Strong policy differences emerge between AD15 candidates Jovanka Beckles and Buffy Wicks

Jovanka Beckles (left) and Buffy Wicks at an Oct. 2 forum presented by the League of Women Voters. Photo: Peter Y. Sussman

Hundreds of people gathered at the Berkeley Community Theater on Oct. 2 to hear a discussion between Jovanka Beckles and Buffy Wicks, the two candidates running for the Assembly District 15 seat.

Although both women are liberal Democrats — Richmond City Councilwoman Beckles identifies as a democratic socialist — the discussion brought out distinct differences between them. They differ on their support for Proposition 10, the repeal of Costa Hawkins; reforms for charter schools; whether California should immediately seek a single-payer health plan or wait; the state’s cap-and-trade program to curb pollution; the idea of up-zoning neighborhoods to generate more housing; the state’s new no-cash bail system; and income taxes.

The two candidates did agree on one thing: their opposition to Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build twin tunnels to funnel water from northern to southern California.

The League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany, and Emeryville hosted the forum as part of its series illuminating electoral issues and candidates for the November election. Guy Marzorati, a reporter and producer for KQED News, was the moderator. The bulk of the audience appeared to be people 50 years and older, even though the forum took place at Berkeley High School.


Throughout the evening certain key phrases kept popping up. Beckles repeatedly referred to “the billionaire class,” and “corporate polluters” and she promised to “tax the rich.” Wicks, a long-time political organizer who worked for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns for president, told the crowd more than once that she “went from a trailer to the White House,” referring to her childhood home in Northern California to the eight years she worked for President Obama. Both agreed with the slogan “the rent is too damn high.”

Here is a synopsis of some of the issues the candidates discussed. All of the housing questions have been grouped together, which did not happen at the forum.

Housing

In general, Beckles wants to push for affordable housing on public property paid with public funds rather than increase the supply of market-rate housing being built. She said she had a plan to build hundreds of thousands of units this way. She is a strong proponent of Prop. 10, which would repeal Costa Hawkins. She pointed out that she helped bring rent control to Richmond as a city councilwoman. Beckles said she would support height limits around transit, and she said she is concerned about AB 2923, which just gave BART authority to build on its lots. She doesn’t want to give a “blank check to developers.”

Wicks said that she wants to build more housing, as the lack of housing (she said experts believe the state is short 2 million homes) is the root of the current housing crisis. She supports transit-oriented housing and would support a bill giving the state the right to up-zone neighborhoods as long as it has strong provisions for local input. She is not in favor of Prop. 10, although she supports reforming Costa-Hawkins. She wants to pass anti-gouging legislation to prevent landlords from raising the rents too high, and she wants to create an infrastructure bank to loan funds for the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

The first question asked whether the candidates supported Prop. 10, the November state ballot initiative to repeal Costa-Hawkins. If passed, the bill would remove the ban on vacancy control, which allows landlords with rent-controlled apartments to bump rents to market rate when a tenant moves out. Individual cities would determine how much landlords could raise the rent. Prop. 10 would also allow cities to place rent control measure on properties built after 1989, which is currently prohibited

Wicks is opposed to Prop. 10. She said that rent control is important and she knows it is the only thing keeping many families in the area. But she shares the concerns expressed by building trades unions, the NAACP, and affordable housing builders: the passage of Prop. 10 will stop construction of badly needed units in California. “We desperately need new homes,” she said. If Prop 10 passes, Wicks wants to work with cities to make sure “we don’t halt new housing.” If it fails, Wicks said she will work to reform Costa Hawkins to bring in a “rolling date” that would allow cities to bring more properties under rent control. She also wants to pass anti-gouging legislation to prevent landlords from hiking up the rents. Beckles said she 100% supports Prop. 10. “We cannot continue to displace our community members.” She has said in other venues that the concept that Prop. 10 would stop building in California is a “false statement” meant to scare people. “It won’t stop builders from building.”

The candidates were asked if they would support a bill similar to SB 827 (which died last legislative session) to allow the state to play a larger role in building in cities. Beckles said that if the state legislature considers a similar law it should not bypass community engagement. She supports more housing, but it should be nonprofit, affordable housing on public land, not market rate housing. Wicks said that she heard another iteration of SB 827 will return but that it will have more “carrot-and-stick” provisions to allow local municipalities to determine how and where they will build. She supports that.


