figuratively. Repeatedly.

Web Link


7 people like this
Posted by TooBig?
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 7, 2020 at 2:15 pm

@Resident
Something too big to be allowed to fail should be broken up into smaller pieces which are not too large and can be allowed to fail. The owners, investors, and managers of businesses which can be allowed to fail have more interest in making sure that they do not.


8 people like this
Posted by Family Friendly
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 7, 2020 at 2:33 pm

State ownership would bring sovereign immunity. The last thing we need is for our power company to be run like BART.

Let's just break it up into smaller pieces. The utility will argue that there are efficiencies in a monopoly, but those efficiencies never end up being passed through to the consumer anyway -- because it's a friggin' monopoly.


4 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 7, 2020 at 4:10 pm

[Post removed.]


3 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 8, 2020 at 10:22 am

Posted by TooBig?, a resident of Palo Verde

>> Something too big to be allowed to fail should be broken up into smaller pieces which are not too large and can be allowed to fail. The owners, investors, and managers of businesses which can be allowed to fail have more interest in making sure that they do not.

The problem is that electrical generation and high-voltage transmission are necessarily large-scale. These are O(100M)-O(10B) items. You can't efficiently break that part up. You can break up the distribution part-- small companies, cities with public utilities like Santa Clara and Palo Alto. But, upstream, in the grid, it doesn't work efficiently.

PG&E as company should have been dissolved, but, something like PG&E with hydro projects and long-distance transmission lines is not necessarily a bad thing. It just needs a culture of safety first, and, long-term financial incentives for investors and managers, instead of this quarterly stock price garbage that has polluted our culture and cost many lives and many billions of damage to communities that were conscientiously constructed over a hundred years. We need a culture change and a financial incentive change, but, the technology will continue to favor the large-scale grid, at least for now. (Cheap batteries could change that somewhat.)


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