Contenders get early start on 2014 in Berkeley battleground

A year before the primary election, a diverse array of Assembly hopefuls is ramping up to run in an area whose name is synonymous with political debate – Berkeley.


California’s electoral landscape will be different in 2014 than in landmark 2012, a game changer that included the election of 38 new members to the Assembly. Next year, there are about 20 open seats.


But one of those open seats already is shaping up as race to watch. It’s the 15th Assembly District, where incumbent Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner is termed out.  For those on the political left, this is one of the most illustrious districts in the state.


The 15th Assembly District is where the Free Speech Movement began at UC Berkeley and is the home of It’s the home of Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas and of one of the first Peets coffee houses. It’s the home of Chez Panisse, which is owned by Alice Waters, who was part of the free speech movement and now is one of the most vocal advocates for the local organic food movement.


Among the candidates, two are African-American, two are women, two are gay and one is Asian and each comes from different communities in the district.  Each candidate will try to appeal to their base of voters, but with such a strong field of candidates with crossover bases it will be an all-out battle on campaign tactics, messages, themes and who is best able to represent and deliver to these voters.


“This district one of the handful of districts in the state that are truly progressive,” said potential candidate Sam Kang.  “The member must carry the responsibility to push the progressive consciousness in Sacramento.  Without that person pushing, the rest of the state will suffer.  That’s how influential and critical this district is.  People here not only know they are progressive, but love that they are progressive.  Whoever is elected here must know how to translate that and have the skills and experience to push that progressive agenda in Sacramento.”


The likely contenders represent various genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations.  All are determined political activists who are proud of the legacy of the district.  “If anything, this district is looking for the most progressive candidate and one who is pushing the envelope,” said Parke Skelton, who is currently not involved in the race but was the consultant that elected Nancy Skinner in 2008.


“I think geography is big deal in a race like this.  People want to vote for people they feel kinship with and the district has a lot of different communities and a lot of different feels and they understand their unique neighborhood,” he added.


The candidates include Elizabeth Echols, of Oakland, President Obama’s former Regional Administrator for the Small Business Administration; Sam Kang, of Emeryville, general counsel at the Greenlining Institute; Andy Katz, of Berkeley, the Government Affairs Director at Breathe California and a board member at the East Bay Municipal Utility District; Peggy Moore, of Oakland, the California Director of Organizing America; and Tony Thurmond, of Richmond, a Director at the Lincoln Child Center, former member of the Richmond City Council and West Contra Costa School Board.  Another potential candidate is Charles Ramsey, a board member on the West Contra Costa Unified School District. And more may enter the field in the coming weeks and months.


“I think we are fortunate to have a diverse array of candidates and it shows how diverse the district is, one of the most progressive districts and we are all stepping up and celebrating our leadership and desire to be a leader for the district,” said Moore.


Does such a crowded field of candidates, who will likely run as far to the left as they can, make it difficult for Democratic donors in Sacramento to make an endorsement?  If so, the candidates could be faced with building their own support in the district, raising money locally and counting every vote in order to win one of the top two spots in the June primary.


Tom Bates represented this district for 20 years, from 1976 to 1996 until term limits forced him out office.  For nearly the last 40 years this district has been represented by someone in the Bates family or a former legislative or campaign staffer for Bates and Hancock.  And for the last 16 years it has been represented by a white woman, Dion Aroner, Loni Hancock and Nancy Skinner.


Most of the district is located along the I-80 corridor from Hercules to Oakland, including Richmond and Berkeley.  The Redistricting Commission placed most of the minority neighborhoods in Oakland in the adjacent 18th Assembly District.  What was left in the 15th Assembly District is a population that is roughly 39% white, 22% Latino, 18% Asian and 16% African-American.


Among registered voters, African-Americans account for about 15%, followed by Latinos and Asians, both at 11%, which leaves white registered voters at about 60%.  Democrats are nearly two-thirds (64%) of voters, and there are more than twice as many voters that are registered with No Party Preference (19%) than Republican (8%).  With numbers like these, a Republican contender has little chance.


It’s early in the campaign, just about a year out from the primary, but the candidates are already assembling their campaign teams and developing messages.  The Sierra Club already has sent out its endorsement questionnaire.  A large unknown is whether Bates, his allies and Berkeley Citizen’s Action will make an endorsement, which could prove significant.


