Almanac

Cover Story - May 19, 2010

Assembly choices: Innovation, experience or perspective?

by Sean Howell

"There is no question that the government of the state of California is dysfunctional. It has never been in a bigger mess, in many ways."

This sentiment comes not from a political commentator, or even from a government outsider, but from Rich Gordon, a candidate for California's 21st Assembly District. It is perhaps a telling indication of the gravity of the state's problems that Mr. Gordon, who is running largely on the strength of his experience in government, is also trying to convince voters of his ability to shake up the system as they go to the polls for the June 8 Democratic primary.

The state's troubles are so myriad, and so widely reported, that they have come to seem an immovable part of the landscape. There's a $21 billion budget deficit, an unstable tax base, and a public pension system that many call unsustainable. The state spends more on prison that it does on higher education, recent budget cuts have left many of its most vulnerable groups without key services, most voter initiatives are launched by corporations, rather than residents ... the list goes on.

Overlay those issues with the fact that the system itself seems to encourage Legislative intransigence — a two-thirds vote is needed to approve a budget — and it's easy to get discouraged not only about the state of the state, but about the importance of who's occupying the seats in the House at any given moment.

Yet local voters are being asked to determine just that, choosing between three candidates in the Democratic primary — Mr. Gordon, Yoriko Kishimoto, and Josh Becker — to replace the termed-out Ira Ruskin in the general election. Greg Conlon of Atherton is running unopposed for the Republican nomination.

When it comes to positions, there's not much to differentiate the candidates on the major issues. They all agree that the state government is fundamentally flawed, and that the two-thirds requirement to pass budgets needs to go; that basic changes are needed in the K-12 school system; that the high-speed rail system is in need of better oversight; and that the state needs to find ways to generate more revenue, and reform the tax system.

The candidates couldn't think of a single Ruskin vote they disagree with.

With few fundamental differences in the candidates' opinions, the issue of the state's systemic dysfunction — and the candidates' leadership qualities — come into starker relief. The key question for voters may not be "Whom do I agree with?" but "Whom do I believe in?"

Mr. Becker, Mr. Gordon, and Ms. Kishimoto all acknowledge that there's a major problem. But each views the state's troubles in a different context, and each has different suggested remedies — and thus different arguments for their own candidacy.

Josh Becker

Mr. Becker is the candidate with perhaps the easiest claim to the "change" mantle, having never served in elective office; his involvement in the Obama campaign sparked his interest in public service. An entrepreneur and venture capitalist, he highlights his philanthropic work and political initiatives, such as National Lab Day, a program he helped launch that links grade school students with professional scientists. He has also worked to advocate a program that would allow property owners to finance clean energy upgrades through their property tax bills.

That's the kind of outside-the-box thinking the state could use more of, says Mr. Becker, who views California's failure primarily as one of imagination. The Legislature is stuck in its ways, in need of a reboot.

He speaks often of bringing the "spirit of Silicon Valley" to Sacramento, and in an interview said that he wants to push the state toward "Government 2.0," with more transparency, and more opportunities for citizen involvement. "We're technology illiterate in Sacramento," he said.

Accordingly, Mr. Becker stresses the power of his ideas, and those of his colleagues and collaborators — especially in the field of clean technology, where he has established an extensive professional network. One of his top priorities would be to promote clean tech, which he believes could be the state's engine of job growth.

Asked how California can start hacking its way out of its budget crisis, he said he would support some new taxes (as do Mr. Gordon and Ms. Kishimoto), especially on oil extraction. He was less certain when it comes to cutting expenses, though he mentioned an idea to trim the prison budget by halting design work on prisons the state can't afford to build.

But it all comes back to job creation for Mr. Becker, and the resulting revenue growth. As an entrepreneur and businessman, that's where he can help, he says.

Though he's optimistic about the potential for change, Mr. Becker says he's not naive about the degree of legislative gridlock, and lamented the power of lobbyists in Sacramento. He noted that he didn't contribute his own money to his campaign (like Ms. Kishimoto), or receive major contributions from labor unions (like Mr. Gordon). As of the last state reporting period he had raised more money than either of his opponents, receiving major contributions from heavy hitters in Silicon Valley.

He was hesitant about whether the state pension system needs to be reformed, and admitted to a lack of familiarity with state requirements that local communities provide for housing, an issue that both Mr. Gordon and Ms. Kishimoto addressed in depth.

Rich Gordon

To Rich Gordon, the most politically steeped of any of the Democratic candidates, what Sacramento needs is someone who knows the system well enough to understand how it might be changed. In his 12 years on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, and his six years on the county Board of Education before that, he worked to bring people and interest groups from all ends of the political spectrum together to work out practical solutions to difficult problems, he says.

As Mr. Gordon sees it, the problem is political; the solution must be, as well. At one candidate forum, he suggested scrambling the seats in the chambers to force Democrats and Republicans to interact. He meant it as a joke, he said, but the idea gets at the heart of his realpolitik approach.

"My background, experience and knowledge are broader and deeper" than that of his opponents, he said. "The key is that I can be judged on my track record. I have demonstrated fiscal responsibility in government (and the ability) to build bridges and coalitions."

