When the U.S. Congress convenes for its first session in 2023, about 760,000 residents in San Francisco and San Mateo counties will find themselves in a new political landscape.
They are in the freshly redrawn Congressional district District 15 ,which stretches from San Francisco to East Palo Alto; and encompasses Brisbane, San Mateo, Foster City, Millbrae, Belmont, Daly City, San Bruno, Burlingame, San Carlos, South San Francisco, Colma, Hillsborough, Redwood City; and portions of Menlo Park and Atherton. And for the first time since 2008, residents in these communities will have a new representative in the House of Representatives.
The race to fill the seat will be the Peninsula's most competitive in a generation. U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, who joined Congress after winning the election in 2008 and whose district covers much of what is now District 15 turf, was the hand-picked successor of former Rep. Tom Lantos, a fellow Democrat who then represented the area since 1981. She easily won the special election to get to Congress and has cruised to reelection, picking up more than 75% of the vote every two years.
Will history repeat itself?
Assembly member Kevin Mullin hopes so. As Speier's chosen successor, he hopes to carry on her legacy in the U.S. Congress. A former South San Francisco mayor who has served in the Assembly since 2014 and received his political training as Speier's district director, Mullin has been viewed by many as a frontrunner ever since Speier announced her plan to retire in November. In campaigning for the seat, Mullin touts his experience as a legislator and focuses on preserving democracy and addressing climate change.
With the largest war chest having raised more than $600,000 he's been endorsed by some of the biggest names in the Peninsula's Democratic establishment, including U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, who's been representing the neighboring district since 1992 and is seeking reelection in November.
But in his bid to succeed his mentor, Mullin faces stiff competition from two fellow Democrats -- San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa, a former Daly City mayor, and Burlingame City Council member Emily Beach. Each has racked up more than $450,000 in cash contributions, and each can point to a track record of winning elections and advancing key policies.
Canepa, who served as president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors in 2020, touts the county's success in managing the COVID-19 pandemic as well as his record of advocating for free community college, assisting small businesses and preserving Seton Medical Center, which was in danger of closing in 2020. Canepa aligns himself with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, strongly supports policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal and counts U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez among the politicians he most admires.
Beach, who joined the Burlingame City Council in 2015 and who served as mayor in 2020, can point to her regional experience as a board member in the San Mateo County Transportation and on the League of California Cities, a statewide group that advocates on behalf of municipalities. An avid advocate for biking and public transportation and a former executive director of a nonprofit that raised money for local schools, Beach is also an Army veteran. She believes that women and veterans are underrepresented in Congress, which makes her an ideal fit for a seat being vacated by Speier, a legislator whom she admires and endorsed in the last council race.
Gus Mattammal is the lone Republican in the race, and he knows perfectly well that this puts him at a disadvantage in an area that Democrats have dominated for decades. But by making universal health care, climate change and education reform the central planks of his campaign, Mattammal hopes voters will consider his "constructive conservative" positions and cast their ballots based on his ideas rather than on party dogma.
These four candidates will join a fifth candidate, Ferenc Pataki, who is running on the single issue of monetary reform. They will square off in the June 7 primary, after which the top two vote-getters will advance to the November 8 election.
Of the hundreds of votes that David Canepa cast in his years as a mayor, council member and county supervisor, few were as meaningful or consequential as the one on March 10, 2020, when he urged his colleagues on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors to provide a $20 million grant to Seton Medical Center, a Daly City hospital that was on the verge of shutting down.
For Canepa, the issue was personal as much as political. Canepa was born at Seton Medical Center, and he often stressed its critical importance in providing health care and jobs to residents of Pacifica, Daly City, Colma and other communities in north county. But in 2020, the hospital was facing the prospect of closure after its parent company, Verity Health Systems, declared bankruptcy.
