The Democratic state Senator from Berkeley is a difference-maker. She gets big things done, from criminal justice reform to building more housing and helping slow climate change.
Neko Wilson had languished in jail for nine years before he walked free in October, just 18 days after Gov. Jerry Brown signed landmark legislation by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, reforming California’s felony murder rule. Under Skinner’s Senate Bill 1437, criminal accomplices who did not participate in killings can no longer be charged with murder in California.
“My brother owes Senator Skinner his life,” said Wilson’s brother, Jacque Wilson, a public defender in San Francisco, who, along with his elderly father, was a star witness for Skinner’s legislation.
Before Brown signed SB 1437 on Sept. 30, Neko Wilson had been awaiting trial in Fresno County jail in connection with the double murder of a couple killed during a robbery at their home, where they were growing cannabis. Wilson had admitted to helping plan the robbery, but told police he got nervous and backed out beforehand, circling the block in his truck while trying to contact his accomplices at the time they committed the killings. Early on, prosecutors wanted Wilson to face the death penalty. The last offer they made to him was 29 years in prison, said Jacque Wilson.
Neko Wilson met Skinner for the first time in early December when he and his brother and father drove to her office in downtown Oakland. Wilson is living in Modesto in a house that his brother owns, helping to remodel the property, volunteering at his brother’s legal advocacy nonprofit, and working on commission for an auto wholesale operation.
“I didn’t know it would happen so fast. It’s been a little overwhelming,” said Wilson, marveling at the advances in technology since he was incarcerated. “[Skinner] is an amazing woman.”
Now 37 years old, the subdued and soft-spoken Wilson told Skinner about privations he experienced in jail, including years without going outdoors, little food, and violence among inmates. His dad, 84-year-old military veteran Mack Wilson, said he feared he would die without hugging his son again.
“It was my dream to reunite my brother with our father. She made the dream real,” added Jacque Wilson, who also spent thousands of hours fighting for his brother in court. “Senator Skinner gave my brother freedom. She gave my family peace. This can help me move my life on. She is a true champion of justice.”
For her part, Skinner simply said that getting Neko Wilson freed “was the right thing to do.” She took the opportunity of meeting him to seek suggestions on ways to better help people succeed after leaving jails and prisons.
“We don’t really want that revolving door,” she said, looking into Wilson’s eyes.
Jacque Wilson has been designated by his office to train others to handle the flood of applications for resentencing that is expected to arrive once Skinner’s bill formally goes into effect this month. The number of people eligible for resentencing could be 800 or more statewide.
Releasing those people from prison will save taxpayers many millions of dollars, noted Wilson, including the hundreds of thousands of dollars already spent and yet to be spent litigating his brother’s case. It costs roughly $80,000 per year to keep an inmate in prison, he added.
“In my 18-year career, I have never seen anything this revolutionary in homicide law,” Wilson said. “In the criminal justice field, Senator Skinner’s name will go down in history.”
Neko Wilson’s story and the reform of the felony murder rule are the latest examples of Skinner’s extraordinary legacy of policy accomplishments from the past four decades, both as an activist and an official in local and state government. She has fought passionately for social justice, pushed to ease California’s housing crisis, and worked tirelessly to protect the environment, particularly from climate change.
Quite simply, Skinner has earned a reputation for getting big things done, and she does it by focusing laser-like on policy while eschewing partisanship.
2018 was striking even for Skinner, however, notably with the passage of two major criminal justice reform laws that she authored. In addition to Skinner’s felony murder legislation, Brown signed her bill to finally make police misconduct and use of force records open to the public.
For these achievements and others, the magazine has named Skinner the 2018 “East Bay Person of the Year.”
PHOTO BY PAT MAZZERA
Jacque Wilson (left) said Nancy Skinner made his “dream real” of reuniting his father, Mack, with his brother, Neko (right).
To put Skinner’s recent victory on police transparency into perspective, police accountability activists had been trying to crack California’s lock on police officer records for much of the last 40 years, but opposition from law enforcement had always been so intense that such efforts came to naught. The result: California has long been a national standout in denying virtually all public access to records regarding investigations of police officers, findings of officer misconduct, and even past officer involvement in use-of-force incidents.
