By Gennady Sheyner, Mark Noack and Kate Bradshaw
From the coastal communities of Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay to the sprawling campuses of Google, Facebook and Hewlett-Packard Co., the 24th District in the California Assembly is a place of scenic beauty and high-tech might, of affluent suburbs and blue-collar enclaves, of startup dreams and traffic nightmares.
Nature lovers and innovators have been flocking to this pocket of California for well over a century, since before Horace Greeley offered his famous dictum, "Go west, young man," to anyone who'd listen. In recent decades, the district's roster of pioneers has expanded to include the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
The district has its share of problems: insufficient housing, aging infrastructure, gaping income inequality and an uneven education system.
Located between San Francisco and San Jose, the district embodies some of the iconic features of both cities: an educated populace, a startup mentality and gentrification that, in many communities, creates barriers for newcomers and heartbreak for long-timers who cannot keep up with rising rents.
There are also "quality of life" problems, such as excessive airplane noise and insufficient parking, perpetual conflicts between developers and environmentalists, and a mass-transit system that everyone agrees is overdue for a major investment.
The eight candidates vying to replace Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, all believe they have the solutions to the problems of both the district and California at large. They come from backgrounds as varied as the communities that make up the district. Mr. Gordon, who has been representing the district since 2010, will reach his term limit at the end of the year.
The ballot will include five sitting council members: Marc Berman from Palo Alto; Mike Kasperzak and John Inks from Mountain View; Peter Ohtaki from Menlo Park; and Barry Chang from Cupertino.
Two other candidates Seelam Reddy and Jay Cabrera are running dark-horse campaigns on shoe-string budgets (something each has done in the past).
Vicki Veenker, a patent attorney, is the only candidate who has neither sought nor held an elected office in the past. She has, however, helped to co-found a women's soccer league and, in her current run, earned endorsements from both the California Nurses Association and the California Teachers Association.
Much like the district's constituency, the candidates are predominantly Democrats, though it does include a Republican, Menlo Park Councilman Ohtaki, and a Libertarian, Mountain View Councilman Inks.
In the June 7 primary, the eight will square off, with the two top vote-getters advancing to the Nov. 8 general election ballot.
The 2016 race is the most competitive since at least 2010, when Mr. Gordon beat out former Palo Alto councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto and technologist Josh Becker to claim his seat. He has been re-elected twice since.
Over a series of interviews in recent weeks, each of the eight candidates has offered a distinct vision for the district and explained his or her views about the hot topics of the day: high-speed rail, legalization of marijuana, affordable housing, transportation, water tunnels and the broader threat of climate change.
Here are the views and profiles of the eight Assembly candidates.
Marc Berman, Palo Alto city councilman
Marc Berman's Democratic evolution may be traced to the time when, as a 7-year-old, he took part in a private tour of the White House and spent the whole time talking about how much he hated then-vice president George H.W. Bush a fury that Mr. Berman attributes at least in part to an abscessed tooth.
Or to his internship as an undergraduate student at Georgetown University in U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo's office. Or to his work the following year on Mike Honda's first congressional campaign. Or to the time he left Palo Alto with two suitcases and moved to South Dakota to help Tim Johnson defeat John Thune in a nail-biting 2002 Senate election.
A nephew of Rudy Boschwitz, a former two-term U.S. senator from Minnesota (who, along with his wife, Ellen, organized the aforementioned White House tour and who later had to write a letter of apology), Mr. Berman grew up steeped in politics though it didn't take long for him to realize that he and his Republican uncle weren't on the same sides.
"To a lot of people, when they're growing up, politics is what other people do. The family doesn't talk about it a lot. It's not tangible. For me, growing up, it was," he said.
Now 35, Mr. Berman began dipping his toes into political waters as a teenager, becoming student body president at Palo Alto High School. He enrolled at Emory University and, after his freshman year, spent time in Rep. Eshoo's office in Washington, D.C., answering phones and assisting constituents.
He transferred to Georgetown University and the following summer assisted with Mr. Honda's victorious campaign. The next year, he took a summer stint as voting analyst in the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, reviewing applications for changes to polling places from states that are subject to the Civil Rights Voting Act.
His first foray into national politics came in 2002, when he moved to South Dakota to work on the Johnson campaign. And while Mr. Johnson's razor-thin victory over Thune was rewarding, the thrill didn't last. In 2004, Mr. Thune made national headlines when he defeated Senate leader Tom Daschle, on whose behalf Mr. Berman was working.
