Four of the five candidates vying for Jim Beall’s seat in the 15th State Senate District squared off at San Jose’s Samsung campus Friday morning, offering up their thoughts on transportation, CEQA reform and housing.
Except for one newcomer—paratransit operator Tim Gildersleeve—the list of contenders in the crowded District 15 race reads as a “who’s who” of Silicon Valley politics. Former state Assemblywoman Nora Campos, Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, San Jose Councilman Johnny Khamis and Gildersleeve were all in attendance at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group-sponsored forum. The remaining contender, FEC Chair Ann Ravel, was unable to attend because of a prior travel commitment.
Since the forum was hosted by the Leadership Group, long a staunch advocate for regional tax and toll hikes to fund transportation upgrades, it kicked off by asking candidates whether they’d support a new iteration of Regional Measure 3, a nine-county initiative passed by voters in 2018 that upped bridge tolls to finance a traffic relief plan.
Campos and Gildersleeve both said they’d back such a measure.
“This really is the hub of the tech world,” Campos said. “We need to make sure we’re connecting everyone who’s getting to their jobs.”
Gildersleeve echoed her point. “I think we’ve become overdeveloped in this area, but because that’s where we’re at now that’s what we have to do,” he said. “We got to get people moving out of their cars.”
Cortese, who serves on both the Valley Transportation Authority and Metropolitan Transportation Commission boards, said he didn’t think “it’s a must” to keep approving these kinds of measures. But, he conceded, it is the most expedient means of generating more revenue for transit improvements.
“There’s just no other way to build the infrastructure in any reasonable time to keep up with job growth here in the Bay Area,” he said.
Khamis, a former Republican and the most conservative candidate in the race, has supported past taxes to fund transit improvements. In 2016, he backed Measure B a 30-year, half-cent sales tax that in large part would help bring BART to San Jose. But the train’s expansion to Diridon Station has been plagued by repeated setbacks, which has has made him question the wisdom of passing another tax hike in the near future.
“It doesn’t help when BART delays the opening to San Jose of the new rail stations,” Khamis said. “I’m not currently supportive of this tax.”
Leadership Group members also asked candidates if they’d support reforms to California’s Environmental Quality Act—widely known as CEQA. The half-century-old landmark law requires local governments to identify potential environmental impacts caused by developments and recommend ways to mitigate those harms. Some groups, however, have weaponized the legislation as a way to block new construction not for environmental reasons, but as leverage to demand concessions from builders or to block denser development in suburban communities.
All four candidates in attendance agreed that the law needs some type of reform.
“I would support reform if it would stop abuse, but not if it’s going to affect environmental standards,” Gildersleeve said.
Khamis said he’s seen CEQA invoked as a “tool of extortion.” Campos pointed out that the law has often been cited to prevent affordable housing from being constructed.
Cortese chimed in saying he thinks the conversation about CEQA reform has been undermined by a lack of trust on both sides of the debate. On the one hand, many critics of the law have a financial interest in weakening environmental protections. Yet so do defenders of the status quo—unions, NIMBYs and anyone looking to squeeze developers can gain enormous bargaining power by simply filing a CEQA challenge, which can add tens of millions of dollars to the cost of a project just in lost time.
Another much-talked-about policy in California’s state capital has been about the now-delayed-through-2020 SB 50, which proposes to override local zoning rules for housing developers along transit corridors and job centers.
State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has led the statewide charge to approve the bill, which would also, among other things, “upzone” land dedicated for single-family homes to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes instead. Leadership Group members inquired whether the candidates would support a revival of the bill in the year ahead.
“I’m on the record as supporting it with amendments to make sure that if we’re going to streamline, that those housing units go in transit-rich areas,” Cortese said.
Gildersleeve, who said he isn’t a fan of “box-type housing,” said he supports it—with one caveat. He wants to make sure that it also incentivizes housing for low-income earners, as well as elderly and disabled people.
Khamis noted that the “devil is always in the details with legislation.” The Almaden Valley councilman said he has been an advocate for developments that cut costs by adding density near public transit hubs. At last week’s San Jose City Council meeting, he authored an unsuccessful proposal to lessen fees for mid-rise developers along transit corridors that don’t currently allow for high-rise apartments.
Unlike the others, Campos said she supports SB 50 as it was written during the last legislative session. “We can take a lot of that language and move forward making sure we’re building in high speed rail areas and transit corridors,” she said.
Though Ravel was unable to make it for the forum, her campaign website addresses some of the issues raised at the Friday event.
Regarding CEQA, she said she supports the creation of a state agency to produce and oversee environmental impact reports. On transportation, she said she supports new investment in infrastructure upgrades as long as there is adequate oversight to make sure the money is spent wisely. And regarding housing, she said believes that the government should remove barriers for new construction—but that it should also build enough below-market-rate homes and protect tenants from unreasonable evictions and rent hikes.
Leading up to the Friday forum, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group also released the results of its candidate questionnaires for all local races, which you can review online here. Click here to read Ravel’s, here for Khamis’, here for Cortese’s, here for Campos’, and here for Gildersleeve’s.
The primary election takes place on March 3, 2020. For more information about this race, campaign fundraising, how to register to vote and more, visit the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters website at sccvote.org.