The race for the 27th District Assembly seat is a little like a competition between a cheetah and a house cat, and incumbent Assemblyman John Laird is the cheetah.
In November 2002, Laird crushed his Republican challenger and became the first openly gay man to serve in the state Assembly. Since then, Laird’s had a wildly successful two-year term, carrying almost 40 bills to Assembly passage, chairing three committees—the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee, the Special Committee on State Mandates and the Special Committee on California Water Needs and Climate Change—and serving on a number of others, including Natural Resources, Labor and Employment, and Budget.
Last month, the California Journal recognized Laird in six of six possible categories in its annual, prestigious “Minnie Awards,” naming him a member of the “Assembly Elite,” and one of the Legislature’s “Bridge Builders”—not bad for a freshman lawmaker.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports, Laird’s raised almost $87,000 in cash. And now that the Legislative session is over, Laird says he’ll be spending more time campaigning in Monterey County.
Meanwhile, his Republican opponent, Del Rey Oaks Mayor Jack Barlich, says he doesn’t plan to do much—if any—campaigning, and hasn’t raised any money to date.
It looks like another landslide victory for Laird, but he says he’s working “as if I’m five points behind in the polls, two days out from the election.”
The Weekly sat down with Laird in his Santa Cruz district office on Aug. 30.
Monterey County Weekly: You just wrapped up your first session. What have you done for us?
Laird: I just landed 24 bills on the governor’s desk, which has to be, together with the 13 from last year, a record: 37 bills in a session for a first-term legislator. And there are many things that relate to the District.
I got a first-time home buyer program extended for Santa Cruz County. I worked hard to get the rural law enforcement money back in the budget, which we were successful with, and that will help both Santa Cruz and Monterey sheriff’s departments keep officers on the beats.
In the first round, the money for the state’s role in base closure was knocked out of the budget and, working together with two other members, we got money back in for that, because that’s very important for the Monterey Peninsula.
The governor really whacked higher education, and I was one of the group that drew the line in the sand and got money back in for CSUs, which really will help CSU-Monterey Bay.
They were going to, once again, end the money for toxic cleanup on former federal installations and so I had a bill that not only will continue that, but added money for any private reimbursements for cleanup to continue so that the Fort Ord cleanup won’t stop.
And then, there are many things that are statewide but have impacts locally. I had a three-bill package that was major on open space acquisition.
And then, the major achievement was the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. When I got up today, at nine in the morning, after we adjourned at four in the morning [on Aug. 28, ending the Legislative Session], I groggily went out and got the Sacramento Bee and there was the lead editorial congratulating me and [Assemblyman] Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) on doing that.
I could have jammed that bill through with only Democratic votes, having it be the bill that was perfect from my perspective, and from the beginning, I engaged Mr. Leslie, who is a very conservative Republican from the Sierras, and we came to a compromise. The bill passed out of the Assembly with 62 votes. And we think the Governor’s going to sign it.
That’s a legacy bill. The Sierra Nevada Conservancy will help the Sierras for generations to come.
And the other thing I did in the waning hours of the Legislature—that I haven’t announced yet—is that I’m working really hard with a bipartisan coalition on long-term community college funding. I got 75 signatures from legislators on a letter, asking the governor to address this issue next year. And I’m not done yet. I’m going to ask the other 45 if they want to join.
MCW: You’ve had a very successful freshman term. What can we expect from you in the next two years?
JL: I’m not ready to be quite specific yet, but I’m going to be moving up to a major leadership position.
MCW: Will you give me a hint?
JL: Let’s just say it will be in the fiscal arena. And so I know I’ll be able to move into the center of a number of issues in the Legislature. I feel like the two years was very good at building relationships with everyone else. I feel I’m really in a position to move it up another level in the next term. I want to address long-term community college funding, I want to address environmental protection programs which haven’t been funded, and I think we’re going to make a real run at increasing fees for environmental protection programs in the next budget.
And I’m very interested in water issues, not just on the Monterey Peninsula, but statewide. I’ve had a statewide committee. And I think I’m going to be wiling to take a hard look at the Delta, and flood plain management statewide, as well as what’s coming with climate change and water.
I did get a bill to the governor’s desk that sets up a stakeholders process statewide on water conservation measures. It brings everybody to the table. Whatever they can agree on, I’m willing to introduce as legislation to try to up the ante on water conservation statewide as the only common water source, regardless of where you are in the state.
MCW: Until the end of the legislative session, it seemed Democratic lawmakers were wary of defying this hugely popular Republican governor, but by the end of the session, at four in the morning on Saturday [Aug.28] the legislature rejected much of Schwarzenegger’s agenda, and he ends up with a package of largely populist bills on his desk. What changed?
JL: The budget changed a lot of things. It became clear that while he’s very popular and retains his popularity, the issues that drive the Democratic Party are very popular as well. We put a number of issues on his desk that are in the mainstream of California but not the mainstream of the Republican Party. And he’s going to have to choose. I don’t think that was our intent, but that was the net result.
MCW: Schwarzenegger will sign or veto about 1,000 bills in the next 30 day. What decisions do you foresee him making, and what will these say about him as governor?
JL: Well, he’s going to have some tough decisions on labor issues, and the minimum wage is on his desk, and he’s got a tough issue about outsourcing jobs. Of course he has the driver’s license bill. But he also has four major gay rights bills on his desk, and they did not get a single Republican vote in the Legislature, even in committees. He has a choice—because he represents himself as being pro-gay rights—of choosing between his public position and the Republicans in the Legislature.
