A crowded field of candidates running for Assembly District 15 made their pitches Sunday in Berkeley. From left: Dan Kalb, Cheryl Sudduth, Jovanka Beckles, Judy Appel, Owen Poindexter, Andy Katz, Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto and Ben Bartlett. Buffy Wicks had a family emergency and could not attend. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

It’s a packed field of candidates running to replace Tony Thurmond as the representative of California’s 15th Assembly district. So packed, in fact, that the people in the race — with one missing, even — couldn’t all fit behind the table at the forum hosted by the Berkeley Progressive Alliance (BPA) with the Berkeley Tenants Union and Berkeley Citizens Action on Sunday afternoon.

Despite the number of candidates, few deviated from shared opinions on housing, education, healthcare, campaign finance and other topics, as they answered questions posed by moderators and audience members. Each tried to demonstrate his or her progressive bona fides as the 100 or so people in the room filled out endorsement ballots.

Two of the nine District 15 (AD15) hopefuls currently hold office in Berkeley, School Board member Judy Appel and City Councilman Ben Bartlett.

Also running for the seat are: Richmond Vice-Mayor Jovanka Beckles, Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb, East Bay Municipal Utility District board member Andy Katz, El Cerrito Councilwoman Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto, writer and activist Owen Poindexter and compliance officer and activist Cheryl Sudduth. Former Barack Obama campaign strategist Buffy Wicks — who has raised three times the amount of money than any other candidate in the race so far, followed by Appel and Kalb — is also running, though she missed the forum because her daughter was in the hospital, according to a statement by her campaign.

First, the audience Sunday heard from two women running in another June 5 election, for Alameda County District Attorney. Current DA Nancy O’Malley spoke about her passion for victims’ rights, an interest she developed in college while working at a rape crisis center at a time when sexual assault was not discussed as openly.

“I hope you all know about human trafficking in the county,” O’Malley said, noting that she had raised awareness about the extent of the problem. She said her office has created “second chance” programs for people who want to get out of the criminal justice system and has successfully prosecuted more than 75 environmental cases.

O’Malley was first elected unopposed in 2010. This go-round, she has a challenger, civil rights attorney Pamela Price. The candidate spoke Sunday about her intent to reform the criminal justice system, hold police accountable and eliminate racial disparities in incarceration rates.

“This legacy in Alameda County has been a travesty of justice,” said Price, who was arrested at age 13 during a civil rights protest. The candidate, who went on to graduate from Yale and UC Berkeley Law, said she could have easily become a victim of the juvenile justice system, and would not try youth as adults if she was elected. Price was arrested again, and acquitted, after an altercation with an abusive partner. Since then she has won many large sexual harassment cases.

O’Malley said she, like Price, would not accept campaign donations from law enforcement, but said she has the support of police throughout the county.

“They trust me, they trust my office,” O’Malley said. The job is “not for the faint of heart, it’s not for the inexperienced…People care about being safe in their communities.”

Bartlett: Wiener-Skinner bill is “displacement engine”

During the AD15 portion of the forum, one candidate, Kalb, brought up his work on police accountability as well, noting he had taken a lead on forming Oakland’s police commission.

Kalb and others began their part of the event by delivering rapid-fire statements then responding to questions.

The Assembly D15 candidates have a lot in common, as evidenced by their responses to a Berkeley Progressive Alliance survey.

The first question posed to the group dealt with SB 827, a bill by State Sens. Scott Wiener and Nancy Skinner, which would require California cities to allow taller buildings and more density near transit hubs and bus lines. Not one AD15 candidate said they fully supported the bill at this point. Most said they would get behind legislation with stronger affordability requirements for new construction, protections against displacement or some more local control.

“We can’t develop at the expense of people, of tenants,” said Beckles, who helped Richmond pass the first new rent-control law in years. “The bill is decent in what they’re trying to accomplish, but the concerns I hear about this particular bill is the lack of affordability. There’s no piece right now that states these projects should all be affordable. There’s nothing that says these projects should be the standard of green buildings.”

Bartlett said he believes the bill currently threatens communities like those surrounding the South Berkeley Senior Center, where the forum was held.

SB 827 “as of now is a big displacement engine,” said the councilman, who is running on a fair-housing platform. “It would create a land rush all around here, throughout South Berkeley, while leaving the hills intact. If you own property here, you’re going to say ‘green light,’ demolish the property and evict everyone there.” (The bill would not override local anti-demolition laws, however.)

Similarly, all candidates present said they would support repealing Costa-Hawkins. The 1995 California law prohibited rent control from applying to single-family homes and buildings constructed after that point and instated vacancy de-control, which allows a new base rent to be set after tenants move out of a rent-controlled property. BPA took an opportunity to hold candidates to their word by distributing a petition calling for the repeal of Costa-Hawkins for them to sign onstage, on the spot.