While Mr. Becker emphasizes taking measures to spark job creation and investment in clean technology, Mr. Gordon would start with the system. He's not shy about the changes that need to be made: eliminate the two-thirds requirement to adopt a budget; extend both the length of each term and the total number of terms a legislator can serve; change the ballot initiative process to make it more prohibitive, doing away with paid signature gathering; move to a two-year budget cycle; and shift power to local governments.

He acknowledges that one person won't change the way the Assembly does business, but maintains that it only takes a small group of people to start the conversation, to engage the populace in the effort, and get people outside the system to push lawmakers — and to start turning the tide.

In working to balance the state budget, he said he would support an oil extraction tax and restoring vehicle license fees, and mentioned the possibility of instituting taxes on services and Internet sales, with a sensitivity to small businesses. Revenue generation is the key, he said, adding that the Assembly needs to think hard about the state's tax structure.

On the expense side, he said he would support contracting out more of the state's business and consolidating state boards and commissions.

He emphasized that cuts have to be strategic, and made with an eye to the long term. As an example, he said that when he served on the Board of Supervisors, he supported expanding drug treatment programs rather than the size of the jail, because 60 percent of inmates were there on drug-related offenses.

Asked about the state pension system, Mr. Gordon said that it's time to work on reformulating it. He said that work should begin with a conversation with organized labor — and that the state could enable local governments to begin having that conversation, as well.

Yoriko Kishimoto

If "innovation" is the watchword with Mr. Becker, and "experience" with Mr. Gordon, Ms. Kishimoto hangs her hat on "perspective."

As a first-generation immigrant from Japan, she cites her "global perspective," saying she understands the value of America's democratic and economic systems in a way that only an immigrant can. She knows what it's like to run a small business, having operated her own for 20 years before an eight-year stint on the Palo Alto City Council (she termed out in 2009).

While California's problems are significant, Ms. Kishimito said in an interview, residents should remember its strengths, as well.

"California has some very serious short-term issues and challenges that we have to face head on," she said. "But we do have the single best long-term system in the world — a system that is amazingly resilient; a system that allows us to pick up and reinvent ourselves."

In arguing for her candidacy, Ms. Kishimoto takes a kind of hybrid approach, asking voters to put their faith in American know-how, and in her own experience in "coalition-building" on the Palo Alto City Council. She recalled that when she joined the council, that body was also dysfunctional and polarized, and takes some credit for the growing spirit of cooperation.

Like Mr. Gordon, she said she would support measures to reform the voter initiative process, likening the current system to "democracy for sale."

In working to balance the state's budget, she laid out a rough framework for where the money might come from: one-third from new revenues, one-third from service cuts, and one-third from concessions by employee unions.

On the revenue side, she said she would support a grab-bag of new taxes, including a gas tax, a tax on alcohol and cigarettes, and a carbon cap-and-trade system.

But the other two-thirds would be hard to come by, she acknowledged, saying that "I don't know if there's much more to cut" in services, and that she hoped the state could work with unions to get "at least some sacrifice during these hard times."

She said she believes the state has a major part to play in the public pension system, noting that she voted against a recent escalation in retirement benefits for Palo Alto workers. "You can bet I'm going to do my best to keep the state from digging itself deeper into the hole," she said.

Asked about a proposal by agribusiness giant Cargill for an effective city nearly the size of Menlo Park on 1,400 acres of Redwood City salt ponds, Ms. Kishimoto said she would support state intervention to prevent the development, if it comes to that.

"I've always been against cities having the power to place developments in places we know are not viable," she said, noting that taxpayers would be the ones footing the bill if the development were to flood.

Renee Batti of The Almanac and Gennady Sheyner of the Palo Alto Weekly contributed reporting to this story. The information comes from interviews of candidates by reporters, endorsement interviews by the editorial staffs of The Almanac and the Palo Alto Weekly, and comments made by the candidates in public forums.

Rich Gordon

Experience: San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, 1997-2010; San Mateo County Board of Education, 1992-1997; former president, California State Association of Counties.

Education: B.A., University of Southern California; M.A. in Divinity, Northwestern University.

Key endorsements: Congresswomen Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier, state Senators Mark Leno and Leland Yee, state Assembly members Tom Ammiano and Fiona Ma, former state Controller Steve Westly, every major labor group.

More information: richgordon2010.com (campaign website), is.gd/c9c6x (Almanac profile; Web address case-sensitive).

Yoriko Kishimoto

Experience: Palo Alto City Council, 2003-2009; former board member, Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority, Bay Area Air Quality Management District; current chair, BAAQMD Climate Protection Committee.

Education: B.A.: Wesleyan University; MBA, Stanford University.

Key endorsements: Sierra Club, National Women's Political Caucus, California List.

More information: yoriko4assembly.org (campaign website), is.gd/c9cdA (Almanac profile; Web address case-sensitive).

Josh Becker

Experience: Founder, Full Circle Fund (philanthropy organization); co-founder, New Cycle Capital (venture capital fund), National Lab Day; Board of Trustees, UC-Merced.

Education: B.A., Williams College; MBA/JD, Stanford University.

Key endorsements: Robert Kennedy Jr., Congressman Jay Inslee, two state Senators and six state Assembly members, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

More information: joshbecker2010.org (campaign website), is.gd/c9cas (Almanac profile; Web address case-sensitive).

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