With the closure seemingly imminent, Canepa implored his colleagues to look for ways to fund seismic upgrades and other retrofits to the facility, moves that county officials deemed necessary to make it viable for a takeover from another buyer. With no concrete proposal on the table to purchase Seton Hospital, Canepa convinced his four colleagues to schedule a special meeting the following week, at which point county staff had identified several potential candidates, including AHMC Healthcare, a South California-based hospital chain.
"If we do nothing today there is a high probability that this hospital will close," Canepa told his colleagues. "That's the bottom line. You can try to sugar coat it however you want, you can justify in your mind what you think it is. But what's at stake here is the closure of this hospital, make no mistake about it."
Not everyone was convinced. Supervisor Dave Pine opposed funding allocation and pointed to the county's precarious financial positions and the budget cuts that supervisors had just approved for the health care system. Supervisor Carol Groom said she was "troubled" by the prospect of contributing without a concrete offer on the table. At the end of the marathon meeting, however, Canepa emerged victorious, with the board voting 4-1 to provide the funding and keep Seton's hope alive.
The vote proved consequential for the hospital, the county, and Canepa himself. Days after the supervisors pledged the funds, they found themselves facing a global pandemic that was spiraling out of control. In the first few months of the pandemic, with ownership still in doubt, Seton became a "safety net" hospital for the state as public health officials struggled to contain COVID-19 (its patients included San Quentin inmates who contracted COVID-19 during a June outbreak). By August, once the initial COVID-19 surge passed, AHMC completed its purchase of Seton Medical Center.
In a recent interview, Canepa said that the county's response to the pandemic its success in keeping the hospital open, encouraging residents to wear masks and get vaccinated and in providing rental assistance and support for local businesses played a significant role in his decision to run for Congress, where he hopes to fill a District 15 seat that is being vacated by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier.
"I probably wouldn't have run for Congress if it wasn't for the pandemic," Canepa, 47, said in an interview. "But what I found out was that this county has done an incredible job dealing with these very, very complex issues. While other elected officials were on the sidelines, my office and the county were in it day in and day out."
Canepa is just as quick with blame as he is with praise. In January, county officials found themselves on the defensive amid reports that about $7 million of personal protective equipment purchased in the early days of the pandemic was left outdoors and that some of that was damaged by storms. Canepa demanded a public hearing on what went wrong, and on April 19, he led the charge in grilling County Executive Officer Mike Callagy about the oversight, which he called a "black eye" and "truly disappointing."
"These are taxpayer dollars and for us to leave the equipment out was really, really government at its worst," Canepa said.
The Seton debate and the hearing on damaged equipment epitomized Canepa's legislative style his tendency to get ahead of his colleagues and then reel them in toward his position, even if it isn't popular or immediately viable. He plans to bring the same aggressive approach to Washington, D.C. When candidates were asked to name their role models in Congress at a recent forum, his two Democratic opponents, Emily Beach and Kevin Mullin, both named Speier, while Republican Gus Mattammal cited former House Speaker Tip O'Neill, a Democrat known for seeking compromise. Canepa chose Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat whose grassroots campaigning style and passionate support for policies such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and forgiveness of student debt have made her an icon of the party's progressive wing.
Canepa said that if elected, he would like to join "The Squad," a group of progressive legislators that, along with Ocasio-Cortez, includes Rashida Tlaib, Aryanna Presley and Ilhan Omar. Another lawmaker whom Canepa admires is U.S. Rep Barbara Lee, who in 2001 was the sole member of U.S. Congress to vote against going to war in Afghanistan.
"That lone vote still resonates today, and people say she's on the right side of history," Canepa said. "It takes time on some of the issues, but at the end of the day, those issues resonate. And I don't want to be the go-along-get-along caucus Democrat. I don't think that's effective."
Canepa's campaign reflects both his progressive ideals and aggressive tactics. If elected, he said he would fight to implement Medicare for All and work to make community college free for all. He also said he would focus on sea level rise, an issue of particular concern to the District 15 communities fronting the San Francisco Bay. This means fighting for the Green New Deal, a program that he believes is critical for addressing climate change and generating jobs.
