Spotlight on the new District 28: Assembly candidates weigh in on housing, climate, education and fentanyl

Assembly District 28 candidates, from left: Liz Lawler, Gail Pellerin, Rob Rennie and Joe Thompson.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The candidates for the newly created State Assembly District 28, who spoke at a Lookout-moderated forum last week, elaborate on who they are, why they’re the right person for this position and the kind of focus they will put on key topics.

The eclectic mix of people vying for the new State Assembly District 28 seat matches the eclectic geography they hope to represent.

About 30% of the district lies on this side of the hill, including most of the city of Santa Cruz and the North Coast, Scotts Valley and the San Lorenzo Valley. Then there’s the vast rest: the wealthy Santa Clara suburbs of Los Gatos and Monte Sereno as well as San Jose’s Cambrian Park and the fast-growing Silicon Valley bedroom community of Morgan Hill.

With Mark Stone opting to bow out after two terms in what has been District 29, before redistricting threw the map into disarray last fall, representatives from both sides of the hill eagerly lined up to run for a new seat without the competition of an incumbent.

Gail Pellerin is the front-runner, a veteran with the deep political résumé and stash of big Democratic endorsements. She spent time working for Willie Brown in the California State Assembly for seven years and served as Santa Cruz County’s chief elections official for 27 years, elected four times as Santa Cruz County Clerk.

On the other hand, her fellow county competitor makes the case that a new generation’s energy and perspective is what this time demands. Joe Thompson is a 19-year-old UC Santa Cruz student and Starbucks union activist who handled himself impressively in a recent forum moderated by Lookout at Hotel Paradox.

The “over the hill” contenders are Rob Rennie, a retired engineer who has served on the Los Gatos City Council, and Liz Lawler, the race’s lone Republican, who has served on the Monte Sereno City Council.

Lookout wants voters to get a better sense for who the four candidates are and where they stand on key issues. So we sent them a slate of topics and questions. Here are their key responses, edited for clarity and brevity.

On why they’re the right person at the right time

Liz Lawler: I am the common-sense candidate that will bring much-needed balance, pragmatism and perspective to Sacramento. We have one-party rule in our state, and the lack of diverse opinions has led to poorly vetted policies — policies that have led to a rise in crime, increased homelessness, hampered housing production, wasteful spending and a lack of transparency. I am driven by the needs of our residents, not an agenda.

Joe Thompson: We live in a time of great change for our community, state, and world — necessary change. Just looking around, the people creating this change look like me, not my opponents. Young people, working-class people, people who haven’t spent decades in politics, people with my beliefs and values are leading the movements that we so desperately need.

Rob Rennie: I’ve served as a small-town mayor, city council member, regional transit, housing and climate change board member. I also spent 25 years as an engineer, tech innovator and climate activist. These experiences make me uniquely qualified to address the numerous challenges we face across the district.

Gail Pellerin: I can hit the ground running. I have been working with local women’s groups to encourage more women to run for office. There has never been a woman from Santa Cruz County elected to an office higher than countywide. And, currently, there are no women representing Santa Clara County at the state level. As we are confronting major threats to voting rights and reproductive rights, I am the right person for this moment.

On what they’ll do differently if elected

Lawler: I will prioritize the safety of law-abiding residents and victims over criminals. I will push for public school reform through school choice, so that every child has fair and equal access to a good education. I will seek tax relief for hardworking Californians who are being crushed by inflation and living expenses.

Thompson: I’ll continue Mark Stone’s admirable work to protect our local ecosystems. But I’d be wrong not to mention housing as the issue most deserving of our attention. Whether we agree or not on individual policies, I think we can agree that what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked. As an Assembly member, I’ll fight not only to build more housing, but for more state funding to be devoted to building deed-restricted affordable housing across the state. I’ll also fight to make sure we stop wasting resources criminalizing homelessness, and instead devote them to what we know works.

What you need to know about the measures facing Santa Cruz County voters on the June 7 ballot.

Rennie: Many of the most pressing issues we are facing require technical solutions and would benefit from technical input — I firmly believe that the value of engineers taking an active and vocal role in government and policymaking is immeasurable. It is in our nature to think logically and systematically without being distracted by the intricacies of politics. My priorities with focus on innovative solutions and commitment to positive results include: regional economic vibrancy; disaster preparedness and public safety; healthy and safe community.

Pellerin: I believe that democracy can thrive only if elected officials involve the community in solving the problems we face. California is currently experiencing three significant crises: climate change, housing, and mental health. I will be a fierce advocate for enacting critical climate change policies to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, electrify our transportation and buildings, develop renewable energy sources, protect our oceans, and address sea level rise. I will advocate for more affordable housing. We need to be open to many different strategies. The launch of the 988 emergency mental health number is one step toward addressing the mental health crisis. We need to improve access and affordability of mental health services for our children, ourselves and the unhoused.

Assembly District 28 candidates Gail Pellerin, Rob Rennie and Joe Thompson, with Liz Lawler behind moderator Jody K. Biehl.
Assembly District 28 candidates Gail Pellerin, Rob Rennie and Joe Thompson, with Liz Lawler behind Lookout moderator Jody K. Biehl.

On what they’ll do for CZU fire victims

Lawler: This is such an absolute tragedy. As an Assembly member, I will work to streamline regulations and eliminate barriers to help victims rebuild.