"Campaigns are great when you win; they're a kick in the gut when you lose," Mr. Berman said.
Chastened by the defeat, Mr. Berman enrolled at the University of Southern California law school, went on to practice corporate law at two firms, and began thinking about his political career.
His first opportunity came in 2010, when he decided to jump into the Assembly race to succeed Ira Ruskin. Ultimately, Mr. Berman withdrew from the race and endorsed Josh Becker, one of three candidates vying for the seat (along with eventual winner Rich Gordon and former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto).
Shortly after the election, Mr. Berman said he met with Mr. Gordon, who advised him to get involved locally. He took the advice to heart and, over the next few years, served on a citizen oversight committee for a Santa Clara Valley Water District tax measure and on a blue-ribbon committee in Palo Alto that surveyed the city's infrastructure needs.
He also joined the board of the Peninsula Democratic Coalition; became the founding advisory board member of the Silicon Valley chapter of the New Leaders Council; and helped relaunch Peninsula Young Democrats.
In 2012, he won a seat on the Palo Alto City Council. At a time when the council has been split between slow-growth "residentialists" and members more accepting of new development, Mr. Berman has typically voted with the latter.
His voting record has been, for the most part, moderate (the slow-growth citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning in early 2014 gave him a 56 percent rating; only two avowed residentialists, Karen Holman and Greg Schmid, scored better). And on a council that at times favors lengthy speeches, granular micro-management and philosophical divisions, Mr. Berman is generally concise and invariably respectful.
There have been a few exceptions. In 2013, he gave a lengthy monologue accompanied by a video to demonstrate why he believed a proposed housing development on Maybell Avenue should be approved (many residents disagreed and voted to overturn the project later that year).
Also in 2013, he was one of only two council members to oppose a ban on vehicle dwelling, a decision that he said "started with my gut and then it became a position." The council ultimately overturned the ban.
More recently, Mr. Berman has become involved in housing and education issues. He had recently spent a year as development director at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, resigning last fall to focus on his council duties and the Assembly race. At a recent candidates forum, he made a case that California has dramatically underfunded its schools and colleges and also advocated for the state to build more housing and reinvest in infrastructure.
He has strengthened his party connections, raised $226,476 for this campaign (second only to Barry Chang) and secured endorsements from Mr. Gordon, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former state Controller Steve Westly and Assembly Speaker pro Tempore Kevin Mullin, among others. Now, he hopes to channel their support, along with his experience, to win the seat and do his part to "level the playing field" in Silicon Valley.
"The side that carries the day for me is the side that believes that a lot of people get born into pretty rough situations in life due to no fault of their own," Mr. Berman said in a recent interview. "And that government can play an equalizing factor to make sure they get an opportunity to succeed, even notwithstanding the difficult situation they were born into."
Jay Cabrera, Community activist
Jay Cabrera wants you to know that he is a "Bernie" candidate.
Sure, the California Secretary of State recently rejected Mr. Cabrera's bid to include "Bernie" (quotation marks included) as part of his name on the June ballot. But while the nickname was scratched, the rhetoric remains.
In a recent interview, he said he is a "firm believer in understanding that the economy is being rigged" and that "campaign finance is being rigged to benefit the richest of the rich."
Much like the senator from Vermont, Mr. Cabrera touts the fact that his campaign is based on small contributions and grassroots support a similar approach that he took in his prior six unsuccessful political campaigns (he was on the ballot for three of them: his run for the Santa Cruz City Council in 2008; a congressional bid in 2012; and Palo Alto's school board race in 2014). He had also campaigned for the 24th District Assembly seat in 2010, though as a write-in candidate he did not appear on the ballot.
He recognizes that his current campaign is against "quite a steep hill, given the amount of money and organization that some of the big-money candidates have." But, he said in a recent interview, "Winning is not the most important thing."
"The integrity of the system is more important," he said. "And being true to myself and making sure we are actually representing the people."
One of his major goals is to create a "21st century democracy" through which residents have more say in decisions. This means promoting direct democracy by giving people the technological tools to constantly communicate with government representatives and vote on issues as they arise. It also means encouraging more participatory democracy the sort where residents actually attend government meetings.