On foreign policy, he supports establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a stance that sets him apart from most members of the Democratic establishment. President Joe Biden has consistently refused to "close the skies" over Ukraine, a policy that would greatly heighten the odds of a direct military confrontation between American and Russian aircraft. Canepa believes Vladimir Putin has a "disregard for life," knows no boundaries and must be stopped.
Canepa says his values stem from this working-class background. He attended Skyline Community College and the University of San Francisco, where he majored in politics and became the first member of his family to graduate from college. After a stint as a legislative aide for Assemblyman Leland Yee, he successfully ran for the City Council in Daly City, where he served between 2008 and 2016, which included a term as mayor in 2014.
Canepa believes his commitment to uplifting the less fortunate separates him from the rest of the field. Last year, as president of the Board of Supervisors, he championed a $2 million grant to expand a county program that offers free tuition to community college students. Other actions that he said he is particularly proud of as a county supervisor include the cancelation of court fees at Juvenile Hall and the county's work with the office of Sheriff Carlos Bolano to ban transfers of detained individuals to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A veteran of local politics, Canepa also touted his role on the regional stage as a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Area Quality Management District. He wants to see California get more federal dollars for transportation projects such as the high-speed rail system and grade separations along the Caltrain corridor. If elected, he said he would seek to join the Transportation Committee in the House to work on these projects.
"I know when it comes to transportation, we need a lot of money from the federal government to make sure we're able to hit our transportation goals, to make sure we're able to move into a system that needs much improvement," Canepa said.
He has also pledged not to accept any contributions from corporate political action committees, a stance that he says sets him apart from Mullin and Beach. That, however, has not stopped him from getting off to a strong start in fundraising. In late 2021, Canepa surprised many political observers when he charged ahead of the pack in funds raised. While Mullin had overtaken him by late March, Canepa had reported about $567,000 in cash raised by March 31, 2022. His list of contributors included the National Union of Healthcare Workers Federal Committee on Political Education as well as business leaders and residents throughout the county.
Though he is currently second in fundraising, Canepa believes he has a strong shot at prevailing in the June 7 primary and ultimately in the November general election. He has taken shots at Mullin, who is widely seen as his main rival, pointing to the contributions the assembly member received from political action committees, such as GenenPAC. Canepa criticized Mullin for issuing mailers in the early days of the campaign, which were funded by his assembly campaign committee. Mullin responded to the charges by saying he's disappointed to see Canepa run a "negative campaign against a fellow Democrat.
Canepa emphasized in an interview that, unlike Mullin, he did not inject his own funds into the campaign. He also dismissed a poll released by Mullin's campaign in mid-April that indicated that 31% of the respondents said they would support Mullin, compared to 17% for Canepa.
"I'm willing to bet Kevin Mullin a dinner at a restaurant of his choice that he is not going to have a 14-point lead," Canepa said when asked about the poll.
Canepa wants to take the same kind of fighting spirit to national debates on issues that concern the district.
"I want to bring a strong voice," Canepa said. "I want to bring a voice that really amplifies the issue. I don't want to play it safe."
Before she became one of Burlingame's most visible advocates for bikes and buses, Emily Beach thought of planes.
A native of Longmeadow, a small town in western Massachusetts, she caught the travel bug during college. As a sophomore at Notre Dame University, Beach traveled to Spain and lived with a host family in Toledo. Then there were trips to Poland, Hungary, Turkey and Greece. And her participation in the ROTC propelled her toward military service, a path that she felt would allow her to fulfill her desire to see the world and serve her country.
Fresh out of college, she trained to become a Patriot missile officer at the United States Army base Fort Bliss in Texas. Then she went off to Fort Benning, Georgia, for parachute school. It was not because it was a requirement but because she had something to prove both to herself and others.
