Five of the seven candidates running for state Senate in District 13 vied to win over Peninsula voters by showing their passion and knowledge on a range of environmental topics at a panel held on Jan. 15 at Menlo-Atherton High School.
Before an estimated crowd of 500 people, candidates answered a series of questions posed by the moderator, San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine. They touched on the overall climate crisis, as well as energy conservation, water quality and availability, waste management, and PG&E's future for providing energy in the state.
The candidates are competing for the District 13 state Senate seat, now occupied by Jerry Hill, who will be termed out this year. The district runs from South San Francisco to Sunnyvale and on the Coastside from Pacifica to the Ano Nuevo State Reserve. About 82% of residents in the district reside in San Mateo County.
Participating candidates were Democrat Sally Lieber, a former Mountain View councilwoman and state Assembly member; Democrat Shelly Masur, a Redwood City vice mayor, nonprofit executive and former school board member; Republican Alexander Glew, an engineer and Los Altos Design Review commissioner; Democrat Josh Becker of Menlo Park, a philanthropist and former venture capitalist and CEO; and Democrat Michael Brownrigg, a Burlingame City Council member and former diplomat.
Absent from the forum were Democrat Annie Oliva, who sent a message saying she could not be there due to a friend's death, and Libertarian John Webster.
Candidates were asked to give an opening statement about their position on environmental concerns, and then answered questions that came from some of the environmental nonprofits that organized the event — such as Citizens Climate Lobby, Acterra, Sustainable San Mateo County and 350 Silicon Valley — before providing closing statements. More than 20 additional environmental organizations supported the event.
"There's no more important issue than facing the climate challenge, and sadly, we've put so much carbon into the atmosphere," Pine said. "We're seeing the effects of that every day around the world, and the future could be much worse, depending on the types of policies we implement here in the state and around the world."
Lieber, who served in the Assembly from 2002 to 2008 and ran against Hill in 2012, said she wants the region to be a model for energy and natural resources conservation in the state.
Masur talked about being raised in Alaska with young parents, and how she learned from her grandparents, who grew up during the Depression, which helped her develop a conservation mindset. "It was about doing the things we could do individually to make a difference," she said, adding that she thinks systemic change is also needed. When she was a school board member, she supported the installation of solar panels at the school district she helped oversee, she said, and she supports Redwood City setting "reach codes" for stricter environmental requirements than the state mandates for new buildings.
Glew said he is a proponent of H.R. 763, a bipartisan climate proposal supported by the Citizens' Climate Lobby, which imposes a fee on fuel producers or importers, based on the carbon content of fuels that emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
"I will listen to anything that works," he said. Energy sources, he asserted, need to be more renewable and energy generation must produce fewer emissions.
Becker quoted a Native American proverb: "We don't inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children."
"And let's be honest, we're not being very good stewards right now," he added.
Becker noted that he started a clean energy investment fund and ran for state Senate in 2010 as a green energy entrepreneur. In addition, he announced an environmental policy platform the day before the forum, saying he would push to make state agencies carbon neutral by 2030; propose incentives to buy the cleanest electric vehicles and disincentives to buy the worst polluting vehicles; support bike lanes; protect community choice energy programs; support annual reporting of greenhouse gas emissions among cities of more than 75,000 people; and promote cleaner alternatives to freight transportation, which he said is the single largest contributor to diesel particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions in California.
"California is the fifth-largest economy in the world, so what we do matters here and also beyond our borders," he said.
Brownrigg said his environmental priorities would be to attain zero carbon electric energy, eliminate plastic going to landfill, provide 100% clean drinking water for everyone in California, invest $100 billion in Bay Area transit, and restore 150 billion gallons of water to aquifers by 2030, at the latest.
"Those aren't easy targets, but they're realistic with courage and conviction," Brownrigg said. He added that he's worked with the South Bay Waste Management Association, and based on the environmental priorities he's helped set there, "we could be one of the first net-zero-carbon garbage facilities in the state."
He talked about the work he's done on the Burlingame City Council to help a city that hadn't built new housing in decades develop plans to build a new neighborhood.
Sea level rise and what to do about environmental hazards — such as wildfires and the new challenge of power shutoffs imposed by PG&E — were also points of discussion.
On sea level rise, Lieber said planned retreat, or the managed relocation or abandonment of properties at risk of being harmed by erosion or sea level rise, should be considered. Brownrigg talked about how Burlingame's bayside businesses, which generate one-third of the city's revenue, would be impacted by 24 inches of water due to sea level rise, as well as the importance of communities lobbying together for infrastructure funds.
"We have to get ahead of this," he said.
When it comes to PG&E, none of the candidates is pleased with the way it's been run, but each has different ideas about how to address its future.
PG&E officials, Lieber said, have been "errant and moral-less in the way they've approached business."
Brownrigg said he favors making the investor-owned utility a public one. Masur was skeptical of the idea, since making it publicly owned would require the public to take on the debts and liabilities of the utility. But she talked about the need to upgrade the power grid.
Glew said he thinks PG&E should have competition and "go out of business in a miserable sort of way. ... That's how business works."
Becker said that local community choice nonprofits, like Peninsula Clean Energy or Silicon Valley Clean Energy, for instance, have served as examples of transparent and community-serving players in the utility field. He added that he supports microgrids and the state effort to analyze the details of the power shutoffs in 2019 and how the territory of future shutoffs might be narrowed.
On the topic of water and its preservation and safety, Lieber said she favors more water recycling and restricting intensive uses of water.
Becker said his priorities are to reduce lead levels in water where children are exposed, require water metering across the state and figure out how to reduce water use in the agricultural sector.
Brownrigg said he supports returning water to rivers and aquifers.
Glew said he favors dams for water storage and hydroelectric power, more efficient systems for watering crops, and separating systems to use potable water only where it's needed.
Masur talked about recycled water systems, which have been developed in Redwood City, and said she supports infrastructure and technology to use more recycled water.
The candidates also tackled questions about how to make environmental protection and energy conservation efforts more tenable for lower-income residents, as well as how to better include people of color in discussions about the climate.
Glew asserted that only 29% of U.S. residents think the threat of climate change is a problem, so engaging in public outreach to make that number larger is a priority. One cost-effective way to be more energy efficient and use less heat is to install triple-paned windows, he added.
Becker talked about his past efforts in workforce development to promote green jobs.
Masur discussed how racism has in some ways kept people out of the environmental movement, and spoke of the importance of promoting leaders of color and her plans to hire a diverse staff if elected.
Brownrigg talked about the yellow jacket movement in France, a grassroots pushback to gas taxes, and the importance of understanding the needs of middle- and low-income earners.
Candidates also responded to several quick-round, yes-no questions. Should the high-speed rail project move forward? That got a no from everyone except Masur, who gave it a "maybe."
And: Should nuclear energy be part of California's future energy mix?
That earned a yes from Glew, Becker and Brownrigg and a no from Lieber and Masur.
And finally, each candidate was asked to talk about what personal attributes they would bring to the job to be effective.
Becker spoke of his ability to bring people together to solve major public problems and accelerate ideas into initiatives.
Brownrigg talked about his skills and ethics as a diplomat as well as his track record in moving projects forward in Burlingame that had been mired in lawsuits.
Lieber discussed her experiences in the state Assembly, and how she found success by being helpful to other Assembly members and building goodwill as a collaborator.
Masur talked about her experience and knowledge in the areas of public health and education, and how she's worked to build diverse coalitions. Glew brought up his education and his ability to listen and solve problems without having an ax to grind.
• Blog: Local pols debate climate by Sherry Listgarten