Candidates tackle tough state issues at 24th Assembly forum

Bruce Barton/Town Crier
Assembly candidates – from left, Marc Berman, Jay Cabrera, Barry Chang, John Inks, Mike Kasperzak, Seelam Reddy and Vicki Veenker – address the state’s infrastructure challenges.

Eight candidates for the state’s 24th Assembly District seat discussed the myriad growing pains California faces in front of a standing-room-only crowd May 10 at the Mountain View Public Library.

The candidates, including city councilmembers from Cupertino, Mountain View, Palo Alto and Menlo Park, are vying for Assemblyman Rich Gordon’s seat in the June 7 primary election. Gordon is termed-out next year. The League of Women Voters of the Los Altos-Mountain View Area co-sponsored the forum with the library.

Cupertino Mayor Barry Chang, Mountain View councilmen Mike Kasperzak and John Inks, Menlo Park Councilman Peter Ohtaki and Palo Alto Councilman Marc Berman are running for the seat, as are political newcomers Jay Cabrera, Vicki Veenker and Seelam Reddy. The 24th district includes Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View.

Affordability challenges

Each candidate gave a brief introduction, then answered written questions from the audience.

“We’ve become a magnet for smart, ambitious people who want to change the world,” Berman said of the area, “but serious cracks have begun to form (in the state infrastructure) – we’ve had friends and neighbors who can’t afford a home.”

Berman said he’s “worked hard” on the Palo Alto council to raise the city’s minimum wage and address inequality in schools.

Inks positioned himself as the voice of “sound fiscal management.”

“We need someone in Sacramento who has the fiscal discipline that holds the line on spending,” he said.

Ohtaki, with economics and finance degrees from Harvard and Stanford universities, described himself as a “numbers guy” and a “bipartisan problem server.” He said he worked with Gordon in 2014 to amend the state’s housing element (AB 1690), which allows cities to include mixed uses in high-density housing sites. He listed the state’s challenges as transportation, water infrastructure, housing and debt.

Cabrera said he is supporting the platform of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has championed free higher education, among other policies.

“We need everyday, normal people running for office if we want government for the people, by the people,” said the self-described community activist.

Veenker, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit director and patent attorney, said she’s represented two distinctly different sets of clients: those struggling to make ends meet while working at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley and high-tech inventors seeking patents.

“There’s a big gap these days between these two sets of clients,” she said.

Veenker supported increased investment in education as a solution to bridge the divide.

Kasperzak, who along with Inks is termed-out on the Mountain View council early next year, said the housing shortage and traffic resulting from state growth is “in the worst shape it’s ever been.” He cited success on the council in adding higher-density housing along transit corridors as an example of what he could do in Sacramento.

Reddy, a retired aerospace engineer, offered few qualifications, even asking, “Why would you want me?” He responded: “No one can maneuver me to take a position I don’t want to take.”

Chang boasted how he has taken on corporate giants like the nearby Lehigh Hanson cement plant and Apple Inc. over environmental and tax issues, respectively. He also acknowledged the economic gap he wants to address.

“The rich get richer and the poorer get poorer,” Chang said. “This gap is bad.”

He proposed a tax on the wealthy to further fund education.

Housing, education

The group addressed questions on a range of issues, including housing density, early childhood education, changes to Proposition 13 and high-speed rail.

“Density is a local control issue,” said Kasperzak, who cites 16 years of experience on the council. “We need to create more housing, and since we have limited land, it has to be denser.”

On early childhood education, Berman said: “Universal access to education for every 4-year-old in the state is my top priority.”

He cited statistics revealing that students who do not receive early childhood education fall 18 months behind those who do. He said every dollar spent on early education translates to more than $8 saved on state services used by the undereducated.

Ohtaki and Inks opposed any changes to Proposition 13, which capped increases on property taxes. Inks called it “an invitation to create new spending programs.”

Veenker said she favored a change to create more balance, which now favors more commercial properties than residential.

Regarding the current high-speed rail plans, everyone except Kasperzak voiced opposition.

“Why spend $64 billion to get to Bakersfield when it’s so hard to get to and from work every day?” Ohtaki asked.

Kasperzak cited BART as a lost opportunity when South Bay voters opted against it in the 1970s. He sees a possible repeat scenario with high-speed rail.

“Every city that has a transportation system is glad they have it,” he said.

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