"I had a terrible fear of heights, and I knew that if I faced it down and jumped out of an airplane five times, including with full combat gear on, there's nothing I can't do," Beach, 47, said in an interview.
Her approach to her first jump?
"I said Hail Marys the whole way down," she said.
Today, after Army stints in South Korea and Saudi Arabia, three years of working in a semiconductor company, another three years in education fundraising and seven years on the Burlingame City Council, Beach is preparing for her next big jump: to the U.S. Congress.
As one of three Democrats vying for an open seat in District 15, she emphasized what she sees as a big difference between her two main rivals, state Assembly member Kevin Mullin and San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa. As a woman and a military veteran, she would bring the views of both of these underrepresented groups to the U.S. Congress. Beach often points out that only 27% of Congress members are women. A pro-choice Catholic who deeply cares about issues such as affordable housing, education and reproductive freedom, Beach believes she could effectively advocate for the Bay Area on these issues.
She also noted that 73% of Congress members had military experience when she was born. Today, it's down to 17%.
"That matters," she said, "Congress makes decisions about foreign policy, the military budget, on whether or not to deploy troops."
Both Beach and Mullin have made experience a centerpiece of their campaigns. While Mullin usually refers to his legislative accomplishments, Beach focuses on her life experience, which includes stints in the private and nonprofit sectors and, more recently, Burlingame City Hall.
Beach and her husband, Duff, moved to San Francisco in 2000 and initially lived on Mission Street and Geneva Avenue, an area that now makes up the northern edge of the newly redrawn District 15. In 2008, they relocated to Burlingame, where they briefly rented before buying a house and raising two children.
Her experience as a school mom first drove her toward activism. With budget cuts at the Burlingame school district threatening her children's nursery school, Beach became heavily involved in fundraising. She joined the board of the Burlingame Community Education Foundation and was elected the foundation's president the following year. She is proud of her role in increasing the foundation's grants to local schools from $1 million to $1.8 million annually.
Her work as a school advocate raised her visibility in the Burlingame community, and in 2015 she ran for a seat on the City Council and easily won, finishing first out of four candidates. She was reelected in 2019, finishing first again, both Speier and Mullin having endorsed her campaign.
As a council member and a mayor, Beach has been a champion for active transportation. At times, this pitted her against her colleagues. In 2017, when the council contemplated creating a two-hour parking limit on Carolan Avenue near Burlingame High School, she was the only council member who opposed the proposal. The proposal aimed to keep Caltrain commuters from using the street for long-term parking and make more spaces available for high school students.
"The high schoolers were concerned that the parking terms weren't convenient enough and that they were losing parking spaces to Caltrain commuters," Beach said in an interview. "I didn't necessarily want to make it easier for students to drive cars when we want to encourage people to take Caltrain."
Last September, she was also outvoted during the council's discussion on streetscape changes on California Drive. During that discussion, she advocated creating a protected two-way bikeway and reducing lane sizes for cars as a traffic-calming measure. She also said she would support removing some parking spaces as part of a design to make road conditions safer for southbound cyclists.
But her concerns extend well beyond the minute details of local intersections. Since 2017, she has served on the board of the San Mateo Transportation Authority, which oversees billions of dollars in transportation investments throughout the region. This includes planning for grade separations and the realignment of railroad tracks; and streets at existing crossings so that they would no longer intersect. Burlingame is now moving ahead with a grade separation project at Broadway, which will involve depressing the road and raising the tracks over it.
Beach also represents the entire Peninsula, from San Francisco to Morgan Hill, on the League of California Cities, a coalition that advocates for federal legislation and lobbies the Legislature on behalf of local municipalities. Her council colleague Donna Colson recognized her participation in these broad regional efforts during a December 2019 ceremony when she passed the title of the mayor to Beach.
"What it shows is that she's just not about Burlingame; she's about the whole Bay Area and community," Colson said.