MCW: Schwarzenegger does present himself as a moderate Republican, who supports gay rights. But then during the budget talks, he makes the girly-men comments. As an openly gay man in the Assembly, how did you react?
JL: I didn’t take it the same way other people took it. I thought it was demeaning to women, actually, more then gay men. But I was irritated by it because we were down to one serious issue in the budget, and about two hours around the table would have settled it, and instead he was out calling people names at strip malls around the state. It just didn’t make any sense. The people wanted a budget, and with a little effort in Sacramento, we could have gotten there. I was more irritated by what it said about just doing business.
MCW: And how he does business?
JL: Or how he wasn’t doing business in that case. And in the end, we all saw a poll last week that showed support for Democrats in the Legislature is nearing 50 percent—it’s up 25 percent from where it was before. While he is still much more popular, it just showed that people respected standing up for what you believe in, in a tough time.
MCW: Do you think those poll numbers were directly related to his comments, or the entire budget process?
JL: I think the entire budget process. I think also that we’ve been focusing on issues, and we stood up to him on the big casino in the Bay Area. There’s bunches of other issues where I think we’re just gaining respect for doing the right thing. Even though he has stratospheric popularity ratings, that’s not going to lead us to believe there should be 5,000 slot machines in a small urban neighborhood.
MCW: In some ways, he arrived in Sacramento with a very similar attitude to yours: He was very optimistic. He hit the ground running. He was popular with voters. They responded to his recall campaign and his promise to balance the budget on time. Of course that didn’t happen, and Democrats in the Legislature rejected much of his agenda. What does this say about the system, and how it works?
JL: It doesn’t say as much about the system as it says about how he followed through on what he said. I genuinely felt, if we had to have a Republican governor, I’m glad we had one who said he was willing to blow up the boxes, and reform the system and make tough choices. And on the budget, tough choices were not made. This was the year to use all his political capital in fixing the structural imbalance in the budget, and instead, it was the same smoke and mirrors that he criticized Gray Davis for. We still have a structural imbalance in the budget that’s anywhere from $5 billion to $8 billion dollars that we will have to take on next year.
If he was willing to stand up for one or two taxes, and the big cuts he proposed, and the debt refinancing that we supported him on, we would have a structurally balanced budget, and we could start with rebuilding the economy and moving on. Instead we’re going to be in the same budget situation next year.
And he really, I think, could have reformed school financing more; he could have reformed the tax process; he could have reformed the budget structurally. There are so many things he could have done as part of the reform project and they just don’t go as far as they should have.
MCW: What happened? Was Schwarzenegger, in the end, too beholden to Republican ideology and interests?
JL: I think it was more that the process wasn’t firmly directed and it was nibble around the edges and do things that have a more conservative agenda: If you just contract-out jobs, somehow things will get better. And there were things that were contradictory. In one place he said let’s do away with county boards of education and superintendents of schools, and in another place he recommended assigning more duties to them. It was all over the map.
When you have the good will he has, if you can focus on some fixed things that have meaningful, long-term reforms, you can get there. But there needs to be redistricting reform, and campaign finance reform, and term-limits reform, which I think would make for a more representative legislature. He didn’t go there in his reforms.
MCW: I want to move on to local issues, and one that you have a great deal of expertise in: desalination. What is your opinion about the three proposed projects? Do you favor one over the other two?
JL: I sat down with the leadership of each of the three agencies and got a briefing on their projects in the last two weeks—I went through each one in detail. I don’t have a preference at this point, because each one has major issues they still have to work through and I’m just committed to one of them being successful.
People forget this technology isn’t fully operational in California. The Marina Coast desal plant, which only produces 300 acre-feet a year, is right now the biggest public desalting plant on the California Coast, and we’re talking about desalting plants here that are anywhere from 8,400 to almost 20,000 acre-feet of water a year. And people are treating it as if it’s easy to do and it can just happen.
And so there are a lot of questions that have to be answered.
My desalting bill AB2918 has gone to the governor and it was amended so that the PUC needs to study the intersection of water and electricity policy. It’s a big issue, especially with how power rates have spiked in California in recent years.
MCW: Are you following the District 4 Supervisor’s race at all?
JL: I’m following it. I’ve already lent my name to Jane Parker events. There’s been all this talk about, “gee, we need to have a consensus for a General Plan,” but there will never be a consensus as long as the process rewards people for being outside the consensus. And I think it’s going to take leadership to just make a final decision, and pull the plug, and arrive at a General Plan. I think that’s very important because it’s a precursor to many of these other planning issues, whether it’s transportation, and what happened with TAMC [Transportation Agency for Monterey County] and their ballot measure, or whether it’s water, because people are trying to make transportation and water decisions without a clear roadmap to growth in the county.
If you have a clear roadmap to growth, then you have an understanding of what you need in water and transportation and affordable housing.
MCW: Back to your race, how much campaigning will you be doing?
JL: I’ll be knocking myself out, because despite the fact that it’s presumed that I have an easier race, I never take anything for granted.
MCW: Any parting thoughts?
JL: I’m very grateful to be given the opportunity to do this. I love going to work every day. And I am a workaholic and it is exciting to put it to such good use. I get compliments from almost all other legislators who hope that there’s something I could invite them to in the district. And I sometimes will go into the Capital on Monday and people will quietly say, “I was in your district this weekend.” It’s such a pleasure to represent one of the most beautiful places in the world.