Skinner’s legislation, Senate Bill 1421, which goes into effect this month, will allow for public release of police records about sustained findings of officer dishonesty, prior discharge of firearms at people, use of force resulting in death or great bodily injury, and sustained findings of sexual assault by an officer against a member of the public. “I don’t know if anyone besides Nancy could have made it happen,” said Lizzie Buchen, a legislative advocate at the ACLU of California.
Skinner, chair of the Senate’s public safety committee, herself questioned whether success was possible. During her eight years as a member of the state Assembly, where she also served on the public safety committee, Skinner watched the failure of repeated efforts to pry such records loose, including by then-Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.
After being approached about whether she was willing to tackle the subject again, Skinner decided to pursue a different strategy. The result was SB 1421, legislation targeting records that Skinner hoped would be hard for anyone to claim the public should not have a right to see.
Skinner modestly said the effort was aided by a shift in public mood as a result of the recent controversies concerning police shootings nationwide. For the first time, she was getting consistent queries from constituents about California’s secrecy around police disciplinary records. In addition, Skinner pointed out that law enforcement groups in 2018 became more focused on defeating another bill that sought to restrict officers’ use of deadly force to cases where it was necessary to prevent death or serious injury to officers or others.
Regardless, even her critics say Skinner possesses the uncommon ability to listen to divergent viewpoints to find what is possible and then reach across the aisle to make it happen.
Late in 2017, before Skinner introduced the bill, she went to law enforcement groups, including local police union chapters in her East Bay district, to share proposed language for the police transparency bill and seek input. (Skinner’s 9th Senate District runs from Richmond to San Leandro and includes all of Oakland, Alameda, Piedmont, and Berkeley.)
Always, Skinner said, she tries to get agreement with opponents, and she directs her staff members to do their work with the aim of preserving relationships for the future, regardless of how the vote on a particular issue falls. That principle holds as true for police as it does for others, she said.
“It’s not just strategic. This is where I feel, as much as there is great frustration and community mistrust about law enforcement, every single time a law enforcement officer puts his or her uniform on and walks out their door, their life is at risk, and that’s just reality,” Skinner said. “You’ve got to respect the situation a worker is in. We’ve got to provide the best position, rights, and protections. That extends to everybody.”
Skinner won over the California Police Chiefs Association, which represents officials who have to supervise problem officers, after Skinner agreed to some amendments. “Senator Skinner is as good a legislator as we’ve got in the Capitol as far as how she approaches really big issues,” said Jonathan Feldman, legislative advocate for the California Police Chiefs Association, citing Skinner’s desire to give different interest groups a seat at the table. “She is a tough negotiator.”
Four Republican legislators in the Assembly ultimately signed on to Skinner’s bill, improbably joining Black Lives Matter and the Anti Police-Terror Project.
Another Republican legislator with whom Skinner was able to forge agreement on criminal justice reform was state Sen. Joel Anderson, El Cajon, the longtime vice chair of the public safety committee that Skinner now heads. The two legislators are polar opposites in many ways, with Skinner being very liberal and Anderson very conservative.
“Before it was even clear that Trump had a shot [at the presidency], Joel was the chair of the Trump campaign in California,” Skinner said, adding that some of her supporters do not understand how she can work with such a man.
Yet Skinner and Anderson have repeatedly found common ground on policy matters. Although Anderson didn’t support Skinner’s police records transparency bill, he co-authored SB 1437, Skinner’s felony murder reform legislation that will bar prosecutors from charging accomplices with murder if they were not the actual killer, did not act with the intent to kill, or were not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life.
The state law that SB 1437 overturned has precedent in old English common law, and though England abolished the principle in 1957, it still exists in much of the United States. According to Skinner and others, California district attorneys relied on the rule to bolster conviction rates, with women, young people, and minorities disproportionately receiving sentences of 25 years or more for relatively minor crimes.
