California State Capital. Photo by Thomas W. Toolan, Wikimedia Commons
California State Capital. Photo: Thomas W. Toolan/Wikimedia Commons

By Kate Darby

Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s primary election for the District 15 Assembly seat, history is in the making in Berkeley. For the first time in several decades, this assembly race doesn’t include a candidate with direct ties to Berkeley City Hall, though one has garnered a slate of endorsements from familiar faces there.

Current District 15 Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner of Berkeley is termed out of office at the end of the year, opening the door to an energized contingent of candidates interested in her seat. The 64% majority Democrat district covers a swatch of the East Bay from north Oakland to Hercules, including the cities of Berkeley, Emeryville, and Richmond.

A total of eight candidates are running for the seat. The top two vote getters on Tuesday advance to November’s general election, regardless of party affiliation. Of the eight, five are Democrats, one is a Republican, one belongs to the Peace and Freedom party, and one is a “none.”

They come from Richmond, Oakland, Emeryville and San Pablo, with backgrounds in nonprofit youth management, small business ownership, federal Small Business Administration management, academics, civil rights law, civil rights organizing, and classroom teaching.

In a twist, none of the candidates have held elected office in Berkeley, or worked for, or been married, to an elected Berkeley official. This is a change from the past, where a string of interconnected Berkeley politicos held the Assembly seat.

The chain started with Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who was elected to the Assembly in 1976, to Dion Aroner, his former chief of staff, elected in 1996, to Bates’ wife, former Berkeley mayor and current State Senator Loni Hancock, elected in 2002; to Skinner, a former Berkeley city councilwoman and close ally of Bates’, who was elected in 2008.

California’s term limits, first adopted in 1990 but modified in 2012, state that officials can serve a total of 12 years in the state legislature in any combination of two-year assembly or four-year senate terms. Both Bates and Hancock went from the Assembly to the State Senate. Aroner ran for State Senate in 1988, but lost to Don Perata.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner. Photo by Marc Thomas Kallweit
Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner. Photo: Marc Thomas Kallweit

Skinner has already announced she is running for State Senate District 9 in 2016, when Hancock terms out.

While 2014 candidate Elizabeth Echols, who worked for the Obama administration as regional administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and a senior advisor for clean tech and energy, was raised in Berkeley and has been endorsed by Bates, Hancock, and Skinner, as well as the state Democratic party, she doesn’t hail directly from city hall. A resident of Oakland, Echols has never held elected public office.

Tuesday’s race is competitive as gauged anecdotally by a recent upsurge in campaign literature, lawn signs, phone calls, and fundraising. Berkeleyside isn’t aware of any recent public polls.

Echols is among the leading candidates with strong backgrounds in community and public service. Others include Tony Thurmond of Richmond, who works as a youth education director for the Lincoln Child Center and served on the Richmond City Council and the West Contra Costa Unified School District (and is endorsed by Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom, among others); Sam Kang, a lead lawyer at the Greenlining Institute, a civil rights organization (endorsed by state insurance commissioner Dave Jones and Emeryville Mayor Jac Asher); Pamela Price, a civil rights attorney with her own firm (endorsed by former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi and Angela Davis); and Clarence Hunt, an Oakland small businessman.

These are the candidates raising the most money, according to campaign finance reports. From Jan. 1 to May 17 of this year, Echols’ contributions came to about $154,000, followed by Thurmond at $127,000, Price at $116,000, Kang at $91,000, and Hunt at $62,000. This doesn’t include some late contributions that haven’t been tallied  yet.

[See below for a list of all candidates with links to their websites for details on their positions, background and endorsements.]

It’s no surprise in this predictably left-leaning district that the front-runners are all Democrats with similar progressive takes on most issues, making it tough for voters hoping to hang their vote on substantive differences. This is also hard for candidates trying to distinguish themselves. Job creation, clean energy, improving schools, increasing affordable housing — all are shared themes.

Record low voter turnout is predicted for June 3. This usually means only the most motivated voters make it to the polling booth or drop their ballot in the mailbox, said Jack Citrin, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley and the director of the university’s Institute of Governmental Studies.

And they’re usually long-certain of their choices, and not easily swayed by last-minute campaigning, he said.  “They are the habituals. [They] certainly tend to be more loyal to the party, and older too.”

Take a look at all eight of the candidates for Assembly District 15 for more on their backgrounds, positions, and endorsements.

Clarence Hunt, Democrat, small business owner

Eugene E. Ruyle, Peace and Freedom Party, retired anthropology professor

Tony Thurmond, Democrat, youth education director

Elizabeth Echols, Democrat, presidential jobs advisor

Pamela Price, Democrat, civil rights attorney

Sam Kang, Democrat, civil rights organizer

Rich Kinney, Republican, city council member (San Pablo), teacher

Bernt Ranier Wahl, no party, scientist-entrepreneur-professor who ran ran  for Berkeley mayor in 2012.

In addition to the assembly primary election, several state and county races and measures are on the ballot.

Don’t know where to vote? Find your polling place on the Alameda County election’s website.

[Correction: Jeff Adachi is the lead public defender in San Francisco, and one of the candidates for the assembly seat is Pamela Price. Jac Asher is the mayor of Emeryville. The story has been updated to include these corrections.]

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