Bay Area assembly member crosses finish line into Capitol

In the California Legislature, common wisdom holds representatives are either “policy wonks” or “hacks,” freshman Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier quipped.
But the Contra Costa Democrat gives the residents of his Concord district something to brag about. “I’m a policy wonk and a hack.”

A single father of two and 21-time marathon runner, DeSaulnier credits his Assembly ascension to his competitive personality and to more than a decade of involvement in local, regional and state government. He runs to maintain his emotional and physical health and reads voraciously.

DeSaulnier arrives in the Legislature after easily defeating Republican Arne Simonsen in the November 7 general election, winning more than twice the votes of Simonsen. He garnered a 12-point primary victory over Laura Canciamilla, the wife of outgoing Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, even as pundits predicted wins for the spouses of termed-out lawmakers.

Following his victory over Simonsen, labor backers campaigned behind the scenes on his behalf, trying to help him become chairman of the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment, where fellow Bay Area freshman Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Oakland, just took the reins.

Support from both sets of interests comes in part from DeSaulnier’s time with the Bay Area air district, where he said he worked years to secure passage of a rule designed to cut refinery emissions by limiting the number of times the refineries could “flare,” or burn off their emissions.

The flare rule not only cut those emissions by as much as 80 percent, but it also helped improve safety for workers, said DeSaulnier, who makes no secret of the fact that he considers working with labor on environmental issues “as good as it gets.”

However, onetime opponent Simonsen cautioned DeSaulnier against siding with labor all the time, saying the Contra Costa Democrat sometimes will have to stand against his party caucus and his backers to support his district of largely non-union workers. “It’s difficult for him to say ‘no’ to unions.”

Simonsen, an Antioch city councilman, praised DeSaulnier’s offer of an open door in the Capitol, and pointed out that the pair of opponents actually have very similar personalities. They have one more thing in common: the “gray hair” they both got working at local government, Simonsen said, although the Republican claims to have more.

Connections between local government and gray hair notwithstanding, governance of cities and counties weighs on DeSaulnier’s mind. After experiencing the steering-wheel-gripping tension of countless Bay Area commutes, DeSaulnier said he wants to see local governments reduce total vehicle-miles traveled during their planning processes. This would mean “fewer and shorter trips” to work, school and play for the state’s residents, and would improve air quality.

Tina Andolina, a Coalition for Clean Air lobbyist, praised the idea of reducing vehicle miles. She said the Assembly as a body may be on track next year to pass some key air-quality bills, and added DeSaulnier seems “promising.”

The outlook for bills aimed at improving air quality while spending the $19.9 billion transportation bond itself seems promising, she said. “Air quality has a lot of traction in the Assembly this year because of its impact on people’s lives.”

Although he has a reputation as the clean-air lawmaker, DeSaulnier has other ideas. For one thing, he wants to help kids in the juvenile-justice system get the mental-health treatment they need. Failure to do otherwise, he said, is “a wasted investment, both monetarily and morally.”

He, along with his “good friend” Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, also plans to introduce a bill addressing childhood obesity, and is reading the book Fast Food Nation to learn more about the culture surrounding childhood obesity.

Reading has earned DeSaulnier a somewhat wonkish reputation, so he again makes a joking claim at hackdom. “This is the only place in the world where you can be intellectual just because you read books.”

Speaking seriously, though, the Massachusetts-born, former Bay Area restaurateur and regulator idealizes the Golden State. “It’s really cool, not just to be a legislator, but to be a legislator in California. I think anything is possible in California.”

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