The candidates were asked if they supported up-zoning residential neighborhoods to allow taller, higher structures. Wicks said that she supports this, especially around transit. She brought up the Rockridge district in Oakland and pointed out that the building housing Zachary’s Pizza was only one story high. Adding another two stories around there would not “dramatically alter the character of the neighborhood but would give us much-needed density.” She thinks buildings holding six to eight units, including some that were affordable, is a good idea. She also wants to see more ADUs allowed. Many people have detached garages that could be converted to apartments. She supports creating a bank that would provide low-interest loans for the construction of ADUs if people rented those spaces to low-income individuals. Beckles said this up-zoning is a gift to developers. “I don’t believe we need to give a blank check to developers and I believe this does that.” She said her Housing for All program would build thousands of homes within 10 years with a publicly funded system. Beckles said Richmond has height limits, which she supports, and that community input is needed before changes are made. She supports infill development.

The candidates were asked what they would do if they only had one mechanism to prevent displacement. Beckles said she would pass Prop. 10 because that would stabilize many communities. She also wants to address the root causes of homelessness by increasing the number of drug treatment and mental-health programs. Wicks said she would introduce anti-gouging legislation that prevents landlords from jacking up the rents from 20 to 40%. She would create a legal defense fund for those facing eviction as studies show that legal help prevents eviction. She would increase the renter tax credit from $60 to $600.

Other issues facing California

HEALTH CARE: The candidates were asked whether they support a single-payer health care system in California. Both candidates said they support single-payer health care in California but have different approaches about the timing. Beckles, who is a mental health professional, said she would work to get the single-payer system enacted as soon as possible in California. She wants to “take the profit out of the service of people.” California, with the fifth largest economy in the world, is rich enough to afford the system, she said. She also said that she will push to make sure Alta Bates Hospital stays open, but if its owner, Sutter Health, does not agree to “play fair,” Beckles will work with other legislators “to have the public take over” the hospital. Beckles also wants to improve working conditions for health care providers.

Wicks reminded the audience that she had helped President Obama pass the Affordable Health Care Act and she wants to work to protect its advances, which are under threat. She wants to strengthen the health exchanges and add one with a public option. She said she supports Medicare for all at the federal level. While she is in favor of single payer in the state, she wants to approach it incrementally. As long as Trump is president there is no way he will give California the $200 million it will need to enact single payer, so it doesn’t make sense to push for it immediately, she said. If the Democrats win back the presidency, California can enact single payer after 2020. Wicks would like to fix California’s reimbursement rates to doctors, which, she argues, are too low, and to push for a public option on the exchanged.

CAP AND TRADE: The candidates were asked about the cap-and-trade program, which is set to expire in 2030. Do they support its extension? Wicks said she supports the program but thinks recent changes reduced the ability of municipalities to control local pollution. She wants to amend those changes. She said that 39% of greenhouse gases come from autos, which is one reason she supports Assemblyman Phil Ting’s bill to eliminate the sale of gas cars by 2040. She wants to make sure the infrastructure to support electric vehicles is in place and to make sure low-income people have access to electric cars. Beckles said she is disappointed in the cap-and-trade program. She said the world doesn’t have time for incremental policies to address climate change. She said she would push for a ban on fracking and all new oil drilling in California. She would push to speed up Gov. Brown’s proposal to have California be fossil-free by 2045. Beckles wants the date to be 2035.  The current legislature doesn’t have the “political will to stand up to corporate polluters,” which is why the state needs new leaders willing to more aggressively tax polluters.

HIGH-SPEED RAIL: The candidates were asked if they support the high-speed rail project connecting northern and southern California. Beckles said she has concerns and would bring the project back to the drawing board to solicit more community comment. She thinks the billions allocated for the project could be better spent on other public transportation projects. Wicks said she also wants to emphasize funding that makes sure existing public transportation works well. BART is overcrowded and Wicks believes the Bay Area needs another Transbay Tunnel. Wicks said she thinks both private and public funds are needed to achieve this.


WATER TUNNELS: Both candidates oppose Gov. Brown’s proposal to construct two tunnels to funnel water from northern to southern California. Wicks said the tunnels are not good for the environment. She wants the state to adopt drought policies in non-drought years She also wants the state to develop ways to expand the use of gray water. Beckles said she has a history of standing up for the environment and that is why virtually every environmental group in the state supports her. She said the state shouldn’t divert money from northern California to southern California “particularly to build housing for the rich.”

PRISONS: The candidates were asked how they would reduce the state’s prison population. Beckles said she wants to end the use of for-profit prisons. (There is only one for-profit prison in California but the state sends 4,400 inmates to be housed in private prisons outside the state, according to the Orange County Register.) Now that recreational cannabis has been legalized, Beckles wants the state to release people sentenced to stiff terms for cannabis possession. Many men on probation are being sent back to prison if they are caught with even a small amount of cannabis. That should change. Wicks pointed out that she thinks it is a travesty that California has built 22 new prisons in recent decades but only one new UC campus. Those priorities should shift. Wicks also wants to treat drug use as a public-health issue rather than a criminal issue. She believes there need to be more “second-chance” programs available to people leaving prison.