Beach sees her involvement in policy on the regional level much like her military experience on the global level as important assets, as she makes her bid for Congress. But she takes particular pride when talking about local issues, including her efforts as mayor in 2020 to steer Burlingame through the pandemic while still achieving key strategic goals like raising the minimum wage and adopting a bicycle and pedestrian master plan, an issue near and dear to her heart.
Beach is undaunted by the natural structural advantage that her two Democratic opponents bring to the race the fact that a state assembly member and a county supervisor represent a larger geographical area and, in a sense, have a louder megaphone than a council member in a city of about 30,000 residents. When asked about this, she instantly rattled off a list of Congress members who were elected without having first served on the state level: Zoe Lofgren, Eric Swalwell, Diane Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Anna Eshoo Eshoo represents the neighboring District 16 and Beach views her as a role model.
"I do think my experience in local government at the grassroots level is a competitive asset when I go to D.C. because I've been so close to the people," Beach said. "I get lobbied in the bike lane in my city. You can't get any closer to people."
If elected to Congress, one of her focus areas would be expanding health care. While Canepa supports Medicare for All, a bold proposal championed by the party's progressive wing, Beach says she wants to improve health care by gradually expanding the Affordable Care Act, which means she'd be leaning on the private sector in some areas and creating a public option.
That's not the only area where Beach disagrees with Canepa. In discussing foreign policy, Canepa said he supports imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which President Joe Biden has steadfastly refused to adopt because it would create the potential for direct combat between American and Russian aircraft. Beach, a former Patriot missile air defender, said she supports Biden's approach, which involves supporting Ukraine with weapons and economic aid.
"There are too many air defense assets that would shoot down aircraft," Beach said. "We cannot afford a direct conflict with Russia."
Other areas that she would prioritize in Congress are climate action and mental health, an issue that has become particularly critical in the Covid era. An entire generation of children, she noted, didn't get to experience preschool because of schools switching to Zoom classes. This, she said, will have long-term effects on society. As a mother of two teenagers and a long-time education volunteer, she believes she would be a particularly effective advocate on these topics if elected to Congress.
"Our life perspectives help inform what our priorities are," Beach said.
Long before Kevin Mullin became the second most powerful Democrat in the California Assembly, he was Cutmaster Kevvy Kev, a teacher's son working at McDonald's with a side hustle spinning tracks at dances and house parties.
Mullin, 51, knows how to read the room and set the tone, skills that helped him ascend to the position of Speaker Pro Tempore in 2014 and to remain in that role to this day. Though politics was always in his blood his father, Gene Mullin was a civics teacher at a local high school before winning a seat in the state Assembly he was more interested in music and journalism, he said in a recent interview.
As a youth in South San Francisco, Mullin wanted to be a radio DJ. He played music at local parties and, once in college, he began working at KDNS, the voice of the University of San Francisco Dons. He also worked briefly at an advertising agency and later founded a media company, KM2 Communication, which produced short documentaries and enabled him to host a show on public access TV.
But politics was never far from his mind, and his pivotal moment arrived when he met then-state Sen. Jackie Speier at a Democratic Party Convention, where she offered him a job as her field director. The job gave him a taste of constituent service and the political process. Speier, who he is now hoping to succeed in the U.S. Congress, told this publication that she had "great confidence in his ability to work well with people, to manage the office and to help me deliver for the constituents."
Mullin made his first foray into electoral politics in 2007, when he ran for city council in South San Francisco. He served as mayor in 2011 and became more engaged in regional issues, at one point representing his part of the county at the San Mateo County Transportation Commission. In 2012, he made a bid for the state Assembly in the heavily Democratic district and easily won, picking up 68.5% of the vote.
It didn't take long for him to forge alliances. In his first year in Sacramento, Mullin became assistant Speaker Pro Tempore. He ascended to Speaker Pro Tempore in December 2014, when then-Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins appointed him to the position. The position, he said, has been a "nice niche" for him, given his experience in radio and TV broadcasting.