His goal, he said, is to find the right balance between the existing system of representative democracy and the other two types, which are more in line with his grassroots leanings. This means more debates and more interaction between the people and their elected leaders.
Mr. Cabrera, 36, said he believes California has enough resources to solve its top problems when it comes to education, housing and transportation. What's missing is political will.
Inadequate campaign-finance laws, he said, have created a system in which "you have rich individuals putting big money into the election process and getting their special-interest representatives voted into the Legislature and into Congress."
If elected, he said, he would work to reverse the trend and increase taxes on the wealthiest residents. He is fully behind Bernie Sanders' proposal to tax derivative- and fast-money transactions. The money could then be used to fix transportation and make college education "free and guaranteed."
The theme of getting the richest to contribute more toward general welfare extends to other issues as well. Take the state's housing crisis, for example.
"I don't think affordable housing is a complicated issue. It's just a priority issue," he said. "We just need to force organizations, when they're building, (to devote) a certain percent ... for the community and the public."
He also said he believes the money is there to address transportation challenges. His priority is a modernized Caltrain system, but he also supports the state's proposed high-speed rail line (though he said he understands the public's frustration with the way the project has rolled out).
"High-speed rail is a normal thing to have in an industrialized first-world country, and we are the richest state in the richest country in the world," Mr. Cabrera said.
He is particularly passionate when it comes to sustainability. He is well-versed in the intricacies of Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to build two tunnels to carry water from Sacramento to more populous regions in the southern part of the state. He currently opposes the plan because he believes it doesn't do enough to protect and enhance the environment. He challenges the assertion that building massive tunnels and taking water away from the Sacramento River is good for the river.
"I think it's very important to separate what humans need (from) what the environment needs," he said. "We need separate plans and separate goals."
On the broader issue of sustainability, he said society should treat the "human economy" as a subsidiary of the "natural economy." He believes in "rights of nature," a legal system in which any person can represent nature in court.
He also wants to make sure that in California's production of goods, all objects are reused, recycled and environmentally sustainable.
"We'd outlaw landfills, and designers and engineers would have to design projects to be infinitely reused," he said.
Mr. Cabrera has plenty of other ambitions: Break up big banks. End Super PACs. Increase the minimum wage. Most of his goals are aligned with those of Mr. Sanders, a candidate whom he began to follow in 2015.
Whatever happens in the June primary, he is unlikely to end his democratic crusade any time soon. His top priorities go well beyond the 24th Assembly District's or, for that matter, the state's boundaries.
"I'm collaborating and working with the movement to support building a grassroots, bottom-up participatory democracy modeled to change and transform our political system in the United States," he said. "If our government is truly going to represent the people, we need normal people running and winning."
Barry Chang, Cupertino mayor
In his campaign materials, Cupertino Mayor Barry Chang's top goals include environmental protection, job growth and boosting education. But to hear him talk, his passions are clearly most riled up by transportation, particularly the non-stop congestion that clogs Silicon Valley's roads on a daily basis.
Perhaps more than any candidate, Mr. Chang, 64, is making the area's transit woes his campaign centerpiece, and he doesn't shy away from pointing fingers and blaming county transportation officials.
"The north county and west valley's transportation problems are being ignored, and that's what's causing these problems," he said. "The money is supposed to be spent evenly and where the gridlock is congested most, but it hasn't gone that way."
It is an "embarrassment," he said, that the South Bay lacks a speedy transit alternative. Transportation officials would point to efforts to extend Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority light rail and BART, but he blasts the current priorities as misguided. It makes little sense, he said, to bring BART to San Jose instead of the Peninsula or to begin constructing the California high-speed rail system through the rural Central Valley rather than the urban coastal cities.
He wants to portray himself as the candidate who will go to the mat for the greater good. Traffic is awful and getting worse; tech companies need to contribute more; polluting industries need to be held accountable and he said he's the best man to solve those woes.
He points to his experience haggling with Apple Inc. over the company's extensive new headquarters as proof that he can work as a shrewd negotiator. In recent weeks, he unveiled a plan to charge a new employee-headcount tax as evidence he believes tech companies need to do more.
"We're getting into a situation where if you don't solve the traffic situation and the housing crisis you're going to have an impact on the economic growth here," he said. "That's why I'm running."
