Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Dawn Ortiz-Legg’s position on Assembly Bill 1066, which requires overtime for agricultural workers. She opposes the legislation.
The candidates vying for the 35th District Assembly seat met in a classic matchup of Republican versus Democrat on Wednesday night, with hopefuls Jordan Cunningham and Dawn Ortiz-Legg debating issues like the wage gap, college affordability and, of course, taxation.
The candidates will face off in the Nov. 8 election to fill the seat being vacated by Republican Katcho Achadjian, who will be termed out this year. (Achadjian unsuccessfully ran for the 24th Congressional District earlier this year but was bumped out in the primaries by Salud Carbajal and Justin Fareed.)
The Atascadero chapter of the American Association of University Women hosted the forum at the Atascadero Library, starting with a question on how the candidates would ensure pay equity for all Californians, regardless of gender or race.
Ortiz-Legg, a Democrat and solar energy consultant, said she subscribes to the “help a woman, help the entire family” philosophy.
“The economic driving force of so much of our economy comes from the woman, the mother,” she said. “I think we are going to see movement within industries, movements that are happening as technology changes, as we continue to do new job creation and go through these changes that we are economically. But we have to stay on top of the workers who are across the street at the Carl’s Jr. — the ones who are trying to lift themselves up — and to make it so they can take care of their families.”
Ortiz-Legg said she supports Senate Bill 1063, which would amend the Equal Pay Act guaranteeing equal pay for similar work regardless of gender, to extend the same requirement regardless of race or ethnicity. She said she also supports AB 1676, which would make it illegal for employers to use a potential employee’s past salaries as the only justification for lower pay. Both SB 1063 and AB 1676 are awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.
The economic driving force of so much of our economy comes from the woman, the mother.
Cunningham, a Republican, said he thought the three bills would increase litigation in the state and be “a drain on the economy.”
Instead, he said he focuses more on providing aid to working mothers — such as making it easier and more affordable for them to take maternity leave, which he said would keep them on career paths and help eliminate the wage gap.
“Everyone here probably agrees that you want a society where everyone has an equal chance to succeed, is treated fairly on their individual merits and is not discriminated against because of something like sex, gender, race, what have you,” he said. “There is a problem to me, there is a fallacy in believing that you can centrally dictate by fiat from central government, what salaries are going to be across an entire industry or group for all businesses, because it is very complex.
“People have different experience levels. They have different levels of skill. They have different salaries at their last job. There’s a lot of different factors that go into it.”
The two candidates then quickly cycled through a range of topics, starting with climate change. Ortiz-Legg said she advocates for incentivizing more green technology and environmentally friendly businesses to set up in California. Cunningham said he would like to see more transition toward carbon-emission-free technologies, such as hybrid cars, and he lamented the planned closure of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in 2025.
They moved on to the death penalty, which Cunningham, an attorney and former prosecutor, said he supports as a way to encourage cost-saving plea bargains. Ortiz-Legg said she was opposed to the death penalty “as a spiritual person.”
Both also called for making higher education more accessible and affordable.
Everyone here probably agrees that you want a society where everyone has an equal chance to succeed, is treated fairly on their individual merits and is not discriminated against because of something like sex, gender, race, what have you.
Ortiz-Legg said she wanted to help increase the “affordability factor” of college by giving people more opportunities not to have to move away for college. She specifically noted Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria as an example of an affordable higher education experience.
“Preparing people for the 21st century in an affordable manner is going to be the biggest challenge we have,” she said, “and I think that some schools are beginning to do a really good job.”
Cunningham said he would support tuition freezes while the state and university administration explore ways to trim fat from public education spending.
“The growth of public education bureaucracy in higher education is astoundingly high, and we need to take a look at that,” he said. “I wouldn’t even rule out tuition freezes as being on the table, to let the waste in the system, until we squeeze that out a little bit and give families a break for a little while.”
Throughout the night, both candidates emphasized their stances on a perennial top voter issue: taxation.
Cunningham said the entire tax structure needs to be reviewed but that California needs to rely less on the top 1 percent of earners because they are a mobile population, while still protecting the middle class from higher taxes.
“One thing California does not need is any increased taxes on the middle class,” he said. “Any tax policy that we enact or any reform that we enact should absolutely protect people within that tax bracket. Because with cost of living factored in, it is harder and harder to be middle class in California. We all know that to be true.”
Ortiz-Legg said she was against additional taxes as a self-employed businesswoman.
“For me, taxation is really important in the sense that I don’t want any more taxes,” she said. “For me, the moniker of Democrat and tax is something that I want to make clear right here: I’m anti-tax. I cannot afford any more taxes, for me, for my family, for anything.”
The 35th District spans San Luis Obispo County and parts of Santa Barbara County.