Freshman profile: Nancy Skinner

No one can accuse Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, of not being audacious. At the end of April, shortly after U.S. Sen. Arlen Spectre, D-Penn., left the Republican Party, Skinner sent letters to all 29 GOP Assembly offices inviting them to do the same.

The invites included a photo of the bear statue in front of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office holding a sign reading “California Democrats:  A New Era” in its mouth. The letter read, in part: ““I wanted to invite all my Republican colleagues in the California Assembly and Senate to Join the Democratic Party in honor of…Arlen Specter’s decision…Don’t keep us waiting.”

The stunt riled Republicans, some of whom accused Skinner of playing politics on state time.

“A staffer personally hand delivered it to our officers,” said Jennifer Gibbons, who was press secretary to then-Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines, R-Clovis, at the time.  “They identified themselves as being from Skinner’s office.”

Gibbons said that “several offices complained.” The Assembly Rules Committee would say only that they had looked into the matter and no official action was taken.

So far, no one has taken Skinner up on her offer. But it’s safe to say that those on the other side of the aisle had already noticed her long before. Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, made her chair of the Natural Resources Committee, a rare slot for a freshman legislator.

There, she set out to fill the shoes of another recent Assembly Resources chair, Fran Pavley, author of the AB 32, the groundbreaking 2006 climate bill. Senator Pavley, D-Santa Monica, now chairs Assembly Natural Resources.

Skinner said they’ve known each other since about 1993, through environmental circles. Skinner founded ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability and Cities for Climate Protection. She later served as US director of the Climate Group, an international organization joining numerous universities to work on climate change. She even co-wrote a book, “Fifty Things You Can Do to Save the Earth.”

Skinner followed up by introducing a sweeping package of environmental legislation. This included bills to make California houses more efficient, change the way oil and gas leases work in California, and make forestry companies account for any carbon created by felling trees.

Her AB 560 takes on the idea of “net metering,” allowing electricity customers with solar panels or other sources of renewable energy to sell more of that power back to the utility. Another bill, AB 956, would require CalTrans to start using reflective surfaces on roads to keep temperatures down, an idea widely championed by those who say we need to begin preparing for climate change.

She’s also one of the major forces behind an effort to “green” the state Capitol. AB 1234 would charge the Department of General Services to come up with a plan to make the building more energy efficient by the beginning of 2011 using “smart building technologies” and other means.

“We are the premier state when it comes to energy efficiency,” Skinner said. “Per capita, our use has been pretty much flat since the 70s. You look at everyone else and it’s grown phenomenally. And one of the reasons for that is the outstanding energy policies like Title 24 [1978 energy regulation] which we have in place. But there’s still a lot of room for California to pursue energy efficiency, like if we have dark pavement we’re making our communities hotter.”

For someone who has seemed to pick fights with Republicans, Skinner is doing pretty well picking up GOP votes—at least considering the breadth of the partisan divide in Sacramento. AB 560 got the nod from Senators Dave Cox, R-Sacramento, and John Benoit, R-Palm Desert, in the Senate Energy Committee on Tuesday. Cox also voted for AB 758, her bill to increase the energy efficiency of California buildings.

So what does such a driven legislator do in her spare time? Bird watching.

Not that she has much time for it these days. Skinner said there’s a peregrine falcon she’s been keeping an eye on from her fourth floor office. She also see’s a red-tailed hawk from time to time, and a downy woodpecker that’s nesting in one of the trees she can see from her large, north-facing window.

“Given the hectic nature of capitol life, it’s nice to have an office up here,” she said.

Hectic has been the rule, not the exception, in Skinner’s life. She holds both undergrad and graduate degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, where she developed an interest in native plants. She is still the only person ever elected to Berkeley City Council while a student at UC Berkeley. This came in the 1984, a period when the famously radical campus at the then-more sedate city around it were still frequently at odds.

“It was still a very active campus,” Skinner said. “There was a lot of involvement in the anti-Apartheid activity.”

Which is how Skinner cut her political teeth. As the executive director of the graduate student government, called the Graduate Assembly, she helped bring Desmond Tutu to campus to speak at the famed Greek Theater. This was followed by “celebrity arrests” of comedian Whoopi Goldberg, writer Maya Angelou and Congressman Phil Burton. By 1986, the University of California Board of Regents voted to divest, putting it towards the head of a trend of large institutional investors that got out of South Africa.

“We just had a different theme [each protest],” Skinner said. “One day it was religious leaders, another day writers, another day it was artists, another day it was elected officials.”

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