Mr. Chang can rightly claim some know-how when it comes to transportation. Trained in Taiwan as a combat engineer, he worked on a variety of infrastructure projects including the country's first freeway. He later immigrated to the U.S. to complete a master's degree in civil engineering, which eventually brought him to the Bay Area to work on designing nuclear power plants. He later decided to switch careers and go into real estate sales.
He is married and is proud to have two daughters and a son. He and his wife together own and operate a home-and-loan brokerage company in Cupertino.
Mr. Chang's entrance into politics came through the local schools. He was active in parent groups and in 1995 successfully ran for a seat on the Cupertino Union School District board. After eight years on the school board, he decided to enter city politics, first as a volunteer safety commissioner.
He was elected to the Cupertino City Council in 2009 and will be termed out from running again in 2018. He made an unsuccessful run for the District 24 Assembly seat in 2014.
Mr. Chang's current attempt at state office recently was handed a setback when the state's Fair Political Practices Commission announced he had failed to follow disclosure rules on his 2014 contributors. Mr. Chang's campaign failed to provide full information on 160 donors, and the comission fined his campaign $3,500.
Asked about this, he said the problem stemmed from his volunteer treasurer, who was under intense stress after losing his job and had to quit abruptly. The campaign struggled to replace him, Mr. Chang said, and this ultimately caused some political filings to lack information, such as donors' occupations and employer information.
He said he takes responsibility for the slip-up, and he is adamant that it won't happen again. "It's my fault. I'm the candidate, and I should have looked into it more carefully," he said. "I'm sorry it happened this way, but it won't happen again."
John Inks, Mountain View city councilman
How does a Libertarian get elected to political office in Silicon Valley?
That's the big question for John Inks, one of eight candidates vying this June for an Assembly seat, and he admits the search is still on for a solid answer.
The Mountain View city councilman is confident that a growing number of voters favor the principles of small government and personal freedom, but he said he isn't clear on how to translate those values into votes. Part of his inspiration to run, he said, is so that people at least have a candidate with those priorities as a choice.
"I want people to know there's someone like me who cares about property rights and will be an advocate for taxpayers," he said. "Individual liberty and freedom: Those are the kinds of things that if we don't exercise it, we lose it."
Not infrequently, those ideals have left Mr. Inks as the lone voice of opposition on some crucial decisions during his tenure in Mountain View politics. Among some examples, he opposed raising Mountain View's minimum wage, imposing a cap on carbon emissions, and raising development fees to fund affordable housing. He readily admits in some cases the political winds of the South Bay are going one way, and he's headed in a completely different direction.
"I use my Libertarian tiller; it keeps me straight and it makes it easy to make tough decisions," he said. "In my tenure on the council, I've tried to be an advocate for freedom and liberty, but (local politics) have gone the exact opposite way."
He said he is encouraged by recent discussions over issues like rent control in which a large contingent of people voiced support for private property rights. If elected to state government, he said he would support the legalization of recreational marijuana, lower taxes, and push for efforts to create market-driven solutions for state challenges, such as handing over roads maintenance to private contractors.
Even though he acknowledged he would have fundamental disagreements with many stakeholders, he said he can be an able communicator willing to talk with the experts to create policy.
Mr. Inks has lived in Mountain View since moving there for his first job with Lockheed Martin, and he worked for more than 40 years as an engineer. It was during his early years in the area that he began forming his political views. When a Republican colleague accused him of being a Libertarian, there was no going back, he said.
His entrance into local civic activities came gradually, starting with pouring ciders at a holiday tree-lighting ceremony and transitioning to volunteering for other candidates' campaigns. He later joined the city's Parks and Recreation Commission.
After retiring from his job in 2005, he decided to make a run for city politics. He lost his first bid for Mountain View City Council in 2006, but he won two years later.
With his term ending later this year, he said his supporters encouraged him to run for the Assembly. The 66-year-old is upfront that if he doesn't win, he can find plenty of other ways to spend his retirement years.
"I enjoy leisure; I like travel; I love ballroom dancing," he said. "There's plenty of things to keep me busy."
Mike Kasperzak, Mountain View city councilman
Why should Mike Kasperzak be picked to serve in the Assembly? His pitch boils down to the argument that he's by far the most experienced. He points to four terms on the Mountain View City Council and, prior to that, many more years on city commissions, a total of 21 years in public service.
"It's easy to talk about what you want to do, but I have a proven track record of accomplishments," he said.
