East Bay Assembly race likened to a ‘family feud’ between divided Democrats

East Bay Assembly race likened to a ‘family feud’ between divided Democrats

Ali TadayonOctober 27, 2018 at 6:00 am

Candidates Buffy Wicks, left, and Jovanka Beckles, right, are running a contentious race for Assembly District 15 in the East Bay, despite the fact that both are progressive Democrats. (Staff)

EAST BAY — While mudslinging and contentious debates are common fare in elections pitting Republicans versus Democrats, such discord has set the tone in the East Bay’s Assembly District 15 race between two staunch progressives who belong to the same Democratic Party.

While former President Barack Obama staffer Buffy Wicks and Richmond City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles agree on several key issues — both favor single-payer healthcare and updating charter school regulations — they sharply diverge over how to tackle those topics as well as how to address the region’s most pressing issue: housing.

Wicks has connections in the the traditional Democrat camp, with endorsements from Obama, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris. Beckles is tied to the Democratic Socialist “Berniecrat” camp, with endorsements from Rep. Barbara Lee and the Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution campaign.

“This is sort of like a family feud, which in some ways frustrates Democrats trying to figure out what to do,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. “It speaks to the anger each side has for each other. The candidates are symbols of the underlying anger on both sides of the party that are found in the district.”

The district includes portions of western Conta Costa County and northern Alameda County, where housing is limited, homelessness is on the rise and longtime residents are being displaced in droves.

“I believe the root of the problem is that we haven’t built enough homes to accommodate the people in our communities,” Wicks said in an interview.

Wicks supports “more housing across the board,” according to her website, and attributes the region’s homeless crisis to the housing shortage. She intends to push for more subsidized housing for low-income people and supports using public land to house teachers, nurses, nonprofit workers and other middle-income workers, her website says. She wants to create incentives for building accessory dwelling units, known as “granny units,” and wants more transit-oriented housing.

Beckles said in an interview her platform focuses on building significantly more affordable housing instead of market-rate housing.

“If we just build a bunch of for-profit, luxury housing, that’s not going to get us out of the mess we’re in,” Beckles said, pointing to Oakland, where of the 4,284 building permits issued last year, only 324 were designated affordable.

Beckles wants to raise taxes on housing speculators and vacant investment properties and spend the money those taxes generate on public housing. Her goal is to build hundreds of thousands of units of public housing within 10 years in part through expanding community land trusts.

Wicks and Beckles also part ways on Proposition 10, which would open to rent control those new houses and apartments currently exempted under the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act.

Beckles fully supports repealing Costa-Hawkins. Wicks doesn’t, saying doing so would halt development. She does believe Costa-Hawkins should be reformed, however, by including a rolling exemption date for new construction. Under Costa-Hawkins, all construction built after 1995 is exempt from rent control.

Wicks also wants to introduce state “anti-gouging” legislation caps on how much landlords can raise rents.

On education, both candidates want charters to be more transparent and accountable and school districts to be given more power in approving or rejecting charter school petitions. Beckles wants a moratorium on new charters, but Wicks says that doesn’t get “to the root of the problem.”

Though they both support a single-payer healthcare plan, Beckles wants it immediately and Wicks wants to phase it in.

A single-payer system in California isn’t feasible until 2020, Wicks said, because the state would need an approximately $200 billion waiver from the federal government. Getting that waiver from President Donald Trump’s administration is highly unlikely, she said, though steps could be taken in the interim such as adding a public option.

Beckles said it’s possible to do it now and believes Wicks’ hesitation has to do with who is backing her financially. The California Dental Association, one of several health care groups to oppose the latest failed Senate bill proposing single-payer, has spent more than $100,000 supporting Wicks, according to campaign finance statements.

Wicks counters that her platforms are independent and based in part through conversations she’s had with constituents in hundreds of living rooms through her “house party program.”

Secretary of State campaign finance records show Wicks has received $1,371,132.91 in contributions and Beckles $469,096.88 as of Friday.

Wicks has called Beckles’ sensitivity into question. At a September forum, former Richmond councilman Vinay Pimplé accused Beckles of mocking his blindness when both were council colleagues. While voting on a controversial moratorium on rent increases, Beckles chided Pimplé for voting against it and angrily said he “can’t see” those in the audience who advocated for a moratorium.

Beckles says she was misinterpreted, that Pimplé had often asked her to describe the room for him and she was trying to do that. At the same time, she was angry about his vote.

“I was shocked and hurt when he made this allegation. … I would never bully him,” Beckles said.

Wicks and her supporters also criticized a resolution Beckles introduced to oppose space-based weaponry and support Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s failed Space Preservation Act. The resolution made Richmond a “safe zone” for victims of space weaponry and space-based mind control.

Critics called the resolution a frivolous waste of time, but Beckles described it as a harmless resolution that did not cost a dime and showed support for people suffering from mental health issues.

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