“Someone’s punishment should relate to the crime they committed. They should not be punished for the crime that they did not commit. And that felony murder rule allowed law enforcement and the prosecutor to sweep up anyone who had some association with a crime where a death occurred and charge them with murder,” Skinner said. “Joel and I fundamentally see that as unfair.”
In an interview, Anderson called Skinner “an extraordinary person,” and “the gold standard” of fighting for principle without taking cheap political shots or misrepresenting her intentions. “Nancy was one of my favorite authors. We could have a meaningful conversation without allowing partisan politics to get in the way,” said Anderson, who termed out in 2018. “Sadly, there are not enough Nancy Skinners in the Legislature.”
Again, Skinner sought early on to consult with law enforcement entities about her proposed legislation, especially the California District Attorneys Association. The group removed its opposition to the police transparency bill, but it remained opposed to her felony murder legislation, which passed with little room to spare after Brown made calls to sway lawmakers’ votes. Nevertheless, Sean Hoffman, the district attorneys’ legislative director, offered Skinner praise. “I have a tremendous amount of appreciation for the amount of time she and her staff spent working with us trying to get to a mutually agreeable bill. While we didn’t get there, I have the utmost respect for her as a legislator,” Hoffman said. “She doesn’t hide the ball.”
For Skinner’s work on SB 1437, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice recently named her “legislator of the year.”
One area of common ground that Skinner and Anderson share is the profound influence their Catholic upbringings had on their worldviews. “The thing about Joel is he’s a devout Catholic. And given my upbringing, we were able to talk about how we grew up and how those beliefs shaped us and how he fundamentally believes in redemption and second chances,” Skinner said.
Skinner met me at Mo’Joe Cafe near the home in South Berkeley that she shares with her husband of the last quarter-century, Lance Brady, a retiree from the city’s Information Technology Office. A slight woman with a soft voice, engaging smile, and attentive eyes, Skinner’s delicate and easy-going demeanor belies her ability to carry a massive workload, master complex policy details in varied subject areas, and negotiate shifting political shoals.
Skinner grew up in Palos Verdes, Calif., one of the eldest of nine children. Her father never went to college, but he managed to become a board certified pharmacist, and over time, he prospered, and the family moved from severely cramped quarters to a house that had enough beds for all of the children.
“In a funny way, my family is a working-class family. There was not a tradition of people going to college. But my father was a real striver. He grew up in the Depression,” she said.
Skinner’s father was a staunch Republican; her mother a Democrat who did not drive and kept her opinions quiet. The community was largely homogeneous and white.
At school, Skinner’s mind was deeply impacted by the nuns who reflected the teachings of Vatican II and its emphasis on the poor, sick, and suffering. “If my father had fully understood that, he would have pulled us out of that Catholic school,” she said.
PHOTO BY PAT MAZZERA
Neko Wilson (left) met Skinner for the first time in early December when he, Jacque Wilson (right), and his father went to her downtown Oakland office.
In addition, a priest, Pascal Hardy, who was a family friend, also happened to know migrant worker champion César Chávez, and he used to take Skinner and some of her siblings to farmworker rallies. He gave Skinner writings by Chávez and the Jesuit activist and artist Dan Berrigan. Though not a practicing Catholic today (Skinner takes exception to the church’s definition of God as male, its exclusion of women from priestly roles, and its doctrine concerning reproductive rights), the impact of her Catholic educators and Hardy was formative and lasting.
Skinner also was a voracious reader, and she consumed the Los Angeles Times and the Look and Life magazines that came into her house with images from around the world, of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.
Skinner’s world opened up considerably when she went to UC Berkeley. For the first time, she had black people in her classes. She lived in the notorious student cooperative Barrington Hall, known for its political activism and hedonistic partying. It was 1972, the year that 18-year-olds first got to vote in a presidential election, and Skinner attended speeches and rallies on campus. Her favorite candidate was Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first black major-party candidate to run for president.