The most noteworthy of his accomplishments, he said, is helping craft Mountain View's rental housing impact fee the city's surcharge of around 8 percent on new development that helps fund affordable housing. The policy is an example of how various stakeholders came together to achieve a solution. Last year, he helped spearhead Mountain View's policy to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2018, one of the first of its kind in the Bay Area.
"The thing I've been passionate about is affordable housing and how we can maintain the socio-economic diversity of the community," he said.
Some argue that he doesn't go far enough toward that goal. In recent months, crowds have packed Mountain View's council chambers demanding regulations namely rent control to rein in the housing market. He declined to support rent control, saying it would ultimately be a flawed policy. Instead, he crafted his own legislation focused on voluntary restrictions for landlords.
While the idea didn't win him friends among tenants' advocates, pieces of his proposal were adopted as part of the city's final policy.
If elected to state office, he would like to join the legislative committees on housing, transportation or water. He hopes to boost construction of affordable housing by streamlining regulations and creating incentives for cities that balance their jobs and housing supply. More state funding for subsidized housing would also help, he added.
As to water projects, he backs more funding for recycled water and desalination plants.
When it comes to transportation, he wants to improve road maintenance and alternative transit systems.
Now 62, he said he was inspired by his parents to become active in civic affairs. Growing up in northern Michigan, he served in student government in high school and attended a national convention for youth interested in politics.
At age 16, he gained his pilot's license and worked at the local airport as a lineman and gofer. After graduating with a law degree years later, he spent about a decade as a trial attorney specializing in aviation cases. He left the law firm and opened his own practice, which he continues to run, specializing in arbitration and mediation.
Around this time, he got immersed in local politics. "It's a way to give back to the community and to participate in solving problems," he said. "It's an experience that I really enjoy because it's intellectually stimulating."
Fun fact about Mr. Kasperzak: His newest hobby is beekeeping.
Peter Ohtaki, Menlo Park city councilman
Peter Ohtaki, the only Republican in the race, said he would emphasize "limited government focused on solving key issues such as infrastructure" and increase the use of public-private partnerships.
He grew up in Menlo Park, attending La Entrada Middle School and Woodside High School, where he participated in student government.
Four cold winters at Harvard University as an undergraduate and another four in New York prompted him to return to the milder climes of the Peninsula to attend Stanford University for an MBA. Since then, he said, he's lived, worked or spent time in all of the cities within the district.
Mr. Ohtaki works for Wells Fargo as vice president and regional emergency manager in Northern California. He was previously executive director of the California Resiliency Alliance, a nonprofit that develops public-private partnerships to help with community disaster response, recovery and adaptation to climate change.
Before that, from 1994 to 2005, he worked as the chief financial officer of a consumer electronics startup in Marin called NetTV. Further back, he worked in investment banking at Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and C.E. Unterberg, Towbin.
He has served on the board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and is in his second term on the Menlo Park City Council (he was elected in 2010 and 2014). He was mayor of Menlo Park in 2013.
"I've developed a reputation as being a numbers guy," he said, noting that as a member of the council, he helped balance a Menlo Park budget by paying down unfunded pension liability, thereby reducing interest costs.
He said the state should build partnerships with businesses, rather than automatically seek new taxes or fees. For example, he said, the state should partner with businesses to support underfunded state parks. The state should also work with cloud-based technology companies to make it easier for businesses to register, pay taxes and comply with state regulations, he said.
Over the past decade, he said, he has developed public-private partnerships in his work to promote emergency preparedness across the Bay Area. He worked with city, state and county agencies, and about 70 businesses to develop plans and guidelines in case of disasters such as earthquakes or fires.
He said he is a bipartisan problem-solver, having worked with Democratic Assembly members to pass legislation. In 2008, he worked with Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, to pass a law that extends "Good Samaritan" protections to business and nonprofits that provide services or goods during emergencies without fear of lawsuits.
In 2014, he worked with current District 24 Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, to draft AB 1690 to give cities greater flexibility in zoning for housing.
The big problems the state will need to address in coming years are transportation and water infrastructure, unfunded pension liability, and the state debt, he said.
He said the current budget surplus in California contains one-time funds from capital gains and should be used to fund one-time capital improvements, such as transportation infrastructure and to pay down unfunded pension liabilities.
