By Steven Tavares
When it comes to political representation, residents of San Leandro, Castro Valley, Hayward, and Union City have endured a brutal six months. It began last October, when their longtime Assemblywoman, Mary Hayashi, was caught shoplifting $2,500 worth of clothing from Neiman Marcus in San Francisco. Hayashi ultimately pled guilty, but her legal troubles and public embarrassments have left her Assembly district without effective representation in Sacramento. Indeed, if Hayashi were not termed out of office later this year, there probably would be a recall campaign against her.
But she is being termed out, and so five candidates are vying to replace her in what promises to be an interesting showdown among contrasting characters and styles, featuring a wonky former astrophysicist, a gregarious longtime mayor, and an optometrist/political operative. After the June election, the top-two finishers, regardless of party affiliation, will compete in a November runoff.
One of the leading candidates for the redrawn 20th Assembly District is Bill Quirk, a two-term Hayward councilman with significant backing from the Democratic Party. Another top contender is Mark Green, the mayor of Union City for nearly two decades. And a third is Jennifer Ong, a political newcomer who, despite losing endorsements within the Democratic Party to Quirk, has nearly matched his fundraising prowess. Through March 17, the last filing period deadline, Quirk had raised a total of $203,158 compared to Ong's $161,007. Green was a distant third with $35,783. Union City's New Haven School District Trustee Sarabjit Kaur Cheema and Hayward School District Trustee Luis Reynoso, the lone Republican, are also featured on the June ballot.
The stark dichotomy between the personalities of Quirk and Green, though, may overshadow the entire cast of characters. Serious and parochial, Quirk makes decisions that are deliberate and fact-based — not surprising considering his extensive background as an astrophysicist. He's also somewhat unpredictable. His strong support for the controversial Russell City Energy Center, a natural gas-fired power plant near the Hayward shoreline, made him a target by environmentalists who contended that the power plant put the health of city residents at risk — most notably, students at nearby Chabot College. Quirk said his support was based on careful scrutiny of the science behind the project. "I do what I think is right," he said. If elected, he said he hopes to fill a need among lawmakers in Sacramento for someone well-versed in scientific issues. Yet despite his reputation as a straight-laced public official, Quirk was one of the few councilmembers in Hayward who registered support in 2010 for studying the possible return of medical cannabis dispensaries in the city. He said the council made a mistake by not looking at the issue.
By contrast, Green is one of the more accomplished quipsters in the East Bay political scene. Along with his smooth baritone voice, his ability to cajole a smile from the audience is unrivaled in this year's contest. Two years ago, during an Alameda County supervisor's race forum that was scheduled on the same night as the NCAA basketball championship, Green opened his remarks asking, "Anybody know the score of the Duke-Butler game?" The crowd roared with laughter. Still, the Union City mayor can be as serious anyone when he says his twenty years of experience as a public official gives him a major advantage over his opponents. "As far as their records, a few of my opponents have some experience as a public official, but none have been a mayor or sit on the regional boards that I have," Green said. In some ways, his experience at the regional level may better position him for the Assembly race than his work in Union City. "Some of the things I've done at transportation boards on the regional level have more clout in terms of what I might do in Sacramento," he said. Green is a past president of the Association of Bay Area Governments and is chair of the Alameda County Transportation Commission.
If Green were to advance to the November general election, he could be concurrently campaigning for Measure B3, the proposed half-cent sales tax increase that was created under his leadership and would fund a host of East Bay transportation projects. He said his experience working on the measure will serve him well in Sacramento, where different personalities, agendas, and ideologies clash on a daily basis. "The breadth of opinion and different advocacy groups serves me well," he said. Green recently left the Democratic Party; it was a decision he said he should have made ten to twelve years ago. He added that his independence will help him deal with both sides of the aisle in Sacramento. "I won't be saying the pledge of allegiance to the Democratic Party," he said. "I won't be that way. I'll talk to anyone who wants to talk."
If the personalities of Quirk and Green are polar opposites, then Ong is somewhere between the two — she's knowledgeable and charismatic, and also pragmatic. "There's a flavor for everybody," she said of the personality differences among the candidates. "There's always going to be someone more beautiful than you or funnier than you. Just ask yourself if you were better than yesterday."
An optometrist by trade, Ong runs her own practice in Alameda and is a longtime Democratic Party operative. She is also one of three candidates born outside the United States. A native of the Philippines, Ong immigrated to San Leandro at age eleven. She received her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley, and her graduate degree from Cal State East Bay. She believes her experience will resonate with the large contingent of Asian and Latino voters in the district. Her lack of experience could become an issue, however. She is the only candidate in the race never elected to public office. But she says her experience lobbying for health-care legislation over the past two decades, along with running her own business, makes up for perceived holes in her résumé. "People say that they like that I've signed both sides of the check," she said.
Sarabjit Kaur Cheema, an Indian Sikh, will also hope to take advantage of the redrawn 20th District's growing influence of South Asians residing in Union City and Fremont. In addition to serving her first term on the New Haven School Board, Cheema is an engineer for Caltrans.
Hayward School Board Trustee Luis Reynoso, born in Guadalajara, brings an interesting background to the race. For voters accustomed to a conga line of liberal candidates, Reynoso may prove to either be a breath of fresh air or politically too far to the right for the district's tastes. For example, while Reynoso says he supports sexual equality, according to his website, he also believes in doing so "without imposing a sexual orientation curriculum on our children."