It's the final week of a heated race to fill the State Assembly seat for the politically charged 14th district, which extends from Richmond to North Oakland and includes Lamorinda. But ask someone on the bus who they're voting for on June 3, and the conversation probably won't last long. In the first statewide primary election since World War II that doesn't include a gubernatorial or presidential contest — a result of state lawmakers and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last year separating the legislative and presidential primaries — the local stakes might be high, but most locals either don't know about it or don't care.
"Many in the Bay Area are well versed in national politics, but hardly anyone knows what happens in Sacramento," said Kriss Worthington, a long-time Berkeley City Councilmember, noting that the public often fails to see the impact of state elections. He's running in a tight race against East Bay Regional Parks District Director Nancy Skinner, Richmond City Councilmember Tony Thurmond and Berkeley doctor and businessman Dr. Phil Polakoff. The assembly seat they are all vying for is being vacated by liberal stalwart Loni Hancock.
In a contest a Republican wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole, the four Democratic candidates represent subtle shades of political liberalism and have had to work hard, and at times unsuccessfully, to truly distinguish themselves from one other on the campaign's central issues of reforming health care and education, spurring economic development through a green economy, and reducing crime and global warming.
Perhaps differentiating himself the most politically is neophyte Polakoff, who describes himself as "politically more prudent" than his opponents. While his challengers' have repeatedly advocated closing corporate tax loopholes and selectively raising taxes to revamp many of the state's dilapidated public services, Polakoff has urged more efficient management of state programs over increased budgets.
In a well-funded campaign, he's personally invested a significant chunk of money in addition to receiving a healthy amount from other Berkeley physicians and individual donors in San Francisco. Polakoff, 62, is the only candidate of the four who doesn't support some form of single-payer state health insurance. More in line with Schwarzenegger's health agenda, he calls a single-payer system too "revolutionary," arguing it will create messy bureaucracy that won't appropriately address the state's health needs.
"I will be the only physician in the legislature to deal with health-care issues," said Polakoff, who stopped practicing medicine 10 years ago to start a health management company, and was briefly a consultant in Sacramento on occupational health and safety issues. "You can't just say yes. You have to rationally work through issues and make sure they're doable."
In contrast, Kriss Worthington, 53, has proudly proclaimed himself the "most progressive" candidate with the least amount of cash. The only openly gay member of the Berkeley City Council, he's helped defeat numerous proposals by Berkeley mayors, notably Shirley Dean, and has a well established reputation as a legislative thorn in the side of the executives he's worked under.
"I would see my job description as making Arnold Schwarzenegger's life hell," said Worthington, whose pointed campaign slogan, "a Democrat with backbone," has irked some in his party. "When someone stands up to Arnold, we've been able to stop him. We need people from the Bay Area who will stand in his way."
While generally keeping with the standard progressive agenda, Worthington is also known for his occasional deviations, including advocating for more police on the streets. And during the recent Berkeley Marine recruiting debacle, he was among the small minority to oppose the Council's anti-recruitment resolution.
His campaign is bolstered by the endorsements of the Sierra Club and the United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. Among his largest donors are the two owners of the Berkeley Daily Planet.
In the many candidate forums he's participated, in Worthington has been outspoken in his opposition to Gov. Schwarzenegger's 50,000-bed prison expansion, which legislators approved. "I'm the only candidate who opposed the largest prison expansion in history," he said, noting that Loni Hancock was among many liberal Dems who he says were "tricked" into voting for it.
The Berkeley Standard
Worthington and his chief rival, Nancy Skinner, have dueled for recognition, endorsements and contributions from within Berkeley's political establishment, in addition to many of the area's deep-rooted progressive groups (Both claimed endorsements from the Sierra Club). Less feather-ruffling, Skinner is the most in line with Berkeley's longstanding political leadership and has received the blessings of her three would-be predecessors, including Loni Hancock and current Berkeley mayor Tom Bates, who left his Assembly seat in 1996. She's also curried the favor of the state's powerful nurses union. The last in the race to launch her fundraising efforts, since January she's raised an impressive war chest and won the local e-mail/junk-mail battle.
Skinner, also 53, served on the Berkeley City Council from 1984-1992 and was part of a progressive majority that promoted tenant protection and rent control laws and sought funding for affordable housing and human services. While there, she introduced Berkeley's Styrofoam ban and 50 percent recycling goal, and founded Local Governments for Sustainability. If elected, she says she'll fight for passage of a universal health care bill and be adamant in her support for statewide environmental initiatives as well as a major reinvestment in public education, including funding for universal preschool. "Our state is in a crisis," she said. "We have a small handful of Republicans who have an irrational refusal to raise revenues. It's starving our schools and slashing essential services."
The Richmond Resident
Never mind his liberal political bent, Tony Thurmond has the least trouble distinguishing himself from the fray. At 39, the first-term Richmond councilmember is the youngest and the only non-white, non-Berkeley candidate, and he serves as an important reminder that District 14 is not just a "Berkeley seat." In fact, Richmond's oft-overlooked population is just about 3,500 people shy of Berkeley's, making it the second largest city in the district.
Like his rivals, Thurmond brings with him a litany of progressive goals, yet has tailored them more to directly address the needs of poor, urban populations in the state, making poverty, violence, and urban schools central issues in his campaign. Thurmond speaks frequently of environmental justice, expressing strong support for creating green jobs in low-income areas and holding corporations like Chevron environmentally responsible for their actions. He's a social worker by training and has long been involved in running local non-profits offering services to low-income seniors and youth.
He pledges to put more money in schools by closing loopholes in corporate property taxes and bringing back vehicle license fees. "I'm the only candidate who talks about how kids born in the flats in the East Bay today might live 15 years less than a child in the hills ... and says we need to reverse that trend by taxing corporations that would pollute our air and demand they hire local people and create clean jobs."
Despite Thurmond's relative lack of political experience and name recognition, he's racked up a number of key labor endorsements, including the state AFL-CIO and several local and statewide peace officers associations. He also ended last year with the highest level of contributions in the race, including nearly $30,000 from businesses. It's landed him criticism for taking contributions from corporations with development interests in Richmond. But Thurmond says these contributions will have no bearing on his voting decisions. He argues that even though Chevron contributed to his campaign for city council, he's consistently voted against their interests.