The 15th Assembly District Race Is a Wide-Open Affair

Twelve candidates are running for the East Bay district in the June primary, and at least seven appear to have a shot at garnering one of the top two spots.


Political observers sat seven candidates have a legitimate shot at finishing in the top two. Pictured, councilmember Dan Kalb.

Photo by Lori Eanes

The June 5 primary race for the 15th Assembly district might be one of the most wide-open contests in East Bay political history. The field includes 12 candidates — 11 Democrats and a single Republican — and at least seven appear to have a legitimate chance at garnering one of the top two spots that will advance to the November general election. Plus, none of the candidates can be considered a true frontrunner.

The race is so uncertain that East Bay political insiders are unwilling to prognosticate about who will nab the top two positions. “Don’t even ask,” said Mario Juarez, a former Oakland City Council candidate and Alameda County Democratic Central Committee member known for his blunt candor. “I don’t have a clue.”

Part of the reason that the race is so competitive is that no single East Bay city dominates the 15th district: It includes North Oakland and the city’s Montclair district, along with the cities of Piedmont, Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond, San Pablo, Pinole, and Hercules.

In addition, the race is anyone’s to win because most of the candidates share similar liberal political points of view in this decidedly blue district. Their stump speeches call for more rent control and affordable housing, while denouncing President Trump and police brutality. “We can pretty much repeat each other’s speeches,” said Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb, who is city’s lone representative in the race. The 15th district includes most of the North Oakland area covered by his current council seat.

Many political observers say the seven candidates who appear to have a shot at placing in the top two in June are: Kalb; former Obama White House aide Buffy Wicks; Berkeley school board member Judy Appel; El Cerrito Councilmember Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto; Richmond Councilmember Jovanka Beckles; Berkeley Councilmember Ben Bartlett; and East Bay Municipal Utilities District board member Andy Katz.

The candidates are vying to replace Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, who is giving up the seat in order to run for state superintendent of schools. Before Thurmond, the seat was held by Nancy Skinner (now the East Bay’s state Senator). Former longtime Easy Bay lawmaker Loni Hancock also used to hold the seat.

As an Obama aide, Wicks helped the administration win passage of the Affordable Care Act. She also managed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in California. And earlier this year, she grabbed the attention of many political operatives, when, despite being mostly unknown in the district, she reported $530,000 in campaign contributions through the end of 2017.

Many of her donations came from her connections within the national Democratic Party and not the East Bay. And her total haul greatly overshadowed the rest of the field: It was larger than the next three candidates combined.

Her fundraising prowess, coupled with the fact that she is not currently an elected official, has allowed her to spend much of her time campaigning rather than performing the laborious task of dialing for dollars. Wicks has held a huge number of house parties so far (102 through the beginning of April, she said). And the community organizer has amassed an army of volunteers — roughly 500. “She might just out-organize everyone in the field,” said one party insider.

Yet despite Wicks’ advantages, some voters and political observers are skeptical about whether she is progressive enough, and some have pegged her as a “carpetbagger” because of her sudden arrival on the local scene. Wicks said she moved to the district in 2016 and voted for the current 15th district Assemblymember Thurmond that year. For his part, Thurmond has endorsed Pardue-Okimoto.

While most candidates in the field have attempted to define their campaigns through various issues, Kalb is relying heavily on his experience not only at Oakland City Hall, but also his previous role as policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This is not a job for rookies,” said Kalb. “It’s one thing to have an idea, but you have to be able to turn it into legislation. You have to work with the legislative office, locate sponsors, work with those opposing the legislation. I did it for 10 years. I know the process.”

During a forum on housing in March, when the panel was asked whether they support a repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Act, the state law that prohibits rent control on single-family homes and housing built after 1995, Kalb one-upped his opponents by revealing that he already has legislation written to reform the law if a full repeal fails as a ballot measure this year. As a councilmember, Kalb has passed legislation to strengthen tenant rights in Oakland. He’s also for pro-transit-oriented housing and led an effort to establish a citizens police commission and strengthen the city’s ethics commission. A longtime environmentalist, Kalb has also won the endorsement of the Sierra Club.

Sometime last year, Appel was also being increasingly named by observers as a bonafide contender. And she raised a surprising amount of cash during the last half of 2017 — $168,000 — which was second only to Wicks. A Berkeley school board member since 2014, Appel has focused her campaign on improving public education. She supports reforming Proposition 13 to increase property taxes on corporations in order to better fund K-12 schools, and she backs a moratorium on charter schools. She also has the backing of the deep-pocketed California Teachers Association. Appel also is one of the strongest proponents of criminal justice reform in the race.

Searching for solutions to save the Sutter Health-owned Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley has been a major issue during this campaign season, but for Pardue-Okimoto it’s personal — she’s worked for 18 years as a nurse at the hospital. She also has strongly advocated for single-payer health care in the state. Unsurprisingly, she has the support of the powerful California Nurses Association and the labor union’s independent expenditure committee has flooded the district with six mailers in support of her, through early April.

The one criticism of Pardue-Okimoto, however, is that she lacks political experience; she was elected to the El Cerrito City Council in 2016. “I wish I had four to eight years in office. Fact is, it’s here and it’s now,” said Pardue-Okimoto. “When I saw Wicks and Bartlett were running and that they have as much experience as I do, I started asking myself, ‘What am I waiting for?’”

On the stump and all over social media, Beckles has made it clear that she’s the “corporate-free candidate” in the race. She has also been endorsed by Our Revolution, the political organization that grew out of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. And over the past few months, her rhetoric has been positively Bernie-like. When asked at recent candidate forum whether she would take a pledge not to accept contributions from the California Sheriff’s Association, Beckles replied, “Why stop there? I’m the only candidate running on the platform of being corporate-free. That is really the answer to lots of corruption and lobbyists and folks who will eventually stall bills in the legislature.”

Earlier at the same meeting, Beckles took aim at police accountability, saying nothing will change when it comes to police violence against African Americans until serious reforms are made to the Police Officers Bill of Rights, the state law that protects cops from investigations and prosecution. “That’s what really protects bad cops,” she said. Beckles is the most progressive candidate in the race, and she has been a key part of the progressive renaissance in Richmond.

Bartlett begins every appearance with a polished, often lyrical stump speech, sprinkled with platitudes. “I’m running because everyone deserves a home,” he says often, and “the status quo is failing us.” Over the course of the campaign, he has forcefully highlighted racial injustice. At a forum in North Oakland last month, he said that because of his race, he is a “target of police.” He also repeatedly warned that the housing crisis, if left unabated, will economically wipe out African-American and Latino families in the district.

Like Kalb, Andy Katz has campaigned on his experience as an environmentalist and his reputation for being a wonk. The connection between the two is so clear that some have taken to describing Katz as a younger version of Kalb. Yet no other candidate in the race has held elected office longer than Katz’s nearly 12 years on the East Bay MUD board. “We need people who are experienced and ready to lead,” said the workers’ rights attorney, at one forum.

The rest of the field includes writer and organizer Owen Poindexter; attorneys Cheryl Sudduth and Raquella Thaman; software engineer Sergey Piterman; and the lone Republican, college student Pranav Jandhyala.

Despite the low name recognition of all the candidates’ in the field, the eventual winner of the seat, under the legislature’s 12-year term cycle, could be around for a long time. Since voters approved the 12-year term limits in 2012, no incumbent in the East Bay has even come close to losing his or her seat. In the 15th district, that means one of these 12 candidates could be representing the East Bay until 2030.

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