His enthusiasm for investment in transportation infrastructure, though, doesn't extend to the state's planned high-speed rail system. The $64 billion could be better used to address transportation infrastructure needs for Bay Area commuters, such as grade separations of roadways and railroad tracks, the electrification of the Caltrain commuter rail line, increasing Caltrain's capacity and maintaining the area's highways, he said.
He also supports building infrastructure to allow recycled water to be used for irrigation, especially in new construction projects. He'd also like to see investments in capital improvements in poorer school districts.
In general, he wants Silicon Valley technology to be applied to state services so that they operate more efficiently.
There's a saying in Silicon Valley that innovation comes from doing things "smaller, faster and better," he said. "That's something that Sacramento and the state government could learn from."
Mr. Ohtaki lives in Menlo Park and is married with three children, ages 10, 8 and 7. "One of things I most love about this area," he said, is that it "continues to be a great place to raise a family."
Seelam Reddy, Retired engineer
Ever since he splashed onto Palo Alto's political scene two years ago, retired engineer Seelam Reddy has offered the public his opinions on a wide and eclectic range of issues, big and small, local and regional. His interests have ranged from the closure of the YMCA on Page Mill Road to a new grocery store for College Terrace to the state's high-speed rail project and minimum wage.
His comments are often unscripted and, at times, unpredictable, as when he called on Palo Alto City Councilman Marc Berman (his opponent in the Assembly race) recently to resign his council seat and hand it over to Lydia Kou, who finished sixth out of 12 candidates in a race for five seats in 2014.
He took part in the 2014 council race, finishing eleventh. He picked up 1.7 percent of the votes, or 1,270 in total. But he does not view the result as a failure so much as a learning experience. As he told the Weekly in a recent interview, he is a "glass half full" kind of guy.
In addressing the council or answering questions about his positions, he focuses on big "ideas," with the understanding that details are yet to be worked out. He wants to "create more jobs, jobs, jobs," as his business card proclaims, while also raising the hourly wage to $15 to $20.
He wants to "uplift" East Palo Alto. He also would like Palo Alto residents with large houses with empty bedrooms to share their space with those who cannot otherwise afford to live in the city.
His request that Mr. Berman resign his council seat (which Mr. Berman swiftly rejected) came despite the fact that the council, as a democratically elected body, cannot unilaterally add members who weren't elected. These are details, and Mr. Reddy, as he will reiterate, is interested in "ideas."
Mr. Reddy, who goes by "Sea," was born in India, immigrated to the United States to attend Texas Tech University and has spent the past three decades in California. A retired engineer, he worked at high-tech and aerospace firms such as McDonnell Douglas, Boeing Company and, more recently, VMWare. He began attending council meetings in 2014, just after he announced his campaign for that body, and has remained a regular presence at City Hall ever since.
In his run for the Assembly seat, he plans to follow a similar blueprint from 2014. He once again touts the fact that, unlike other candidates, he has no connections among Silicon Valley's elite classes and talks about his opposition to "shady deals." He emphasizes that he isn't seeking any donations.
But in some ways, his thinking has changed: He's given a lot of thought to broader issues. He calls Palo Alto a "heavenly place to live" and wants to keep it that way and to do the same for Woodside, Los Altos Hills and other communities in the 24th District. When asked about his top issue of concern, he said airplane noise a subject that has been generating a loud citizen outcry.
When it comes to affordable housing, another hot-button topic, he said he would oppose building large dense developments in single-family neighborhoods. Instead, he would prefer to see people who live alone in large houses to "open up rooms to allow other people to live in their houses." He also would like to see Silicon Valley's big corporations step up and build housing developments for their employees. Yet when it comes to development in general, he describes his philosophy as "no-growth/slow-growth."
"We don't really need to grow any more than we've already grown," he said. "We just need to sustain the things we already have and just make things better."
On the subject of education, Mr. Reddy said he would like to see more innovation. He supports increasing funding for education and encouraging the establishment of more charter schools, and he calls for greater parental participation. While he opposes California's high-speed rail system, he said the state needs to invest more in transportation.
"Traffic is killing us. We need to relieve congestion," he said.
Given the crowded field of candidates and his low-budget methods, Mr. Reddy knows he has his work cut out for him. His campaign budget is around $2,000, and he said he will not be depending on banners or other forms of advertising.
If he doesn't prevail in this election, the odds are you'll see him again in the near future, basking in the civic limelight and offering solutions to problems-of-the-day during the public-comments segment of City Council meetings.