“It’s two different things to have their endorsement and their active participation.  You can’t ever underestimate their coalition they put together.  It is effective to say the least, it’s potent.  They are very active, they have a massive network of clubs and fundraising and precinct walkers.  It’s your perfect Democratic political operation.  The reason they have been successful it works,” said Michael Colbruno, Partner at the Oakland based Government Affairs Firm, The Milo Group.


Although, no official endorsement has come from the incumbent or any of the former Assembly members here, Echols’ contact for her campaign kick-off fundraiser is Cynthia Brantly Pierce, who has been involved in the Hancock and Skinner campaigns.


Echols resides in Oakland, but is a Berkeley native and is the only white women in the race just like the three predecessors in the district.  With her strong ties to the Obama administration and her past work at Google she is expected to be a strong candidate.


“With fundraising Elizabeth would have a clear edge because she knows people and she is a good fundraiser.  She comes from Google, she’s got connections to high tech, she has her own personal money and she can round up more max checks than anyone that are non-PAC, non-labor and non-business,” said Colbruno.  “If it was a different playing field, with just her and one other person Elizabeth would have a clear shot.”


Echols served as President Obama’s Regional Administrator for the Small Business Administration where her focus was connecting people of color, women and youth with the resources they need to start and grow a business.  “The issues I am most passionate area about creating educations opportunity, creating quality jobs and protecting the environment,” said Echols.  She brings environmental credentials as the former as Director of the U.S. Green Building Council Northern California Chapter and tech experience as the former Director of Policy at Google.


Sam Kang is Korean, a resident of Emeryville and has been general counsel at the Greenlining Institute for over 8 years.  At Greenlining Kang has brought coalitions of ethnic communities together to advocate for legislation in Sacramento.  “I’ve drafted legislation and organized a lot of advocacy on bills.  Here are some policies that are good and these are things we should support and we ask coalition members what they think.  We don’t just bring ethnic community organizations to advocate, we also bring ethnic business groups,” said Kang.


Andy Katz is gay and the only resident of Berkeley and a member of the Board of Directors of the East Bay Municipal Utility District, representing communities in the middle of the 15th Assembly District.  He is an environmental attorney and serves as the Government Relations Director for Breathe California, an organization that works to reduce lung disease in the state.


With his background in environmental issues, which are a key in this district, he may have a decided advantage.  “This district has elected strong environmental leaders and that is what I bring to the race along with experience with health care issues and my ability to participate in the LGBT Caucus,” said Katz.


Peggy Moore is African-American, gay and an Oakland resident and served as the California Political Director for the Obama campaign.  She is a well-known activist and organizer in the East Bay and as a true organizer, she talks about engaging the community and discussing the top issues with voters in each area of the district.


“I think it is focusing on the issues, education, health care, mental health, jobs, all the stuff that shows up in our community.  What does it look like in Berkeley?  What does it look like in Richmond?  The way we address them are different and the more we engage with the district, the more we find out about the different voices in the district,” said Moore.


Moore is in an interesting addition to this race.  Echols, Thurmond and Katz had long been rumored candidates, each representing their own demographic base, Echols with women, Thurmond with African-Americans and minorities and Katz, a gay candidate.  Some believe Moore throws things in a tailspin as a gay, African-American, woman, possibly appealing to each of their constituencies.


Tony Thurmond is African-American and a resident of Richmond, the only candidate from Contra Costa County.  He was a candidate for this district in 2008, placing second behind Nancy Skinner in the Democratic Primary.  He ran strongly and learned lessons in 2008, and he believes he can build on that experience to improve his standing in 2014.  He is the only announced candidate from Contra Costa County and will likely run strong on his home turf, but also try to remain competitive throughout the district as he was in 2008.


“I love public service and I love my community and I knew I would run again and I spent some time looking at where I did well in 2008 and I where I ran short and I have come up with a strategy where I can I do better,” said Thurmond.


Thurmond has spent a lot of his career on children’s issues as a member of the West Contra Costa School Board and currently as the Senior Director of Community and Government Relations at the Lincoln Child Center.  “It won’t surprise you, youth issues are very important because that is what I do now, along with education, job creation, public safety, environmental issues and healthcare,” said Thurmond.  “I’m going to work across the aisle and talk to business groups, but I’m never abandoning my roots, which are really progressive.”


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