Watch the entire debate:

CASH BAIL LAW: And would they have voted for the new law that ends cash bail? Wicks said she would have voted for the bill even though she has some concerns about it. The new law is a step in the right direction and can be amended and improved in the future. Beckles said she would not have voted for the bill. “I don’t believe replacing one racist system with another racist system is progress.” The bail system needs radical and bold changes, she said.

TAX SYSTEM: What changes in the tax system would the two candidates like to see? Wicks said that most of the state’s budget is derived from personal tax payments. She wants to reform the commercial property portion of Proposition 13 to make “Chevron and Disneyland and Transamerica” pay their fair share of property taxes. There will be a measure on the 2020 ballot to “close the commercial loophole” and she encouraged everyone to vote for it. Beckles said she would change the current tax system by “taxing the rich.” She believes that would generate enough revenue to make higher education and preschool free. “When we tax the rich we can have the resources we deserve,” she said. Beckles said she also supports reforming Prop. 13.

EDUCATION: When asked how they would improve California’s educational system, Beckles repeated her intention to tax the rich. California is the fifth largest economy in the world and workers who helped generate the wealth should benefit from that wealth. She wants the state to offer free preschool to all as well. Wicks said that the average cost of childcare is $2,000 a month, making it unaffordable for many. Early education is critical for success as an adult, and the state should incorporate preschool into its education system so there is a system for 0 to 18-year-olds. She also wants to pay teachers more. She wants to return to the state’s Master Plan where there was no tuition. She also wants to increase vocational training.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: The candidates were asked where they stand on charter schools. Wicks said she would advocate for increased accountability for charters. The original bill creating them was passed in 1993 and, until a few weeks ago, had never been reformed or updated. She would call for an end to for-profit charter schools. She would also like to make them subject to open meeting laws and the Public Records Act. Teachers should be unionized too. Beckles said she would move for a moratorium on new charter schools because they are “sucking the lifeblood out of public schools.” She wants to increase funding to public schools.

GUN CONTROL: The candidates were asked if the state could do more about gun control – Beckles said the state needs strong laws and also needs to listen to the community. In Richmond, there are a number of successful community programs, such as CeaseFire, that have reduced violence. She would like to take those types of programs to other communities in the state plagued by gun violence. Wicks said that former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the Brady campaign had endorsed her, which indicates her strong stance in favor of gun control. Not only that but she met her husband while working on laws to pass universal background checks. The NRA has such a lock on Congress that it has blocked federal funds from being used to conduct research on guns and gun violence, she said. Wicks wants California to lead the way in doing that research. She wants to outlaw accessories that allow guns to be upgraded, and to mandate smart technologies, like requiring a fingerprint to pull a trigger. If California did that, other states would be forced to do that as well.

Guy Marzorati of KQED (left) was the forum moderator. Photo: Peter Y. Sussman

PENSIONS: The candidates were asked about whether they would make any changes to public sector pensions. Wicks pointed out that reforms were made in 2012 after the government and labor unions came to the table and worked out a compromise. She knows that cities and school districts are concerned about union pension costs and she thinks the state will ultimately have to provide resources and bring various groups to the table. Wicks said that the state “must honor its commitment to workers.” Beckles said that people work their whole lives and pay into pensions and should not have to worry about finances when they retire. She supports defined benefit pensions and will “fight vigorously to avoid reductions in pensions.” She said she has the support of more than 30 unions because they have seen how she has stood up for the rights of workers during her terms on the Richmond City Council.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE REPORM: The candidates were asked their positions on state campaign finance reform. Both were in favor of it. Wicks pointed out that she and Beckles were among the very few candidates who were not taking corporate contributions: “I have seen how money in politics impacts politics. I desperately believe we need campaign financing reform. I support public financing.” Wicks said that Citizens United allows companies like Chevron to put $100,000 into an independent expenditure fund to support candidates. That money is “corrosive.” Beckles said that Citizens United in ruining our government. “It’s a way the billionaire class is able to buy seats, buy seats in elected positions.” Beckles went on to say that she “had not benefitted from independent expenditures.”

Editorial note: A major issue in the AD 15 campaign has been the amount of money being raised by the candidates and being spent by independent expenditure campaigns. As of today, independent expenditure campaigns had spent more than $819,000 on Wicks’ candidacy. She has also raised $1.1 million in contributions, according to state campaign finance records. Independent expenditure campaigns had spent $103,000 on Beckles’ candidacy (contrary to what she said above). She has also raised $376,000, according to state reports.