Skinner really had her mind blown open, however, when she decided to go live for a time with a friend whose family had moved to Hattiesburg, Miss.. All through high school in Southern California, Skinner was in singing groups, and she had a romantic image of performing in bluesy honky tonks, like she imagined some of the artists who played with her heroine Bonnie Raitt doing.
“And then I go to Mississippi, and I couldn’t believe it. In my naïveté, I’m thinking there’s been all this advance in civil rights and such — I don’t know what I thought,” she said shaking her head.
Skinner worked in two restaurants, and both kitchens were filled with black people who were paid less than whites and were kept in positions in which white patrons would not see them. “There they are, making all the food, but us white people are serving it and taking the orders,” Skinner recalled. “I was blown away. I was appalled. I thought, you couldn’t get away with that in California. They’d just look at me. It was so eye-opening.”
After Mississippi, Skinner headed back to Cal for her sophomore year, and she was gradually drawn into political activism. She had been elected the first female student body president at her high school, and she was active in student affairs at Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources and served as the Academic Affairs vice president of the ASUC (the student government), but she had no ambition to go into politics. Skinner thought she would eventually work as a naturalist specializing in California botany at a national or state park, and she taught courses in native plants and interned at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. After getting her B.S., she continued as a graduate student at Cal, where she got her M.A. in education.
Yet as a graduate student, Skinner became even more active in student politics. She was a founder of the graduate student workers’ union and staff director of the Graduate Assembly, the independent graduate student government. In that role, she was a key organizer for the anti-apartheid movement that led the UC system to divest from South Africa, as well as efforts to diversify the student and faculty populations throughout Cal.
“Even as a 21-year-old college student, she was somebody who had a real moral compass and real leadership skills related to that moral compass,” said fellow activist and former Cal contemporary Larry Shapiro, now associate director for program development at the Rockefeller Family Foundation in New York.
Skinner met people in city politics and helped walk precincts on occasion, and one day in 1978, someone she did not know urged her to run to be the student representative on the steering committee of Berkeley Citizens Action, a progressive political party that was a key player in city politics. Skinner was directed to bake a cake and come to one of BCA’s weekly potlucks and she would get the job, and that’s what happened.
“Most things in my life were not planned,” she said.
BCA at the time was a vibrant entity that typically drew 100 people from across the liberal spectrum to its weekly gatherings, and more than 1,000 to its conventions, where issues were vigorously debated. Skinner volunteered on the successful mayoral campaign of Gus Newport, a progressive who let her know the reason why police kept pulling them over in Skinner’s beat up car was likely because he was black. She served as campaign coordinator for a successful decriminalization of marijuana initiative that directed Berkeley police to make enforcement of marijuana laws a low priority.
Within a year, Skinner was appointed to the Berkeley Energy Commission, where she advocated for solar energy and helped convince the city to declare a policy of becoming energy self-reliant. Already, Skinner had come to understand global warming and the contributing role of fossil fuels, having taken a class in the early 1970s from John Holdren, an early climate change predictor who would later become President Barack Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy director. Climate change would also become a signature issue of Skinner’s, leading her consistently to pursue landmark initiatives and legislation that have significantly impacted governmental policy and the energy industry, both domestically and internationally.
In 1981, 26 years old, pregnant, and married to a political activist, she ran unsuccessfully for the Berkeley City Council. The following year, in which her daughter was born, Skinner helped write a successful local initiative to ban a garbage-to-energy incineration plant proposed at the city’s then-dump on the waterfront — today the site of César Chávez Park. Skinner and others followed that up the following year with a ballot measure that set an unprecedented citywide recycling goal of 50 percent.
That is when Skinner ran again for city council and won on a platform of recycling and protecting waterfront land that is now at the center of the Eastshore State Park. In doing so, she became the first and still-only person to win that post while a student.
During her eight-year city council tenure, Skinner repeatedly put Berkeley in national headlines. For example, she pushed the city to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. And in 1988, she wrote first-in-the nation legislation to ban Styrofoam from fast food restaurants because of the ozone-depleting chemicals used to make the packaging material.