"When you preside over the floor, you're in a way a bit like the anchorman of the Assembly," Mullin said in an interview. "You're narrating the proceedings, so to speak. It was a great utilization of my communication background, so I sought that position and was given it by the speaker at the time."
More importantly, he said, the position has given him access to regular conversations with party leadership, allowing him to advocate for San Mateo County concerns effectively.
"That's been good for my district," Mullin said.
He frequently touts his experience and success as a legislator on the campaign trail. He often mentions the 60 bills that he helped get signed into law, focusing on his efforts on climate change and the electoral process.
These issues are now at the heart of his campaign. When he addressed his supporters at an April 6 campaign event in downtown San Mateo, Mullin proclaimed to the crowd, "Our democracy is under attack and our planet is in peril."
In discussing democracy, he pointed to the growing number of red states moving over the past few years to erect voting barriers and limit people's options for electing their representatives.
"In many cases there's a partisan takeover being taken of local election processes," Mullin said in an interview. "That is calling out for federal protections. There need to be some federal protections and federal oversight over how the things are operating. I really think there's a coordinated effort to undermine democracy."
He believes he is uniquely positioned to address these issues. Mullin's best known bills pertain to campaign finance and election transparency. In 2017, he authored the DISCLOSE Act, which requires political ads to prominently disclose their funding sources. When then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law in October 2017, Mullin called it the "strongest finance disclosure act in America."
That was the first in a wave of voting bills Mullin has either authored or co-authored over the next few years. One provides a ballot to every voter so that they can vote by mail; another automatically registers California residents to vote.
Climate change is also a top priority, particularly given the 15th District's orientation along the San Francisco Bay. A self-described "Al Gore devotee," Mullin touted his efforts to pass a $3.7 billion legislative package in climate resilience, which included funding for coastal protection and adaptation measures. It also had funding for California Climate Action Corps, members of AmeriCorps who work on sustainability projects such as food recovery and wildlife resilience. The package became part of Gov. Gavin Newsom's budget last year.
"We absolutely have a responsibility at every level to work on this issue and we absolutely need federal funding on that," Mullin said of climate change.
An essential component of that is improving public transportation. Mullin said he strongly supports Caltrain's ongoing effort to electrify its fleet. In February, he introduced a bill to provide $260 million to Caltrain to complete the project by 2024. The project has been in the works since 2017.
The Caltrain project entails replacing 75% of the existing diesel fleet with electric trains and is projected to increase train service along the Peninsula. Mullin's legislation, known as AB 2197, is now moving through the Assembly's committee process.
He is more cautious when talking about high-speed rail, California's much maligned and repeatedly delayed effort to link San Francisco and Los Angeles. Since winning the voters' approval in 2008, the project has been hampered by a ballooning budget, shifting designs, inconsistent political support and spotty oversight.
"It's a generational kind of a project. I may not see high-speed rail in my lifetime but I think it's a project that should happen," Mullin said.
His legislative record also contains dozens of lesser known bills, including his proposals to ban counterfeit airbags, create a licensing system for child care centers and require 9-1-1 systems to have a text option for callers who are deaf, each signed into law in 2016, 2018 and 2019, respectively.
In an interview, Mullin said there is no hard and fast process for creating a legislative package. He said that ideas for legislation could come from constituents, staff, or individuals and organizations who've been trying to get something done for years.
Mullin believes that his years of steering critical legislation through Sacramento give him a substantial advantage over the rest of the candidates in the field. Experience, he likes to say, still matters.
Because of his experience in Sacramento and his close ties to Speier, Mullin has been widely considered a frontrunner ever since she announced her retirement last November. Speier immediately endorsed him and was quickly joined by other fixtures of the Peninsula's Democrat establishment, including U.S. Rep Anna Eshoo, former state Sen. Jerry Hill, state Sen. Josh Becker and Assembly member Marc Berman.
