By Gennady Sheyner
To the average Peninsula voter, Brisbane and Sunnyvale have little in common. The former is a small, industrial suburb on San Francisco's doorstep, the latter a high-tech hub in the heart of Silicon Valley.
But to Assemblyman Jerry Hill, the two municipalities are facing many of the same issues, from concerns over Caltrain's survival and high-tech jobs to open-space preservation and airport noise.
Mr. Hill, whose 19th district includes most of San Mateo County (including Brisbane), is the frontrunner in a four-way race to replace the termed-out state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, in the newly redrawn District 13.
If Mr. Hill wins, his constituency would encapsulate much of his existing district in San Mateo County and the northern part of Santa Clara County, including Palo Alto and Mountain View. (All of the Almanac towns are in District 13: Atherton, Menlo Park, Portola Valley and Woodside.)
Mr. Hill's most formidable opponent, Sally Lieber, is approaching the race from the other side, both geographically and politically. While Mr. Hill touts his ability to find the middle ground and get along with a wide spectrum of constituents (his website includes a list of roughly 400 endorsements), Ms. Lieber embraces her image as a firebrand who fights for the needy and the disenfranchised.
"I've never been the favored candidate of the powers that be," she proudly proclaimed at a recent interview.
Also on the ballot are Christopher Chiang, a reform-minded schoolteacher from Mountain View, and John Webster, a libertarian crusading against what he calls the "darker side of democracy." Each is running on a shoestring budget of about $1,000 and is concerned as much with shifting the conversation as winning the race.
Mr. Hill was born in San Francisco and learned the political ropes in San Mateo County, where he followed the traditional trajectory from community leader to councilman to assemblyman. His three opponents are all from Mountain View, a city that until now had been represented by Democrat Elaine Alquist.
With San Mateo County claiming the lion's share of the new District 13, each is at a geographical disadvantage against Mr. Hill, though Ms. Lieber said she has been heartened by the name recognition she enjoys throughout the district.
While Mr. Hill and Ms. Lieber are Democrats with strong environmentalist credentials, they also have profound differences. His record includes bills supporting green technology, strengthening consumer protection, and beefing up regulation for utilities. She has focused on social services and protection for the disenfranchised, whether pregnant convicts or the homeless.
If elected, the former assemblywoman from Mountain View said one of her first legislative proposals would be a bill that would increase the amount of food allotted to pregnant convicts in state prisons.
Though Mr. Hill stresses his roots as a community leader and a small-business owner, in this race he is in many ways the establishment's choice. His endorsement list includes a legion of mayors and council members, the Association of California State Supervisors, the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and the California Labor Federation.
He has received contributions from a wide array of pharmaceutical, biotech and health care companies, including Genentech, Eli Lilly and the California Association of Health Facilities.
While Ms. Lieber said she would never seek an endorsement from pharmaceutical lobbyists, Mr. Hill touts his long list of supporters as proof of his ability to find the middle ground.
He also rejects any implication that money could sway his votes. The prime example for him is PG&E, which in the past has contributed to his campaign. That hasn't kept Mr. Hill from becoming one of the company's toughest critics in the Legislature, especially with respect to issues around the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion of Sept. 9, 2010.
Mr. Hill's endorsements and accomplishments don't faze Ms. Lieber, who relishes her familiar role as an underdog. While Mr. Hill's campaign has been outspending Ms. Lieber's, according to campaign-finance records, she still has about $200,000 in the bank, compared to $150,000 in Mr. Hill's campaign chest.
In addition to the $100,000 Ms. Lieber pumped into her own campaign, she has received contributions from an assortment of attorneys, retirees and environmentalists from both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
She vowed in a recent interview that if elected, she would continue to look out for the state's most needy residents, including convicts and the homeless. As part of "experiential politics" she practiced as an assemblywoman, Ms. Lieber once spent three days on the streets of San Jose with a little bag containing two dollars in change.
"It only took two hours for me to turn into a human pigeon," she said. "No one saw me. I felt I shouldn't go into places."
Among her proud achievements as an assemblywoman was convincing then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to scrap a proposal to shutter cold-weather shelters.
