Like many of her colleagues, state Sen. Lois Wolk, a Democrat, found herself this year in a totally new election environment.
During her initial four-year term, she represented the 5th Senate District, a Delta-flanking district where she built a reputation as an advocate for water and environmental protections. Now, she is the senator from the newly drawn 3rd District, which includes all of Napa and Solano counties, and portions of Yolo, Sonoma, Contra Costa and Sacramento counties. The district’s boundaries were created by an independent commission approved by voters. Wolk won last week’s general election by a 2-to-1 margin, after earlier winning the new Top 2 primary.
Wolk has authored legislation that resulted in a total of 86 new laws — including 56 in the Assembly, 30 in the Senate and 10 that take effect Jan. 1. Her efforts include two laws that provide Californians with greater access to clean, renewable energy and assist the state in reaching its energy and environmental goals. In her three terms in the Assembly, she authored laws devoted to flood protection, traffic safety, improved healthcare and the preservation of parks, recreation, and open space.
She was the first woman to chair the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee and currently chairs the Senate Governance and Finance Committee while serving on the Committees for Agriculture, Budget and Fiscal Review, Health, and Natural Resources and Water. The California Journal once selected her for its “Golden Pedigree” award for her integrity, trustworthiness and personal ethics and she has received numerous other honors.
And her roots in politics go back even further. Before serving in the Legislature, she served as a Yolo County Supervisor, mayor of Davis from 1992-94 and 1996-98, and as a member of the Davis City Council.
Capitol Weekly caught up with her at a Davis coffee house, where she spoke about politics and governance.
How did you end up in politics, an occupation which to this observer seems like a particularly difficult, sometimes nasty one?
I was very active in a number of community organizations in Davis – Youth Soccer Commissioner, PTA, Friends of the Library, Putah Creek Council – and one thing just led to another. In 1986, I volunteered to manage Helen Thomson’s run-off campaign for county supervisor, then two years later I co-chaired the campaign for the Davis Library expansion. Then in 1990 friends asked if I would consider running for Davis City Council. My family was enthusiastic. I agreed, never thinking that would be the first of eight elections. It wasn’t a plan. It just happened.
There don’t seem to be any prescribed career routes that are necessary to success in politics but are there requisites, personal and professional, that are helpful?
More personal than professional I think. I’ve always thought that teaching junior high and being a soccer coach and referee provide most of the important tools for serving in the Legislature. In addition, I do think personal skills get you further in this job. Listening. Working well with others. A commitment to the common good. Having a knack for solving problems. Those are at least the qualities I see in others with whom I like to work, and the qualities I hope I bring to public service.
In the last few years in particular, the word lobbyist has taken on some negative connotations, much of it, it seems to this observer, as a result of the nation’s financial condition. It may be that the press has added to that concern.
How do you respond to that?
I think the concern is the public perception that there are those interests with exceptional power and influence who can dictate the outcome. There’s a sense that too much is decided in secret and the general public is left out of the discussion. I think it’s a legitimate concern and I’ve worked on a variety of reforms to lessen the problem. I have carried legislation to restrict lobbyists working as both campaign consultants and lobbyists at the same time. And I’ve worked with California Forward on Prop 31 to provide more transparency in the budget process.
For decades, California has had a process that facilitates the public’s ability to place propositions on the ballot, their success or failure contingent upon an up or down vote. Some people feel that it undercuts the role of elected officials while others feel it’s an extension of the democratic process. How do you feel about it?
It’s a question of balance. It’s preferable for complicated issues to be decided through a deliberative process in the Legislature where conflicts can be reasonably resolved and if there are mistakes made they can be corrected without going back to the voters. On the other hand, the threat of an initiative can be helpful to moving the Legislature to take action when it’s deadlocked. Pension reform is a good example. Without the threat of a more onerous initiative, I don’t think we would have produced the minimal reforms we did this year. I think we need some reform, especially a judicial review before going to the ballot, so we don’t put measures before the voters that are unconstitutional. We also need initiatives to identify funding sources if there are costs involved.
Among the propositions on the ballot, which are those that are most important to the future of California?
The Governor’s tax measure. Prop 30, and the California Forward budget reform measure, Prop 31. I saw them as an important package together. The voters agreed with me on 30 but, unhappily, not on 31.
Much has been said about the proposal for a peripheral canal. You are opposed to that idea. Why are you opposed and how does your alternate plan improve on it?
The plans I’ve seen so far provide no guarantees or assurances that enough fresh water will flow through the Delta to restore the fisheries and sustain our local economy and the millions of people in our region who rely upon the Delta. Nor can the Delta provide sufficient water guarantees to exporters. I also have concerns about the costs. Tunnels and cement are truly outdated 19th century solutions. We need a realistic plan that includes the Delta communities as part of the solution, and fits within our budget. All parties, including the Delta counties, the water exporters, and the environmental groups, regardless of their very different long-term visions, have identified 43 consensus projects in the Delta that merit moving forward today and may in fact improve conditions in the Delta. Since no tunnel structure will be built for the next 10-15 years, let’s do something constructive with the bond funds we currently have.
Some people have noted that you have sponsored a bill that would restrict a parent’s right to vaccine choice for their children while allowing children to obtain medical treatment, including vaccines, for several infectious diseases without their parents knowledge or consent. Is there an inconsistency in those positions?
Not at all. My view on vaccination is to do what is best for the health of the children and society as a whole. And in the case of vaccinations it’s important to recognize that we aren’t only talking about the child who gets the vaccine, but all the other children, elderly, disabled and immuno-suppressed persons who may be exposed to diseases unnecessarily when the others fail to get the vaccine. I’m very concerned we have lost some of the sense of shared responsibility for each other, that sense I remember as a child that helped us defeat polio, measles and other diseases. And it’s not just about children. I tried to get healthcare workers to get their flu shots to protect their patients and got resistance from the nurse unions who put their individual choice ahead of the health of their patients. That is also a disturbing sign of where we are headed as a society.
To many citizens, the bullet train appears to be a huge mistake, an undertaking which will cost billions of dollars at a time when California’s economy can least afford it. What’s your position on the bullet train?
I supported it, although I am concerned about the cost. In the end, I see it as an essential part of our long-term transportation plan for the state and I don’t see it getting any cheaper to put it off, especially with a narrow opportunity for federal funding that would go elseware if we delayed. As we go forward we have to integrate it well with our other systems, including the Capitol Corridor train, so we get the maximum benefit and the support of the public this project will ultimately require.
Among your accomplishments as a California state legislator, what are those of which you’re most proud?
I’ve had quite a few and it’s very hard to pick. It’s like asking which of my five grandchildren is my favorite. In the Assembly I was able to get permanent protection for Cache Creek as a Wild and Scenic River. That’s something I feel good about leaving for everyone’s grandchildren, including mine. Also in the Assembly my three-year effort to get a law requiring banks to report suspected financial elder abuse was memorable, as was my work to limit development in flood plains, another hard fought three-year struggle that ultimately became law. In the Senate I’ve been doing a lot of work on renewable energy, particularly in the agriculture sector, and continue to pursue solutions to the Delta and the state’s other water challenges. My legislation began the state’s immunization registry, and created the POLST – the Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment – form for those nearing the end of life.
I’ve still got a lot more to do.
Ed’s Note: Jim Cameron, a Sacramento writer, is a contributor to Capitol Weekly. The latest version updates to correct total number in the 3rd paragraph.