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Battle joined for East Bay Senate seat

Former Legislators Nancy Skinner and Sandre Swanson at a candidates' debate in the 9th Senate District. (Photos: Sam-Omar Hall

The race to represent the East Bay in the California Senate is going to be a doozy.

Incumbent Loni Hancock, a Democrat,  is barred by term limits from running again for her 9th District seat. A former mayor of Berkeley, Hancock, who turns 76 on April 10, was elected to the Assembly in 2002 and to the Senate in 2008.

The likely general election match-up is between two progressive Democrats, both of whom have served six years in the Assembly.

In this liberal district, a Democrat is almost certain to retain the seat. The question is: which Democrat?

The new senator will inherit a diverse district, both racially and economically. The cities of Berkeley and Oakland form the 9th District’s geographical core. To the south are Alameda and San Leandro. To the north are Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond, and San Pablo. The 9th SD is home to Pixar, Pandora and UC Berkeley — but also to many areas mired in poverty.

Four candidates hope to replace Hancock. The likely general election match-up is between two progressive Democrats, both of whom have served six years in the Assembly. Term limits and a top-two primary system have put them in the unenviable position of running against each other. Twice. Once in the primary election on June 7, and assuming the two go on, again in November.

Sandré Swanson, 67, who represented the 16th Assembly district from 2006 to 2012, hopes to succeed Hancock. He has served as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, as a policy adviser to Rep. Ron Dellums, and as deputy mayor of Oakland. Swanson has endorsements from Hancock, Lee, and Assemblymembers Rob Bonta of Oakland and Tony Thurmond of Richmond.

The candidates gathered Saturday at St. Peter Church in El Cerrito, for a debate hosted by the local branch of the NAACP.

Nancy Skinner, 61, another top contender, represented the 15th Assembly district from 2008 to 2014. She previously served on the East Bay Regional Park Board, and on the Berkeley City Council. Skinner is endorsed by Berkeley economist Robert Reich, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the Sierra Club, and former Assemblymember Tom Ammiano of San Francisco.

The two other hopefuls are Rich Kinney, 60, the Republican Mayor of San Pablo, and Katherine Welch,  54, an education activist and a Democrat.

Swanson, Skinner, Kinney and Welch gathered Saturday at St. Peter Church in El Cerrito, for a debate hosted by the local branch of the NAACP. Click here for an audio recording of the event.

There were opening and closing statements, and eight questions — four from the NAACP and four from the audience of about 35 people. Topics included education, term limits, affirmative action, coal, and public transportation.

The meeting wasn’t the first time Swanson and Skinner shared a stage: In February, they both spoke to a UC Berkeley political science class.

Not surprisingly, Swanson and Skinner voiced support for public education — but fault lines were visible on the issue.

Swanson and Skinner agreed on key issues. They both pledged support for Hancock in her efforts to limit a proposed coal export facility in Oakland. They both offered skepticism on charter schools. Both were opposed to term limits in the California legislature, saying essentially “let the voters decide who serves.”

A Capitol hearing on legislation authored by Hancock targeting the coal shipments, which was scheduled to be heard this week in the Senate Transportation Committee, has been pushed back a week for more study.

Still, there were moments of difference between the two candidates.

“Our gas taxes are too low. Cheap gas is not a good thing,” Skinner said during a discussion on transportation. She proposed a gas tax, a transportation bond and the use of cap-and-trade auction funds for transportation.

Swanson also brought up gas prices. “For the record, I support the lowest possible gas prices,” he declared, recalling a time when you could fill up your tank for a dollar and drive around all day.

Not surprisingly, both candidates voiced support for public education, but fault lines were visible along this issue as well. And with six-year stints in the Assembly, both candidates have legislative records that can be picked apart.

“It’s very difficult to get a career politician out,” Kinney said, and Welch said that “you can’t depend on voters” to vote out ineffective leaders.

They clashed on school funding. Swanson said he fought against school cuts, declaring that “some of us who promised, we were able to continue that commitment.”

Skinner, responding, said the state had lost $46 billion, almost half its budget, and that cuts were necessary, even to education.

“There’s no way you couldn’t make cuts to schools, to balance the budget,” she said.

Later, Skinner laid out a defense for making unpopular votes. “Saying no [to cuts] sometimes causes more problems,” she said.

Diversity in the Senate also arose as a point of contention. In a question on affirmative action in universities, Swanson spoke of the lack of African Americans representing northern California in the Legislature. He said that a minority-majority state like California needs “a diverse representation” in the legislature.

For her part, Skinner pointed out (after the debate) that the state Legislature is seriously lacking in women as well.

Kinney was called on randomly to answer the first four out of the eight questions. But at one point, after being called first, he smiled a tight smile and shook his head briefly.

Both Kinney and Welch, a public education advocate, said they support term limits in the Legislature.

“It’s very difficult to get a career politician out,” Kinney said, and Welch said that “you can’t depend on voters” to vote out ineffective leaders.

Welch has been endorsed by the East Bay Times, which said she has “a passion for protecting children’s education and (has) a keen understanding of school finances.”

Kinney pushed back on Swanson’s support of the bullet train, contending that by the time it’s completed, it will already be obsolete.

Kinney, tongue in cheek, proposed a partnership between BART and the hyperloop – which drew grins from Skinner, Swanson and some in the audience.

The hyperloop is a theoretical form of transportation proposed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The hyperloop would work like the pneumatic tubes that used to send documents across large buildings, except sending people in tubes, instead of papers in tubes.

Skinner and Swanson came up through the ranks together: Both cited work on Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign. Both talked about their work in the East Bay against apartheid, and both refer to Nelson Mandela’s visit to Oakland. Both were young activists who organized sit-ins.

More than 40 years after their political careers began, they find themselves as established politicians battling for a Senate seat. Their records in the Assembly will be an issue, but so too will their earlier activist work.

Ed’s Note: Updates 27th graf with Welch endorsed by the East Bay Times. Sam-Omar Hall, a freelance journalist, is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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