Elizabeth Echols, one of two Democrats running for the open 15th Assembly District seat this fall, has served under two presidencies. The other candidate, Tony Thurmond, has served as a city councilmember in Richmond and on the West Contra Costa County school board. Both say they have the requisite experience to replace termed-out Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, albeit with resumes spanning differing spheres of public service.
In the June primary, Echols won 31 percent of the vote — good enough for a seven-point win over Thurmond in a race that featured seven candidates in all. Under the state's top-two primary system, the two Democrats will again meet in what is widely viewed as being an evenly matched race this November to represent a district that includes a portion of North Oakland and the cities of Berkeley, Emeryville, Albany, and Piedmont, along with a large swath of West Contra Costa County that runs from El Cerrito to Hercules.
This is also a race in which the two candidates are generally regarded as being progressives who have similar values. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is their backgrounds. Echols served as an internet and e-commerce advisor to then-Vice President Al Gore and was appointed by President Barack Obama as the West Coast regional administrator for the US Small Business Administration. Echols said that during her time under Obama, the administration helped save jobs in the Bay Area during the recession by offering loans to many small businesses when banks were unwilling to lend money. "My experience will enable me to hit the ground running and be a leader in Sacramento," said Echols. "I think that's the most important thing for this district."
Thurmond contends that his experience also gives him an advantage in the race, although he declined in an interview to compare his background to that of Echols. "I made a decision earlier on that I wasn't going to focus on who else is running," he said. "I was just going focus on what I have to offer, what I have done and what do I have to offer for the future and let the voters decide." Thurmond said that as a school board member he worked to improve underperforming schools and provide job training opportunities for youths. As a councilmember, he helped pass legislation to protect the environment and regularly acted as a strong voice against Chevron.
However, Echols noted that the Sierra Club, the California League of Conservation Voters, and the California Democratic Party have all endorsed her campaign based on her stances on environmental issues. Echols also is supported by the biggest names in Berkeley politics: Mayor Tom Bates, State Senator Loni Hancock, and Skinner.
Undaunted, Thurmond says support for his campaign is growing in Berkeley. He noted that Berkeley Councilmember Jesse Arreguin recently pulled his endorsement of Echols in favor of Thurmond. And he said his campaign has the momentum to override the political power structure that has long dominated Berkeley politics. "Our grassroots campaign — through house parties, town hall events, walking door-to-door — is going to deliver us beyond what the so-called Berkeley Machine does," Thurmond said.
Echols responded by saying, "I don't think there's a Berkeley Machine as much as there is a Richmond-West County machine."
Democratic heavyweights such as West Contra Costa County Congressman George Miller are backing Thurmond's campaign, as is state Attorney General Kamala Harris. If elected, he would become the first African-American to represent a district north of Los Angeles in either chamber of the legislature since East Bay Assemblymember Sandré Swanson was termed out of office in 2012.
Although the two candidates have been mostly polite to each other so far, there are some signs that there could be some aggressive campaigning as the election draws closer. A press release sent out by Echols' campaign late last week called out Thurmond for being the beneficiary of more than $50,000 from an independent expenditure committee aligned, in part, with big oil, tobacco, and pharmaceutical interests. By law, independent expenditure groups cannot coordinate their efforts with the campaign they support. Echols slammed the presence of the special interest group to the race, saying, "I'm confident that voters won't be fooled." Thurmond said he was unaware of the outside group's involvement. He said he favors limiting special interest money in politics.
If elected, both candidates plan to make education a top priority. Echols said she will focus on making it easier for parents to access early childhood education programs for their kids. Thurmond, meanwhile, is touting a proposed bill that he calls "Pay it Forward," which would allow students to go to college for free if, after graduation, they earmark a portion their salaries to repay their school debt over the next 20 to 25 years. "I see this as critical because of the escalating debt California students are paying right now," said Thurmond, who would start with a small pilot program using general fund dollars. Echols countered that Thurmond's plan lacks innovation. "It's not that different than what students have now; just a different way to pay it back," she said, noting that many students take out personal loans that they repay after graduation.
When it comes to some of the biggest issues currently debated in the state legislature, the two candidates are on the same page. They each support Governor Jerry Brown's plan for high-speed rail and favor using proceeds from cap-and-trade to help fund the massive transportation project. As for the governor's proposal to build two massive water tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, both strongly oppose it because of environmental concerns. They also both oppose fracking. "I don't ever think that we will be able to determine fracking is safe," said Echols, "so, honestly I think a full moratorium is practically equivalent to a ban. Either way, we need to stop it." Thurmond agrees. "No more moratoriums. Let's just ban it outright."