Five candidates -- including four already in local elected offices and running the gamut from liberal Democrat to nonpartisan independent to conservative Republican -- are running for an East Bay Assembly seat left open by term limits and redistricting.
Vying for the 20th Assembly District seat are Hayward City Councilman Bill Quirk, a Democrat; Jennifer Ong, a Hayward Democrat who runs an Alameda optometry practice; Sarabjit Cheema, a Union City Democrat and state transportation engineer who sits on the New Haven Unified School District board; Luis Reynoso, a Republican who sits on the Hayward Unified School District Board; and Union City Mayor Mark Green, who's running as an independent.
Under the state's new primary system, the top two vote-getters among these five candidates in the June 5 election -- regardless of party -- will advance to November's general election. The newly drawn district includes Hayward, Union City and part of Fremont as well as the unincorporated areas of Castro Valley, San Lorenzo, Sunol, Ashland, Cherryland and Fairview. Democrats outnumber Republicans about 3-1 in the district, while almost 23 percent of its registered voters decline to state any party preference.
Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Castro Valley, lives in the district but will be term-limited out at the end of this year.
At a recent Bay Area News Group editorial board meeting, Quirk, 66, called himself "a consensus builder ... a straightforward guy" with a scientific background who bases his policy stances on facts and overwhelmingly won the Democratic Party's endorsement.
Ong, 42, said she's set apart by her independence: She supported the California Citizens Redistricting Commission's creation and its redrawing of legislative lines, and she's a Democrat who's not weighed down by the party-line expectations of a party endorsement. She cited her diverse background as a Filipina immigrant, a product of public education and a small-business owner.
Cheema, 52, was even prouder to be a Democrat who didn't get the party's endorsement, noting she didn't get a single endorsement vote: "I have less baggage. ... I am known as an independent thinker." Born and raised in India, she said she stands for family values and education.
Reynoso, 52, said he's known as a firebrand and small-government advocate who asks tough questions and has the county GOP's endorsement.
And Green, 59 -- who changed his voter registration from Democrat to decline-to-state in 2010 -- noted he's the only independent in this race, with a history of charting his own path. He said he brings a 19-year record of leadership and accomplishment as mayor to the race.
On the state budget, Green said the expansion of public pensions and a cut to the Vehicle License Fee were huge blows, and he believes in progressive taxation but also in the need to boost business and income tax revenue by having "more success on the streets." Reynoso said the state needs to cut its spending to match its revenue and said raising the sales tax makes no sense because it would reduce sales, just as cigarette taxes reduce smoking.
Quirk said he supports Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed ballot measure -- to temporarily raise income taxes on the state's richest residents and temporarily raise sales taxes -- but also believes in cutting state expenses, as Hayward did by renegotiating labor contracts. Ong said any cuts to social programs must be replaced with job opportunities, and investments in health care and youth are key. Cheema said she would seek to invest more in public education and bring back manufacturing industries to spark the economy.
Asked how they would vote today on bonds to fund the state's high-speed rail project, Quirk declined to take a position. Reynoso said he would vote no, as the state must meet other commitments first. Green said he would vote no, although he supports high-speed rail in theory; he wants to see changes to the plan. Cheema said she would vote yes, although she agrees with some of Green's proposed tweaks. And Ong said she would vote yes, and make cuts elsewhere -- perhaps by eliminating or consolidating extraneous boards, commissions and agencies, and by eliminating the death penalty -- to balance the books.
Asked about the state's public pension issues, Quirk said Hayward made progress by working cooperatively with unions "and we have to do that on the state side, too. ... It's the only realistic way to achieve it." He said he doesn't believe a top-down, imposed plan like that proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown will work.
Reynoso said he would try to renegotiate pensions for new employees as well as existing liabilities for current employees and would seek deeper cuts than Brown's plan proposes. Green said he would seek to raise employee contributions to pension funds while capping retirement benefits and called Brown's plan "a good start, I think it's probably worth supporting" in that it's better than nothing. Cheema declined to take a stance on Brown's plan, citing her employment by the state, but said she believes solving the pension problem will involve both local negotiations and some structure imposed by state leaders. And Ong said she supports Brown's plan as a compromise that's better than nothing.
Reynoso, Quirk and Green said they're opposed to "ballot-box budgeting" in which voters tie the Legislature's hands by approving measures that carve out budget protections for specific policy areas and causes. Ong and Cheema defended it as a way that voters can find recourse if the Legislature doesn't act, especially for areas such as education.