That portion of the conversation might have been livelier with the presence of Wicks, the only candidate to say, on a BPA questionnaire, that she opposed repealing Costa-Hawkins (but favored reforming the law).

Campaign contributions under scrutiny

Candidates were later asked how they would fight for campaign finance reform. While most or all said they rejected big money in their own races, some said the definition of “corporate” was unclear to them, and that they would accept donations from small businesses.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley (left) is being challenged by civil rights attorney Pamela Price (right). Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley (left) is being challenged by civil rights attorney Pamela Price (right). Photo: Natalie Orenstein

One candidate questioned another’s campaign contributions.

“You should not be able to buy this election,” Appel said. “There’s one candidate in this race who raised a lot of money from outside of the district and raised a lot of big money from big corporations and people who are supported by charters. I really believe you should not be able to buy a seat in the assembly,” she said, evidently referring to Wicks, who has raised more than $520,000, much of it from people who live outside the district. (KQED News said that less than 10% of the donations to Wick’s campaign came from people living within AD15). Appel, who has raised the second largest amount, has brought in almost $164,000.

Appel said the majority of her own campaign contributions came from people within the bounds of AD15, “because I have deep roots in this district. And that’s how it should be. Whether you say you’re taking some corporate money or no corporate money, I think the basic premise that we need to be ethical in how we’re representing the interests of this district.”

Wicks’s campaign contacted Berkeleyside with a statement in response to the remarks about the candidate’s contributions.

“Leaving the hospital, I was shocked to learn that one of my opponents had taken the opportunity to lie about my candidacy and campaign,” said Wicks, who has never held public office. “Here are the facts: we have not taken corporate money, though most of my opponents have. We haven’t taken money from charter schools or charter school associations. What truly sets our campaign apart is the fact that it’s driven, not by corporate money and PAC checks, but by the most engaging grassroots organizing program in AD15. To date, I have had 78 house party for my campaign and 350 committed volunteers…With American politics in its current awful state, the last thing we need here in the East Bay is an election defined by lies and negative attacks.”

Wicks’s campaign noted that Verizon has donated $2,500 to Appel’s campaign, and that Amy Epstein from Leadership Public Schools, a local charter network, has donated as well (she’s donated $108). Wicks has received the largest contributions allowed, $4,400 per person, from numerous donors, including prominent venture capitalist Ron Conway; Doris Fisher, a founder of the Gap and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs. Many people in Washington, D.C. also donated.

(Read more about the AD15 candidates’ first filings.)

Throughout the Q&A, the moderator occasionally asked for a show of hands on various hot-button issues. Who supported single-payer healthcare? All hands went up. Who had participated in the Black Lives Matter movement? All hands. Who supported charter schools? No hands in the air.

On the topic of education, some of the candidates spoke about their support for universal public preschool.

Poindexter said he not only supported universal preschool and universal healthcare, but also a universal basic income. He hosts a podcast on the topic.

In addition to preschool, Appel, executive director of the California School-Based Health Alliance, said: “We need to make sure our schools are fair and equitable places. I brought restorative justice to Berkeley and we need to make sure restorative justice is the way we’re addressing behavioral issues throughout the state.”

Assemblyman Tony Thurmond is vacating the District 15 seat to run for superintendent of public instruction.

Sudduth said she has mentored hundreds of youth and knows how to get young people directly involved in politics and employed. Beckles works as a youth counselor as well.

The question of Alta Bates Medical Center, and how the candidates would prevent Sutter Health from carrying out plans to relocate its emergency and delivery services, was raised as well. Two candidates, Katz and Pardue-Okimoto, who is a nurse at the hospital, have been heavily involved in that effort. Katz is on the Berkeley mayor’s task force and is helping lead a health impact assessment, and Pardue-Okimoto has organized nurses and community members.

Before the candidates left the stage, the moderator tried to squeeze out one more set of petition signatures —this time for a vow not to take contributions from the fossil fuel industry. Too late, though, as they had all previously signed it.

Ultimately, after a political music interlude from Hali Hammer, the progressive associations endorsed Price for DA and Beckles for AD15.

Current Assemblyman Thurmond, in his second term, is vacating the seat to run for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

AD15 spans Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, Emeryville and Piedmont in Alameda County, and Richmond, El Cerrito, Kensington, El Sobrante, San Pablo and Hercules in Contra Costa County.

Correction: This story initially potentially implied the Wicks campaign said Amy Epstein donated $2,500 to Appel’s campaign. Epstein donated much less, and the Wicks campaign simply pointed out that she contributed. 

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,...