Instead, what seems to differentiate the candidates — Rich Gordon and Josh Becker of Menlo Park, and Yoriko Kishimoto of Palo Alto — are experience, leadership style, and ideas for helping the state climb out of its severe financial and governance problems.
The candidates, who are running to replace termed-out Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, answered questions from a moderator and from the audience during the forum, generally agreeing that high-speed rail is a plus for the state, but the current process to put it in place needs fixing; that more "affordable," transit-oriented housing is needed on the Peninsula, but each community needs to be involved in figuring out how to provide it; and that the two-thirds requirement for passing the state budget needs to go.
All three also agreed: State government is broken, and must be fixed.
Mr. Becker, an entrepreneur with no experience in elective office, touts his ability to unite disparate groups of people to solve problems and bring about change. The founder of an "early stage" venture capital firm, he points to his business experience as proof of creative thinking that could be well applied to the state's governance.
Mr. Becker is also founder and chair of the Full Circle Fund, a philanthropic organization that gives grants to nonprofits.
Regarding the state's budget crisis, Mr. Becker said, "We have to grow our way out of it — we can't cut our way out." To do that, he said, the state needs to help create clean-energy jobs.
One way to do that is to retrofit all state-owned buildings to meet high energy-efficiency standards. He also suggested that jobs could be created by building cars for the high-speed rail system at the NUMMI auto-making plant in Fremont, which is likely to be closed after next month.
Mr. Becker said the state also needs to make it easier for people to finance energy-efficient projects for their homes and businesses.
Although he supports more housing on the Peninsula, he criticized the controversial Cargill plan to build up to 12,000 new homes on San Francisco Bay salt ponds. "Having a conversation on housing in the Bay is a little too retro for me," he said.
Mr. Gordon has by far the most experience as an elected official, having served five years on the San Mateo County Board of Education, and completing this year his 12th year on the county Board of Supervisors. He sits on numerous public boards, including the county's transportation authority and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC).
He agreed with Mr. Becker that the state has to grow jobs to get beyond its budget crisis, but in the short term, he added, it needs to make cuts as well. Those cuts, he said, must be surgical and strategic to ensure they won't ultimately backfire and cost the state more in unemployment and other consequences.
Mr. Gordon said the Legislature's first priority must be "to change the way we govern the state" by eliminating the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget and by reforming the initiative process, among other means.
Another idea for improving governance: seating legislators by district during legislative sessions, an arrangement that was the rule before the current situation, where Democrats sit on one side and Republicans on the other. If legislators had to sit with people who have different opinions and backgrounds, it would improve governance, he said.
Because he sits on the BCDC, which will have to grant permits to Cargill if its development plans for the salt ponds are to proceed, Mr. Gordon said it's not appropriate for him to take a stand on the project. But he said he plans to support new BCDC rules that will place additional obstacles in the way of the project.
Ms. Kishimoto served on the Palo Alto City Council for eight years, and began her community service involvement as a neighborhood activist campaigning for traffic control.
She is a businesswoman who co-authored "The Third Century: America's Resurgence in the Asian Era," described on her Web site as "a groundbreaking book on America's strength as an open economy and diverse society during a time of great change."
The state's budget crisis must be addressed on both the revenue and cost side, she said. Because of the boom-and-bust nature of the economy, the state must put aside more money in good times, and also commit more to infrastructure.
Ms. Kishimoto emphasized her work on protecting the environment, and on behalf of regional transportation, noting that she has served on a number of boards dealing with the region's transportation issues. She suggested merging some of the Bay Area's transportation agencies, which she numbered at about 30, to reduce administrative costs and promote efficiency.
She strongly opposes Cargill's plan to develop its salt ponds on the Bay, which would create up to 12,000 new homes that would be "absolutely in the wrong place."
All candidates agreed that the high-speed rail project management needs better oversight and must be more responsive to Peninsula communities that will be affected, but Ms. Kishimoto was the only one who stated that the train's line should stop in San Jose, and Caltrain should be tapped for travel to San Francisco from San Jose.