Thompson: I’ll fight to give them whatever they ask for. If your house burned down in a wildfire, you’ve gone through enough. Period. These people shouldn’t have to go through any more than they already have. It’s our state’s responsibility to provide wildfire victims with whatever they need, full stop.

Rennie: I will fight to provide sufficient funding to support our communities in their struggle to rebuild their lives. I will explore all options including reducing the red-tape stumbling blocks to make the process more efficient.

Pellerin: We need continued investments in effective fire education, prevention and suppression as well as support to communities in the aftermath of wildfires. I will work hard to ensure that the state agencies like Cal Fire and Cal OES are providing the county what it needs to be able to facilitate processes to get people rebuilding and back in their homes. I would look to other communities who have had more experience in interim and long-term recovery and learn from one another.

On how they would balance the diverse needs of this district

Lawler: I appreciate and value the uniqueness of each of our communities. I love everything our district has to offer — from the beaches, the mountains and our open spaces and our charming towns. Our district is truly a microcosm of California. I will dedicate myself to spending time in each of our communities, and being accessible to our residents to be the best representative I can be to all.

Thompson: It’s true that our district is made up of places that are very different in a lot of ways. But while these places are so different, their people are remarkably similar; we all want the same things. We want affordable housing, health care, a strong community where we support each other, clean air to breathe, healthy nature to enjoy, money left over to take a vacation. Luckily, the ways we achieve this for everyone are universal.

Rennie: We need to hold public hearings, keep the residents updated with current information on upcoming votes, and allow all to have a voice before any decision is made. Too often our citizens are not informed about decisions that impact their lives. I will work to implement measures that will ensure transparency and accountability and work with the local agencies to make sure that policies affecting individual communities will be made with the full cooperation of those involved.

Pellerin: I believe there are as many differences as similarities in our unique communities. The best way to serve a diverse public is to make sure you are accessible and responsive to their needs. I will have a district office in each county and hire staff that reflect the diversity of the district. It is also important to provide services in the various languages spoken by constituents in the district. I will make it a priority to travel about the district and participate in activities and events throughout the district.

On how they would attack the fentanyl crisis that is killing so many

Lawler: I would pursue a three-pronged approach to this tragic crisis. (1) Education: provide students and parents education on the dangers of fentanyl through widespread campaigns using county, city, law enforcement and local CBOs (community-based organizations) like SafeRx. This can be done in the classroom and using various media, including social media like TikTok. (2) Make communications between entities seamless to better track incidents and data in real time; and (3) like Parker’s Law in Mississippi, ensure dealers will be tried for manslaughter if a user dies or receives serious injuries after consuming fentanyl, a crime punishable with 20 years to life.

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Thompson: The simplest thing counties can do to address the epidemic of fentanyl-related deaths is something. For years our government, at all levels, has looked the other way as deaths pile up due to social stigmas left over from the failed war on drugs. When someone dies in a plane crash, we immediately mobilize to figure out what caused the incident, and what we can do to ensure that it never happens again. There is no good reason that deaths due to fentanyl or opiates shouldn’t be treated with the same care as deaths due to plane crashes. The state of California should ensure that financial resources are not a limiting factor as counties do exactly that.

Rennie: We need to prioritize four key areas — prevention, harm reduction, evidence-based treatment and recovery support — by maximizing health equity for underserved populations and by incorporating substance use disorder services into other types of health care and social services, and reducing stigma. Significant investment in education to raise public awareness is also an important tool of prevention.

Pellerin: We need to have a robust education program about fentanyl available in schools, for parents, and our community. We need to educate people about the potentially life-saving medication Narcan. We need to reduce the stigma around opioids and other addiction disorders and provide robust and effective treatment to those in need. Finally, we need to do a better job of tracking the data around fentanyl. I will work with each county to make sure they have what they need to address this crisis, and I will work with all levels of government to deal with this public safety emergency.

On their approach to generational inequity and climate change

Lawler: For generational inequity, I support boosting homeownership, as well as school choice. Education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty and school choice provides equitable access. For climate change, we must use every tool in our toolbox and that means clean, cheap, durable, safe nuclear power, at minimum as a transitional power until renewables are affordable and reliable.

Thompson: One huge cause of generational inequity is housing. Many people in my generation have parents who bought houses 30 years ago for 10% of what they’re worth now. Not only do they now have an asset worth millions of dollars, but they don’t have to give up 50, 60 or 70% of their income every month for rent. This has allowed previous generations to build wealth in a way simply not possible for mine. Climate change is so daunting as an issue in part because we can’t address it with only one policy. We need denser cities, better public transit and trains, less polluting agricultural practices, the list goes on.

Rennie: The good news is that low-carbon energy sources are more affordable than ever. Transitioning the energy sector to clean, renewable systems is often the same price — or cheaper — than sustaining the existing carbon-intensive systems, especially when we consider the damage they are doing to the planet. Preserving farmland can play an important role in flood control, fire hazard mitigation and groundwater discharge. We need a serious investment in education and also creation of opportunities for the underserved communities through affordable housing options, access to the quality health care, child care services. We need to improve transit options for all.

Pellerin: We need to provide more affordable housing with paths to home ownership. Our children and grandchildren often can’t afford to live in the community where they were raised, workers performing vital services are spending much of their paychecks on rent, and the dream of buying a home remains elusive for many. We need to lower greenhouse gas emissions through policies that further our renewable energy goals. California has led the other 49 states in setting and meeting these goals, but studies show we must do more. We must also secure strong coastal projections and be ready for the rising sea level by spending time and money adapting to the changes coming.


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