Speier told this publication that she believes Mullin's career in the Assembly has prepared him well for effectively representing the Peninsula in the U.S. Congress. Being a representative, after all, is a legislative job and having years of experience in the legislative process puts you "miles ahead in terms of being able to negotiate on behalf of your constituents in Congress," she said.
"Congress -- it eats freshmen alive," Speier said. "The story I heard when I first got there is that more senior members don't learn your name until you've been there for three or four terms. He's got the ability to hit the ground running and I think that's exceedingly important."
His campaign chest and list of endorsements also give him an edge. In the first quarter of this year, Mullin's campaign reported $371,883 in contributions, more than double what Beach and Canepa had raised over the same period. Days later, his campaign released a poll showing him well ahead of the competition, with 31% of respondents indicating "initial support" for his candidacy (Canepa was second, with 17%).
During an April 6 campaign event, with his wife Jessica and their 4-year-old twin sons Lan and Landon standing by, Mullin told his supporters that given the campaign donations and the polls, he believes he is now considered a frontrunner in the race.
"That's all good, but we still need to go out there and win it on the ground," Mullin said.
Gus Mattammal wants to challenge assumptions and defy expectations.
Yes, he is a Republican running in a Congressional district dominated by Democrats. As such, he may not be the odds-on favorite to fill a seat that has long been held by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier.
But with a bit of luck and lots of pluck, Mattammal bucked the odds in the past as he went from a working-class upbringing in St. Louis, Missouri, to a director of a tutoring company, Advantage Testing, a company he expanded west, and under his guidance, opened six offices.
As far as politics go, Mattammal is relatively new to the party. Unlike his three primary opponents, who are all Democrats, he has not held an elective office or a job as a staffer. He's also new to the Republican Party he joined the GOP just five days before an uprising at the U.S. Capitol made many observers and politicians question what the party stands for.
For Mattammal, 49, it means leveraging the private sector to solve public problems and tackle education reform, climate change and health care.
As a tutor, he is particularly passionate about education. His local school, Roosevelt High School, had a graduation rate of about 25% in the late 1980s, and none of his childhood friends had graduated, Mattammal said in a recent interview.
"I watched an entire generation of low-income, overwhelmingly minority kids fed into a public school that doesn't work. It fails to do what it's trying to do," Mattammal said.
However, he wants to make it clear that he does not oppose public education. Public schools, he said, are one of the things that made this country great.
"But believing in public education doesn't necessarily mean that I believe that every individual public school out there or that the system, as currently constructed, is the best public school system that we can possibly have," he said.
His primary solution is setting up educational savings accounts for lower-income individuals that would enable them to pursue other school options if their local schools are failing them. The goal, he said, is to give people more options when it comes to education. Today, individuals with higher incomes already have the option of leaving a public school system if it's not performing well. Only the lower-income families don't have that, he said. The government would play a role in subsidizing these accounts and opening up more choices.
Mattammal said he was more fortunate than most of his friends regarding high school education.
His grandfather, a carpenter and a plumber, and his grandfather's best friend, an electrician, remodeled the family home so they could rent out the bottom floor to another family. His parents saved that money and used it to send Mattammal and his three siblings to private schools. As a teenager, Mattammal attended an all-boys Jesuit school and worked 12-hour days on Sundays at a local ice cream shop, where he made $3.35 an hour. He also got his first start in tutoring when his teacher, sensing his boredom in class, charged him with tutoring two legendary class clowns, Mattammal said.
After graduating from high school, Mattammal moved to California to attend Pomona College.
Once he got his degree, he moved through many odd jobs, including a stint selling television ads and flirted with pursuing a doctorate in theoretical astrophysics, a subject for which he was passionate. Instead, he went to Yale School of Management, where he earned a master's degree in international strategy and finance. He then moved to various jobs at Capital One, taking him from Richmond, Virginia, to New York City.