"Running is part of my life. I'm not going to stop running," he said.
Vicki Veenker, Patent attorney
Vicki Veenker isn't a typical Assembly candidate.
She's not a city council member looking for a grander stage. Nor is she a grassroots activist trying to make a statement on a shoe-string budget.
But she has helped launch a professional soccer league, served as president of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, represented a Nobel Prize winner, mediated cases for federal court and worked on what became Stanford University's top revenue-generating patent.
"I'm not following a traditional path," she said during a recent interview. "But for me, my experiences and skills that I've developed translate directly to this."
For all of its unorthodoxy, her leap from the private sector to the state Assembly race isn't any bigger, in her view, than that of any of her opponents in the crowded race. That's because from her youthful days organizing community forums for the Kettering Foundation at her alma mater, Indiana University, to her more recent legislative-advocacy duties for the Law Foundation, public policy has long been a topic of personal and professional interest. And the issues she's dealt with whether inequality, the environment or education are so much bigger and more complex than what city council members typically deal with, she said.
Ms. Veenker considered running a decade ago but forewent the opportunity to pursue two others: helping to establish Women's Professional Soccer (for which she served as general counsel) and serving on the board at the Law Foundation, which offers free legal services to low-income clients. Both were places where she said she felt she could make a major impact.
Now, she said, the time is ripe to bring her ideals and experiences to Sacramento. She raised $200,000 for the campaign in 2015 (trailing Barry Chang and Marc Berman) and has picked up a host of endorsements in recent months, including from the California Nurses Association, the California Teachers Association, the Sunnyvale Democratic Club, state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt.
Ms. Veekner has been eschewing the "standard path" ever since she was an undergraduate at Indiana University, when she pursued degrees in both political science and biochemistry at a time when interdisciplinary studies was a rare concept. She went on to law school at Georgetown University and enjoyed stints at law firms Fish & Neave (which ultimately merged with Ropes & Gray) and Sherman & Sterling before starting her own firm. In discussing the joys of patent law, she said it "hit my love of science and society."
In 2002, she was was named by California Law Business as one of the state's top 20 lawyers under 40. Her list of clients included corporations, universities and Brian Kobilka, a Stanford physiologist who in 2012 won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Among her most memorable applications is one she began working on in 1985 and that was finally completed when the patent was issued in 1998. That application, jointly pursued by Stanford and Columbia universities, pertained to recombinant antibodies. Today, it is Stanford's top royalty-generating patent, she noted. What makes her particularly proud is the fact that the royalty dollars go back to the two universities to support more research, she said.
Directing more money to schools is also something she hopes to do if elected to the Assembly. Specifically, she wants to see school districts that currently have fewer resources funded so that they can "level up" to those that are better off. She also would like to bring STEM education to all students in the Bay Area so that, no matter where they live, they would be viable candidates for Silicon Valley jobs.
"Education needs to be a more even opportunity so that what public education you have access to doesn't depend on where you live," she said.
She also said the state can do better when it comes to transportation planning and she thinks decisions about major investments should be done on a regional basis.
The only way to get highways and roads to be less congested is to "promote mass transit in better ways," she said. To that effect, she supports current efforts to modernize the Caltrain commuter rail line and to extend BART. But when it comes to high-speed rail, she likes that idea but finds many problems with the way the project is being rolled out.
"I don't support the version of high-speed rail that's underway today," she said. "I think most people support the vision of high-speed rail that was originally put forward, but I don't think the funding has been procured at a sufficient level yet."
At a February forum of the Assembly candidates, Ms. Veenker said she is running to fight for "progressive values": excellent education, affordable housing, improved transportation, gun control, reforms to address campus sexual assault, and economic issues such as equal pay. She is proud of her efforts to promote equality, both in founding the soccer league (which folded in 2012, several years after she left, and was succeeded by the National Women's Soccer League) and in providing legal services for the underprivileged.
"I believe we can work together to close the opportunity gap and solve the income inequality," she said at the forum. "Because if we want to have a brighter future for any, we have to have a brighter future for all."
Cities in District 24
Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Mountain View, Woodside, Portola Valley, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Sunnyvale, a part of Cupertino and the San Mateo County coastside from El Granada to the Santa Cruz County border
READ MORE ONLINE: Click here for an interactive online presentation showing the candidates' stances on top state issues.