With its heart in Berkeley, AD 15 may very well be the most progressive Assembly district in California. It’s probably no surprise that a plethora of candidates are bidding to fill the shoes of termed-out Assemblymember Nancy Skinner. Also not surprising, is that they are all quite progressive. With a common agendas that include education, the environment and women’s rights, it’s actually hard to tell the candidates apart ideologically. Indeed, if there is one race in which it makes no sense for the Democratic party to make an endorsement, it’s this one. If the vote for the Democratic endorsement in this race comes to the floor of the California Democrats Convention later this week, I will vote “no endorsement”.
The actual favorite to receive the Democratic endorsement is my colleagues in the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee (ACDCC), Elizabeth Echols. A former attorney with Google, Echols has been a Democratic operative for decades and has worked for both the Clinton and Obama administration. She has extensive on-the-ground political experience and has, in the past, ran the Oakland United Democratic Campaign (UDC). She is very well connected within the party and has the endorsement of both Assemblymember Skinner and state Senator Loni Hancock.
Elizabeth’s passion for running is to create educational opportunities for young people. She was raised as one of four children by a single mother, went to public schools in Berkeley, then on to college, and was able to make a very good life for herself. She feels every child deserves the same chance. She is committed to expanding public education by providing universal preschool to children 3 or even younger. Elizabeth is also highly committed to the environment and wants to pass a complete moratorium on fracking. I asked her about my pet issue, civil liberties and in particular government surveillance. Elizabeth wasn’t aware about the DAC, despite falling in her district, but she offered that she believes there have to be strict limits on data retention, and if there is no direct and vital reason for a record to be kept, it should be destroyed.
Elizabeth’s reason for running is that she wants to make a difference in the issues she cares about. She feels she has a lot of experience building coalitions and getting things done. Indeed, that’s the image of Elizabeth I’ve gotten in the three years we’ve served together. She is smart, efficient, goal oriented, the epitome of professionalism. She’s someone you can expect to be straight and to the point, but is otherwise very quiet and seems to go with the flow. I have barely heard her speak at ACDCC meetings (though that’s very much the norm for members), and she quietly votes with the majority almost exclusively. Her style is more of a behind-the-scenes. For that reason, it’s hard to know what she will be able to fill Nancy Skinner’s shoes, though Nancy seems to think so.
Tony Thurmond, her main opponent for the Democratic endorsement, has also made children and education the cornerstone of his platform – and also of his life. A social worker by training, Thurmond is Senior Director of Community and Government Relations at the Lincoln Child Center, where he creates and oversees programs for truancy prevention, parenting education, school-based mental health services and support services for foster youth and families (I copied that from his website, but he spoke to me about the programs he’s started – such as a business academy for students in jail -, when we met).
He is a charismatic man. When he spoke at the pre-endorsement caucus, he was electric. My children, who after years of being dragged to political event after event are both jaded and weary of politicians, fell in love with him. My husband was impressed. I feared that it might be that phony charm that expert politicians put on. One-on-one, it’s clear that his charm is grounded on his humanity, his own sense of self and of mission: to leave the world a better place and make his daughters proud.
Tony Thurmond was born in California to a Panamanian mom and an army dad who left for Vietnam and never came back. His mother died when he was a child, and he was raised in Philadelphia by a young cousin. As a Hebrew Pentecostal Afro-Latino growing up in a black working class neighborhood, he was somewhat of a misfit, and yet found a sense of community and belonging that he continued to seek as an adult, and finally found in Richmond. There, he is raising two beautiful girls, spent a term in the City Council and one in the School Board before deciding that in order to push policies that will really help children, he needs to be in Sacramento.
While his goal of helping kids is central, he believes they should not be abandoned as adults. “Give people training and a job, and they won’t go back to jail,” he says. He takes crime seriously, in Richmond violent crime has been radically reduced by getting cops off their cops and into the streets, getting to know the neighbors, building trust. A model that Oakland definitely needs to follow. He works well with the Police, and got major support from them when he ran previously; he says they respect him because he’s a straight shooter.
If elected, Thurmond will bring another quality to the job that the other candidates I’ve spoken with lack: an ability to speak with anyone as an equal, but also the ability to listen and translate other people’s experiences into something that has meaning for him. I go back to my original word, Thurmond oozes humanity in the very best sense of the word.
Thurmond has a lot of strong Democratic backing himself, including Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lt governor Gavin Newsom, Congressman George Miller and a bunch of state legislators.
If Sam Kang had to define himself, the word “fighter” would probably be there somewhere. The Asian-American civil rights attorney is passionate about building coalitions and fighting for all sorts of causes. As legal director at Greenlining, Kang has experience in taking the concerns of public interest organizations all over the state and turning them into legislation. For example, after the Cal Grant program was threatened in Sacramento, he organized a coalition to save it.
Kang’s particular passion is accessibility to health care and in particular to women’s reproductive rights. He also wants to reform Prop 13 to have commercial landowners pay a fair share, which I think is pretty much what everyone wants.