Education, however, was always on his radar. Mattammal volunteered at the nonprofit Junior Achievement, where he taught financial literacy to underprivileged children. So when an opportunity came up for him to join Advantage Tutoring, he jumped at the chance. Before long, the New York-based company moved him west so that he could open offices in Portland, Seattle, Charlotte and other cities. The company, he said, now has about two dozen offices around the country.
Mattammal, who lives in El Granada, believes his experience in education makes him well suited to pursuing the types of reforms that California needs. For years, he said, the Democratic supermajority's main answer on education has been to throw more money at the problem. Yet California's K-12 education, he observes, lags behind most states (U.S. News & World Report currently ranks it as 40th).
Mattammal has no objections to funding public education, but he believes that there should be consequences for schools that aren't getting the job done. And if government subsidies allow low-income families to leave these schools, it would carry the added benefit of lowering class sizes at these schools and making it easier for them to improve their performance, he said. Some of the lowest-performing public schools may close, but Mattammal believes that's not bad.
His passion for personal choice extends to climate change and health care. When Mattammal talks about his support for universal health care, he is looking to Singapore. A system he envisions, modeled after Singapore's, would furnish everyone with a "universal health account" dedicated to paying for health care needs. While the government also contributes to these accounts, Mattammal believes that a Singapore-style system would significantly slash America's health care costs, give residents more choice and minimize the role of insurance companies.
"If you can control the money, we will ultimately spend less money and we will need fewer large government programs to run this policy," Mattammal explained at an April 6 candidate forum.
"So it achieves conservative goals of spending less money, less administrative space, more personal choice and freedom," he said.
He also preaches personal choice and the free market to address climate change, an issue central to his campaign. He does not support, for example, the recent trend by local governments to mandate "electrification" a switch from gas appliances to electric ones to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than requiring the switch, governments should create incentives such as tax breaks that would push people toward environmental sustainability, he said.
However, to really move the needle on climate change, the nation needs to invest more in technology. This includes carbon-capture technology, which absorbs carbon dioxide emissions before entering the atmosphere and storing it, usually underground. An advantage of this technology, he said, is that it can be set up in places like Wyoming and West Virginia, which have depended on fossil-fuel industries for jobs and economic growth.
"Carbon capture offers an ability to set up new industry in the places that the West has left behind," Mattammal said in an interview.
He also believes the country should invest more in nuclear fusion power, which relies on fusing nuclei of tiny atoms to create energy. Other nations, including the United Kingdom and Canada, have fusion projects in the works. The United States should not fall behind in this race, he said.
Nuclear power should also be part of the solution, he said. At the April 6 forum, Mattammal maintained that the days of Three Mile Island are "long gone," referring to a 1979 meltdown of a nuclear reactor that is considered the worst nuclear accident in American history.
"Nuclear plants are much smaller and of safer design now than they used to be. We should be building more of them," Mattammal said.
Mattammal is well aware that any Republican would face long odds in District 15, but he is undaunted by the challenge. As an immigrant's son (his father is from India) and an advocate for universal health care and strong investment in climate change, he believes that he can effectively fuse liberal ideals with conservative policy preferences. He sees himself as a political moderate, and he said his decision to join the Republican party was largely driven by his sense of where his views would carry the most significance.
"I could theoretically make my home in a center-left or a healthy center-right party, whichever one needs the most help," Mattammal said. "I felt the Republican Party needs my help. I want to help it be the best it can be because I think a constructive conservative would add an important voice to the national conversation."
If elected, he believes he can do something that no other candidate in the race can: bring the Republican Party to the table to pass the necessary legislation. He has already secured endorsements from the state GOP and the Republican chapters in San Mateo County and San Francisco. At an April 20 forum sponsored by Thrive, a coalition of nonprofits, he made the case that as a Republican, he would be able to effectively represent the Peninsula, mainly if the party takes over the House majority after the midterm elections, as is widely predicted.
"If you want to make real progress on issues like voting rights, like immigration, of the five of us only I can deliver the thing that we most need: support from the Republican Party," Mattammal said.