That, in turn, propelled Skinner on a journey that went around the world. She went to a National League of Cities meeting and found to her horror that many government officials in the country looked upon recycling as “a left-wing plot.” So, she and others formed an environmental issues caucus and Skinner became chair. The group organized a meeting in Irvine, where a UC Irvine professor happened to be a global expert on the depletion of the ozone layer. From there, city officials went home seeking to enact regulations on the disposal of freon, a refrigerant commonly used in air conditioning, and Berkeley became one of the first to impose strict new rules.
Skinner left the council in 1992 and worked with Jeb Brugmann, one of the key organizers of the Irvine meeting, to form a coalition of cities from around the world called the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. Now called ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, the Germany-based group has offices in Emeryville, Boston, New York, and Baltimore, and 185 member cities in the United States, and it interacts with more than 1,500 cities globally.
“Even though I’m not affiliated with it any longer, I’m so, so happy and proud that there are so many subnational governments, in my case, mostly cities, that are really trying to tackle this climate crisis, and I know — though I’m not alone — that I had a huge role in catalyzing that,” Skinner said.
Skinner and Brugmann, ICLEI’s national and international directors, respectively, started by cold-calling cities to get them to join. Abby Young, whom Skinner hired straight out of the John Hopkins School of International Studies in 1995, recalled Skinner making those calls out of an office in Skinner’s backyard. Skinner was divorced at the time and her young daughter, Sirona Nixon, today a chef at a Berkeley restaurant, was frequently around.
Almost immediately, Young discovered Skinner’s “quirky” side when they traveled to Japan for a meeting of mayors to discuss ways to address climate change. Among the numerous must-do tasks Skinner had for Young was to help find a karaoke bar so all the mayors could go out for a singalong.
“It was hilarious. Everybody had a great time. We really bonded,” recalled Young, who worked with Skinner for nine years and today is planning and climate protection manager for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Consistently, Young said, Skinner found creative ways for city officials to have fun when they got together, for example by playing games modeled on Jeopardy, $20,000 Pyramid, or Survivor, with winners having to display mastery of conference material to win.
“You do the work. But then there was this playful element,” Young said. “It came to be something attendees would expect and look forward to year after year.”
Yet Skinner was also intent on making sure participants at events were not wasting their time.
At an early gathering of city officials held at the Berkeley Faculty Club, she gave everyone spreadsheets, pencils, calculators, and simple guidelines for creating a city greenhouse gas emissions inventory. Such inventories are now commonplace, and 70 of the Bay Area’s 101 cities have adopted climate action plans, with the rest developing them.
“This was a time when no one was really talking about climate change yet — outside of academic circles,” Young said. “Now, climate action plans are ubiquitous. People don’t realize they started in Nancy Skinner’s backyard.”
After a decade at ICLEI, Skinner spent several years as U.S. director of The Climate Group, a nonprofit focused on climate change, and as a member of the East Bay Regional Park District board. Then, her career in state government began.
In 2008, she won a seat in the state Assembly. And in 2016, she was elected to the state Senate representing much of the East Bay.
Immediately, Skinner was seen as a rising star in Sacramento. Capitol Weekly named her rookie of the year, describing her as “tough, yet warm and friendly” and “a policy wonk” who was willing to work with members of both parties. She went on to get leadership positions in both houses, managing votes on legislation as the Democratic whip and helping meld budget and legislative proposals. She also played a pivotal role in the selection of two Assembly speakers.
Constrained somewhat by her focus on environmental policies for so long, Skinner seized the chance to address social issues like income inequality and worked to expand food programs for poor families with children and college students while also increasing regulation and taxation of corporations, notably internet giants like Amazon.
Harkening back to the tutelage she received from Father Hardy, who ministered in jails and prisons, Skinner has repeatedly sought to ameliorate racial and class disparities in the state’s criminal justice system. In both the Assembly and Senate, she has carried legislation aimed at preventing mass incarceration of youth and people of color, and on removing obstacles to formerly incarcerated people reintegrating into society upon release, for example, by eliminating prohibitions on people with nonviolent drug convictions being able to get food stamps.