She said one of her goals, if elected, would be to protect social services from major cuts and to seek more contributions from corporations in resolving the state's fiscal crisis.
"Unfortunately, the legislation has tended to pick the low-hanging fruit to take from those who don't have great representation in the Capitol and to take by and large from low-income children and from education rather than asking our major corporations to step up and to do a little bit more," Ms. Lieber said.
For all their differences, the two leading candidates expressed similar concerns about California's proposed high-speed rail system. Each has stressed the need to upgrade Caltrain.
Mr. Hill said he plans to introduce a bill that would allow the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which oversees Caltrain, to pursue a ballot measure that would fund the popular but cash-strapped commuter service. It would be up to Caltrain officials to determine when to pursue a ballot measure, which would most likely entail a sales-tax increase.
On high-speed rail, he said he wants to see the California High-Speed Rail Authority address major concerns before he could fully support the project. Among them: The authority has to offer an assurance that a two-track "blended system" of high-speed rail and Caltrain is the only design option that would move forward (as opposed to the locally unpopular four-track design); and that the rail authority lay out a "better pathway" toward acquiring the $68.5 billion needed to pay for the system.
"I've been extremely critical (of the high-speed-rail project) and I will continue to be so," he said. "But I do appreciate the governor's new appointments and the direction the authority is going. There's no bait-and-switch here."
Ms. Lieber said she is interested in exploring ways to use regional train funds that are part of the high-speed-rail project to improve Caltrain from San Francisco to Gilroy (a recent regional agreement between the California High-Speed Rail Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission only commits to electrifying the Caltrain corridor between San Francisco and San Jose).
"I'd like to see a fully electrified system so that we don't have diesel trains in the heart of Silicon Valley," she said.
From Ms. Lieber's perspective, one difference between her and Mr. Hill is the way each is campaigning. She said she is pursuing a "grassroots strategy of reaching out directly to the voters." She pointed to Mr. Hill's endorsements from the pharmaceutical industry and said the endorsement is not one she would seek to get.
"My competitor is getting a lot of the business support," she said. "I'm not seeking to get endorsed by any lobbying organization."
While Mr. Hill and Ms. Lieber can point to their extensive legislative records, Christopher Chiang is new to politics. As if to underscore that fact, he is full of compliments when he talks about the two frontrunners in the race. In fact, he said, he would be happy to vote for Mr. Hill or Ms. Lieber if they showed a commitment to education reform.
Mr. Chiang, a 31-year-old teacher at Mountain View High School, can speak extensively and fluently about education policy. He supports raising the training requirements for teachers and getting away from the existing policy of measuring students' reading and math skills in favor of a more "holistic" testing for students. He also said he wants to end Sacramento's "micromanagement" of education policies and to give teachers more power to set classroom agendas.
Mr. Chiang said he would pay for education investments in part by cutting costly services for adults. He said he supports Gov. Jerry Brown's effort to cut employee pensions. He also supports the governor's cuts to social services and advocates keeping these cuts in place even when the state economy rebounds.
Even popular proposals like electrifying Caltrain should take a backseat to improving education for California's children, he said.
The other candidate, John Webster, also opposes high-speed-rail spending but for a completely different reason. He is a libertarian who has sought a state office (unsuccessfully) several times in the past.
He describes himself on his website as an "avid nudist" and argued in a recent interview that government needs to start treating its citizens more like customers. This means making sure that citizens pay for whatever services they receive from the government, even if it means charging "token tuition" in public schools. Major projects such as high-speed rail, from his point of view, should be left to the private market.
"You don't want a bunch of people getting free benefits and someone else getting charged for it," said Mr. Webster, a self-employed software engineer.
Among his more unconventional proposals is pushing for California to threaten succession from the United States.
"Even if I'm not elected, if I get the argument out there, the Congress will start taking things seriously and then decide to do something," he said.
The four-candidate pool will be winnowed down to two in June 5 election, when California holds its primaries. The top two vote-getters will then square off in the general election on Nov. 6.
Forum: Voters will have a chance to learn more about the District 13 candidates in the June 5 primary at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. The event will be held Friday, May 18, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at the Cupertino Community Hall, 10350 Torre Ave. in Cupertino.