By Mary O’KEEFE
“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the America people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Politics can be daunting, overwhelming and, at times, boring for voters. Some who do not vote justify their decision by stating the outcome is already decided and their vote will not count. Others feel that it is all too much show and not enough substance. Although that may be a justified observation in some political races, in local politics it is still a one-on-one event where, in the best of forums, candidates answer questions in a simple and honest way that will help voters make that most important decision on Election Day. One of the best examples of that hometown politicking was found on Sunday, Jan. 24 when five candidates – all vying for the 43rd Assembly seat in Sacramento – responded to questions from the audience at the Sparr Heights Community Center.
The five candidates are sitting Glendale City Councilmember Laura Friedman, current Glendale City Clerk Ardy Kassakhian, teacher and former La Cañada School Board member Andrew Blumenfeld, high school teacher in Burbank Dennis Bullock, and former economic development advisor for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti Rajiv Dalal.
The candidates are running for the seat that, due to term limits, will be vacated by Assemblymember Mike Gatto. The forum was sponsored and organized by the Cañada Crescenta Democratic Club. The candidates were each given two minutes to introduce themselves at the beginning of the forum and two minutes to make their best plea for votes at the end. The meat of the forum was in the middle with questions submitted by the audience; each candidate had a minute to respond.
Issues addressed ranged from conservation to business, from schools to prisons. For the most part the forum was civil with most candidates agreeing with each other on the majority of topics.
The first question posed concerned what candidates listed as their priority if elected.
For Dalal it was the economy.
“We have this way [in California] of watching industry leave before we do anything to save it,” he said.
He cited the aerospace and film industries as two examples of this exodus. Dalal added that he had worked with those in Sacramento to help create the recent tax incentives for the film industry, which brought a reported 10,000 film industry jobs back to the L.A. area, he said.
For Blumenfeld improving quality and equity to education is a priority. He stated in part that his desire is “removing the centralized authority in Sacramento [thereby releasing] the grip it has over education in our state.”
Blumenfeld would like to see the decision-making power given to those who are “boots on the ground,” which includes students, parents, teachers and administrators of individual districts.
For Bullock it would be a tie between water issues and education. He said he was happy that school districts were receiving more funding from the state.
“But [those funds] are restoring funding,” he said. For years money was taken from the districts with promises of payback made.
Bullock would like to offer tax incentives to businesses that help local schools.
“The biggest threat facing the whole world is climate change,” Friedman said. “California is taking a leadership position and is doing well.”
With a watchful eye on climate change, Friedman said her priority would be poverty.
“California is not doing enough to focus on the number of people who are sliding out of middle class and sliding into poverty without a safety net,” she said.
It was back to education for Kassakhian who not only wants to look into ways to support local public schools but higher education as well.
Housing was an issue touched on by one question. All candidates stated the need for affordable housing. Friedman suggested she would support incentives for developers to build affordable homes and added that she would look into affordable assisted living housing.
Kassakhian commented on what defines affordable housing in Glendale with rents from $2,200 a month for a one-bedroom unit; however, Friedman added that affordable housing could be as low as $600 a month.
“Our students are graduating with crippling student loan debt,” Kassakhian added. “Our student (loan) debt has surpassed consumer debt in this country for the first time.”
He concluded that it is very difficult to pay rent with a large student loan hanging over graduates’ heads.
Dalal could relate to Kassakhian’s assessment since he is still paying off his student loans years after graduating.
“Sixty percent of folks in Los Angeles County cannot afford to buy their own home,” he added. “And 57% of folks are paying over half of their salaries in rent.”
He suggested looking at local governments, like L.A. City and L.A. County, which own several properties that could be used for housing.
All candidates agreed that the minimum wage should be increased.
“If we have a [conversation about minimum wage] it has to be one that is meaningful,” Blumenfeld said. He added a minimum wage discussion could not be held in a “vacuum” and must be inclusive of business owners who may struggle with raising rates.
A question on fracking was also addressed. Candidates agreed that looking at alternative fuels is important, but also agreed fracking does not appear to be the answer and in fact adds concerns.
“I believe fracking should be heavily regulated,” Bullock said if the procedure was to be allowed.
Another topic that was raised was in regard to charter schools. Once again the candidates were in agreement.
“What we are doing is giving up,” Bullock said about those turning to charter schools as a solution to perceived public school problems. “And what are we getting for it?”
The suggestion of Eli Broad of the Broad Foundation of donating funds to replace public schools with charter schools was discussed. While many of the candidates appreciated education funding from the Foundation they worried about the damage to the public school system and, by extension, to the students left at those schools.
“It is really hard to spit in the eye of a billion [dollars],” Friedman said, adding if the Broad Foundation would like to give money to education maybe there would be a way to help public schools.
Other issues that were raised, and would most likely be covered by those in Sacramento in the years to come, included the environment, overcrowding at prisons and water.
The candidates were on common ground on these issues as well, agreeing that capturing ground water was a priority. For prisons the conversation turned back to education.
Blumenfeld, who teaches fifth graders in an L.A. school where an estimated 100% of his students live in extreme poverty, said the issue of education included those who are in prison.
“Unfortunately [we have] a school-to-prison pipeline,” he said.
For more in-depth information on the local candidates visit their websites: Rajiv Dalal: www.rajivdalal.com, Andrew Blumenfeld: www.andrew4assembly.com, Dennis Bullock: www.dennisrbullock.com, Laura Friedman: votelaurafriedman.com and Ardy Kassakhian – Facebook page – www.facebook.com/ArdyforAssembly.
The primary elections are on June 3, 2016.