In 2017, Skinner got a bill passed by a remarkable two-thirds majority to partially roll back a voter-approved ban on the sealing of juvenile justice conviction records, even in cases where a crime was committed by someone 14 years of age or younger.
Marc Philpart, a former Skinner staffer who is now managing director at PolicyLink, an Oakland organization aimed at promoting racial and economic equity, said Skinner has been instrumental in advancing progressive criminal justice legislation and beating back other proposals “that would really move us 100 years back.”
Philpart praised Skinner’s efforts to get a bill passed in 2018 that would have prohibited suspension or recommendations for expulsion for elementary and middle school students who disrupt school activities or otherwise defy school personnel. He called those practices “part of the prison pipeline” that particularly vacuums up boys of color. Brown, however, vetoed her bill in September.
“She’s a quality person and a committed elected who honestly wants to transform conditions for people who are living in poverty and in misery,” said Philpart.
On the economic front, Skinner has also been very active on the most pressing issue facing her district: the crisis of skyrocketing housing costs that is driving people out of the area and even into homelessness. In response, Skinner has walked a line between seeking to protect current residents and supporting more construction, sometimes to the displeasure of anti-growth critics who accuse her of being overly friendly to developers.
But Skinner’s progressive track record on housing is impressive. For example, in 2013, she got a bill passed that protects tenants living in foreclosed properties, requires that tenants get 90-days’ notice of eviction, and ensures that leases remain in effect after properties are sold.
On the production side, Skinner this year wrote a new law enabling development of denser student housing, and last year she authored a law that requires governments to designate new housing sites when land is removed from housing.
Last year, she also got a bill passed that made local governments liable for fines and damages if they deny development proposals that conform with existing laws and standards. Skinner called the law a “sneaker” bill because its impact will be much greater than opponents might have guessed.
Ernest Brown, co-executive of the pro-housing group East Bay for Everyone, said that law, SB 167, is already having an impact up and down the state, with city attorneys warning councils that rejections of housing applications without legal justification could be costly.
Skinner said much of her effort in 2018 went to supporting SB 827, San Francisco Democrat Sen. Scott Wiener’s controversial and unsuccessful bill, which would have required local jurisdictions to allow taller and denser housing projects near transit if certain requirements, like affordable housing, are met.
Needless to say, Skinner’s support of SB 827 did not win her friends across the board.
Stu Flashman, a well-known land use attorney who lives in Oakland’s Rockridge district and has resisted the notion of upzoning the area for taller and denser housing developments, charged that SB 827 was a “sledgehammer” when a chisel was required.
Writer Zelda Bronstein, who often opposes new housing proposals in Berkeley, said Skinner’s support for SB 827 and other legislation showed her to be “just another real estate Democrat carrying water for the building industry” and other interests. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, meanwhile, characterized the bill as “a declaration of war against our neighborhoods.”
Skinner, however, was unapologetic, saying important amendments to SB 827 were made but never got a public airing before the bill died in committee. “We have to build more. We have a total emergency,” Skinner said of housing. “For those people who just don’t want their neighborhood to be any different, it will be different.”
Despite the outcry from some quarters, Skinner said much of the correspondence her office received came from supporters worried that their children would be unable to live near them when they grow up. (In early December, Wiener introduced an updated version of his bill, now known as SB 50, and Skinner signed on as a co-author.)
For the future, Skinner said she wants to investigate ways to help people qualify for mortgages, for example, by providing loan guarantees, and she is interested in whether redevelopment agencies could be resurrected with a narrow focus on affordable housing and funding mechanisms that do not take money from schools. Skinner is also very interested in loosening restrictions on building small apartment buildings and subdividing large homes into multiple dwelling units — tactics she believes could house many people without the complexities and costs associated with large apartment projects.
Skinner notes that zoning restrictions have historically been used to segregate communities along lines of race and income, and they should be loosened.
