State Assembly candidates Elizabeth Echols and Tony Thurmond debated each other in Berkeley on Oct. 7. Photo: Lance Knobel
State Assembly candidates Elizabeth Echols and Tony Thurmond debated each other in Berkeley on Oct. 7. Photo: Lance Knobel

The two candidates in a competitive state Assembly race had the chance to woo Berkeley voters at a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters at Berkeley City College on Tuesday.

Elizabeth Echols and Tony Thurmond are vying to fill the District 15 seat that will be vacated by Nancy Skinner. Elected in 2008, Skinner is termed out, but modifications to the term limits in 2012 mean one of these candidates could claim the seat for the next 12 years.

Echols and Thurmond are both liberal Democrats who have similar platforms — focused on the environment, education and jobs — but highly different backgrounds and careers. 

Echols has served as the regional director of the Small Business Administration under President Obama and as the Internet and e-commerce advisor to Vice President Al Gore. She directed the Northern California chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, and was director of policy at Google. She has never held elected office.

A video of the forum is now posted on YouTube.

Thurmond was a city councilman in Richmond and a member of the West Contra Costa County School Board. Thurmond has a background as a social worker and currently leads CEO Youth, a program at the Lincoln Child Center that trains disadvantaged teenagers in entrepreneurship.

Berkeleyside was a media sponsor of the Tuesday debate, where the candidates gave minute-long answers to questions from the League and the audience. The tenor was civil and the discussion revealed little difference in policy. But Tuesday night’s civility eroded later in the week with charges by Echols that Thurmond was taking campaign contributions from “big oil” and “predatory lenders,” and Thurmond’s complaints of a descent into slurs and negative campaigning by Echols, and an unauthorized use of a photo of his daughters.

But in the calmer atmosphere of Tuesday night’s debate, listeners had to be attentive to find policy differences between the two candidates. A question about fracking brought to light one difference — in approach, if not in opinion. Thurmond would advocate for a full ban on fracking. Echols, on the other hand, would introduce a bill to instate a moratorium on it, unless or until it was proven safe — which is more likely to pass but still an “effective ban,” she told Berkeleyside in an interview after the debate.

Both candidates spoke about their support for a “split-roll” property tax to tax commercial property at higher rates than residential property. Responding to questions throughout the evening, they both said they oppose the Delta tunnels, and support the California Environmental Quality Act — but Echols said she’d work to expand it.

Read more Berkeley 2014 election coverage on Berkeleyside.

Although she only alluded to it subtly during the debate, Echols’ campaign this week has called attention to independent expenditures made in support of Thurmond by political action committees (PACs) with ties to the oil and tobacco industry. PACs called Alliance for California’s Tomorrow, A California Business Coalition, which has received money from Philip Morris and the California Independent Petroleum Association (among other companies and a number of major unions in other industries, including the firefighters union), and Keep CA Strong, which has received money from the oil industry as well, have each spent thousands on mailers, research and polling in support of Thurmond.

The debate was hosted by the League of Women Voters and moderated by the California chapter President Helen Hutchinson. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
The debate was hosted by the League of Women Voters and moderated by California chapter president Helen Hutchinson. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“They’re certainly working to defeat me,” Echols said. “They know I’m going to be an effective Assembly member standing up for our community’s values.”

Thurmond said he was shocked to hear these groups were supporting him.

“I took a public pledge that I wouldn’t take money from cigarette groups. These are groups that acted independently and I have not coordinated with them,” he said. “It’s certainly ironic to me that these groups would be supporting my campaign when, as a city councilperson, I voted against oil and I voted against cigarettes,” he said, referring to votes against Chevron refinery renovations in Richmond and to ban smoking in multi-unit residences.

In a blog post on his campaign website, Thurmond wrote that Echols had broken a campaign pledge “and launched negative and false attacks.”

“I am deeply disappointed and saddened because the attacks were personal — she even went so far as to include a picture of my family on her negative mail piece,” Thurmond wrote.

The controversial flyer Elizabeth Echols' campaign sent out about Tony Thurmond
The controversial flyer Elizabeth Echols’ campaign sent out about Tony Thurmond. Photo from a Berkeleyside reader
The controversial flyer Elizabeth Echols’ campaign sent out about Tony Thurmond. Photo from a Berkeleyside reader

If elected, Thurmond plans to introduce two education-related bills. His first piece of legislation would use state money to hire school district outreach workers to increase attendance. The other bill would use state money to pay for low-income students to go to public universities or community colleges for free. The students would then start paying back their tuition after graduation at rates lower than current student loans.

“I have a very clear vision of legislative priorities to get started right away,” Thurmond said. “I think that being elected and working in education is real. I’ve had to make policy on the ground where it counts.”

Echols said the moratorium on fracking is a primary priority, as is job creation.

At the Small Business Administration, she “focused on getting both financial and training resources into the hand of entrepreneurs so they could create jobs in our communities,” she said. “In particular, I wanted to make sure some of our underserved communities — women, minorities, youth — had access to capital and training they needed.” Her region was ahead of the rest of the nation in the amount of loans she provided to small businesses and the number of jobs created, she said.

Echols, who lives in Oakland, was born in Berkeley and went to BUSD schools. But, regardless of who wins, it will be the first time in decades this seat will not be filled by a Berkeley resident with deep ties to Berkeley politics. Skinner is a former Berkeley councilwoman, and Mayor Tom Bates and former Mayor Loni Hancock were both elected to the Assembly seat in the past.

“I grew up in this district and our values are truly part of my soul,” Echols said during the debate.

Thurmond said his background also influenced his progressive politics.

“I’ve had to overcome poverty, and that shaped my desire to become a social worker and to help others in the community,” he said. “As someone who’s lived on food stamps and as somebody who was a minimum wage worker all through college, and as someone who’s represented a community that has some of the highest levels of poverty and unemployment — I’d bring legislative change to those issues with urgency.”

The candidate have raised a similar amount of money. Echols’ campaign has brought in $427,885 while Thurmond’s has accrued $412,281, according to campaign finance filings.

Thurmond is endorsed by Attorney General Kamala Harris, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, Berkeley City Council members Jesse Arreguín, Max Anderson and Kriss Worthington, Congressman George Miller, the Oakland Tribune, the California Federation of Teachers, and others (see a complete list here).

Echols is endorsed by Skinner, Hancock, Bates, the Sierra Club, the California League of Conservation Voters, and the California Democratic Party (see a complete list here).

Thurmond’s Facebook page has 2,798 Likes, while Echols’ page has 434 Likes. Echols’ campaign has tweeted 26 times and has amassed 80 followers. Thurmond has tweeted 162 times and has 228 followers.

District 15 encompasses Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito, Albany, Richmond, Pinole, Hercules, San Pablo, North Oakland, Piedmont, El Sobrante, and Kensington.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to show that the independent expenditure groups acted in support of Thurmond but did not contribute to his campaign, as previously stated. 

Assembly race: Echols, Thurmond to debate in Berkeley (10.06.14)
Berkeley’s influence on Assembly race takes a twist (06.02.14)

Berkeleyside’s second Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas runs Oct. 24-25 in downtown Berkeley’s Arts District. Details of the program are on the Uncharted website, where you can also see the full roster of speakers and watch a 1-minute video about the festival.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...