In addition, Skinner said she will focus again this year on increasing funding for alleviating homelessness after playing an instrumental role in 2018 in getting $500 million allocated from the state budget surplus for homeless services. Skinner called widespread homelessness in the Bay Area and state “a crime” given the region’s wealth.
“It’s appalling, it’s immoral, and we have to do more,” she said.
Finally, Skinner has continued to focus much of her energy on the existential threat of climate change, sometimes with dramatic and far-reaching results. In her second year in the Assembly, she pushed through legislation that doubled the cap on the amount of solar power that state utilities, including PG&E, are required to buy from homeowners and businesses that generate clean energy.
Opposition from the three investor-owned utilities was intense, but Skinner knew that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted more solar, and she delivered a bill for his signature.
“Nancy surprised all political pundits,” said David Hochschild, a member of the California Energy Commission. “She paved the way for the solar industry to grow to new heights.”
California now has more than 86,000 solar industry jobs, by the far the largest number of any state in the nation, according to The Solar Foundation.
Asked how she accomplished her goal of doubling the solar cap, Skinner smiled slyly and pondered for a moment. “I have to think about whether that’s ready to be in print yet,” she said before spilling the beans.
At the time, legislators were jockeying among themselves to see who would be the next speaker of the Assembly, and Skinner was being courted for her support. Skinner studiously remained non-aligned and sought votes for solar from those seeking her endorsement.
“I was quite aware that that speaker battle was going on. I took advantage of it,” she said. “If that speaker battle was not going on at that time, I don’t know that that bill would have gotten through.”
Ultimately, Skinner did not throw her support to any of those trying to woo her. Instead, she convinced Los Angeles Democratic Assemblymember John Pérez that he should run for the post, and then she rounded up the votes for him to win.
Pérez was the first openly gay legislator to serve as speaker, and that was important to Skinner, whose daughter is a lesbian, particularly given that voters in 2008 approved Proposition 8, an initiative that sought to make same-sex marriage illegal but which was later ruled unconstitutional.
Skinner was also pivotal in the selection of Toni Atkins, an open lesbian, to be speaker after Pérez in 2014. Atkins is now president pro tempore in the Senate, where Skinner is majority whip.
As speaker, Pérez later officiated at Skinner’s daughter’s marriage to another woman.
“I wouldn’t have had any of the success I’ve had without her,” said Pérez, now a regent of the University of California. Skinner had the nickname “Quicksand,” in the Assembly, Perez said. “When she gets a hold of you, there’s no getting loose.”
Hochschild said he thinks Skinner is “one of the top environmental legislators in any state government in the United States” — that she more than any other California legislator has defined the work of his agency. He rattled off various pieces of legislation that Skinner has carried, including a 2012 bill that set up a funding mechanism for school energy retrofits and a law enacted this year that requires ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft to reduce carbon emissions and transition to zero emission vehicles like electric cars.
Largely as a result of her efforts, the state Energy Commission has handed out more than $1.5 billion for school energy retrofits, and the number of solar installations is soon projected to hit 1 million in the state, Hochschild said.
“Every year, she’s just pushing the envelope,” he said. “We are lucky to have her.”
Berkeley resident Janice Lin, co-founder of the California Energy Storage Alliance and a similar international organization, said Skinner has been a visionary leader in promoting energy storage to help California take better advantage of renewable energy. In 2010, in particular, Skinner authored AB 2514, which led the state to set the first ever energy storage procurement target in the world.
California’s utilities opposed Skinner’s initial proposal, but after amendments, they subsequently embraced the concept, and so far the CPUC has approved procurement of more than 1.6 gigawatts of new storage capacity to be built in the state, about 26 percent of which is online.
On Nov. 8, the agency approved PG&E’s procurement of 567.5 megawatts of new energy storage capacity, which, when fully constructed, would feature the largest battery systems in the world.
“That deal tells the world that energy storage can indeed be cost effective and a better deal for ratepayers than fossil fuel plants,” Lin said. “If not for Senator Skinner, I don’t think we would be having news like that today. She has materially made a difference in the course of history.”