Heidi Harmon sat at the kitchen table in her renovated San Luis Obispo home and talked about her decision to challenge incumbent Katcho Achadjian for his 35th Assembly District seat.
“When I noticed he was running unopposed, that planted a seed,” Harmon said during a recent interview. “I realized this was an opportunity for someone to get in the race to ensure the conversation would be a conversation and not just a monologue.”
For Harmon, a Democrat who seeks to educate the community on climate change through her work with the Sierra Club and other groups, the conversation — and the thrust of her first campaign for public office — is centered on environmental issues.
Meanwhile, Achadjian, a two-term Republican assemblyman and former San Luis Obispo County supervisor, said he’s running on his track record of bipartisanship, including efforts to fight against higher taxes, protect the rights of local governments and address California’s long-term water needs.
Achadjian said he’s spent the past few years building relationships, including reaching out to the governor and other legislators. “You have so much accomplished that you want to see through,” he said.
Harmon faces an uphill battle trying to unseat Achadjian, with name recognition and a reputation as a moderate who can work with legislators across the aisle. In 2012, Achadjian received 61 percent of the vote against Democrat Gerry Manata of Paso Robles; in 2010, he beat Santa Maria Democrat Hilda Zacarias with 57.8 percent of the vote.
In addition, Achadjian has amassed a sizeable chunk of campaign contributions, according to recent filings. He raised $50,400 from Jan. 1 through March 17, leaving him with $236,950 on hand from previous fundraising while in office. Harmon filed a campaign statement indicating she has raised or spent less than $1,000 to date, though she said she does plan to raise money to support her campaign.
The outcome of the race won’t be decided in the June 3 primary because the top two vote-getters automatically advance to the Nov. 4 general election regardless of party.
Offering an alternative
Harmon, 44, has lived in San Luis Obispo County for about 25 years. She attended Cuesta College before graduating from Cal Poly with a degree in liberal studies and a history minor.
She currently serves as chair of the Sierra Club Santa Lucia Chapter’s Climate Change Task Force; program director of the local chapter of 350.org, which aims to build a global climate movement; and outreach ambassador for the San Luis Obispo chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby.
A former preschool teacher, she holds a weekly music program at Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo. She’s also an artist whose home is filled with her own pieces as well as items she’s found at garage sales and thrift stores.
Harmon knows it might be easy to peg her as a one-issue candidate, but she argues that changes to the climate “will directly and indirectly affect all of the things we care about” including the economy.
Other top priorities include ensuring affordable healthcare, economic development and “finding realistic and inclusive solutions to California’s water crisis.”
In addition, she noted that women only comprise 27 percent of state legislators and said, “we need equal representation in government in addition to moving quickly toward parity with our male colleagues in terms of equal pay.”
She supports a revenue-neutral carbon tax that would place a fee on the amount of carbon dioxide in fossil fuels at the source of fuel: at the mine, well, or port of entry.
“We need to work toward reusable energy,” she said. “There’s nothing more radical than destroying all our natural resources for short-term economic gains.”
She noted that Achadjian — who owns three gas stations — received a 28 percent lifetime approval rating on the California League of Conservation Voters annual scorecard.
In response, Achadjian said he doesn’t pay attention to scorecards from special-interest groups.
He also has voted against the majority of Assembly Republicans to support several bills that he described as pro-environment (all became law): Senate Bill 4, which provides a framework for regulating fracking in California; Assembly Bill 8, which extended fees to fund clean-energy programs; and SB 2X, which requires utilities to get at least 33 percent of their energy resources from renewable resources by 2020.
Seeking a third term
Achadjian, 62, emigrated from Lebanon in the early 1970s and attended Cuesta College before graduating from Cal Poly with a degree in business administration. He became a U.S. citizen in 1982.
Achadjian said he limits the number of bills he introduces each year, believing there are too many laws already.
This year, at the request of San Luis Obispo County supervisors, Achadjian introduced a bill to help create a water management district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin, which is facing dramatic drops in groundwater levels. He’s currently waiting for an opinion from the state Office of Legislative Counsel on whether the proposal violates the state constitution.
Also this year, Achadjian introduced a bill that would require the state’s five mental hospitals, including Atascadero State Hospital, to remove aggressive patients from the general population and place them in an enhanced treatment unit. Achadjian said the bill would increase safety for both patients and staff by giving violent offenders concentrated, individualized treatment.
During his last term, Achadjian was the lone Republican assemblyman to vote for expanding state Medicaid (called MediCal in California) eligibility under the federal Affordable Care Act. Achadjian said at the time that he opposed the ACA, but now that it’s law, “I could not in good conscience stand by and allow the working poor in California to be denied access to this federally funded expansion of MediCal.”
In his first term in 2010, he signed a “no new tax” pledge and advocated cost-cutting, then was lambasted by Los Angeles conservative talk shows for talking to the governor about raising taxes to help bail the state out of a $20 billion-plus hole.
Achadjian said he actually was talking to the governor about where the budget could be cut. He said he served as vice-chair on the governor’s Reorganization Committee two years ago that merged several state agencies to reduce “government inefficiencies.”
Achadjian said he wouldn’t sign a no new tax pledge if asked to do so again today. He said he opposes new taxes but has supported the extension of existing fees such as those in AB 8.
When asked about Harmon’s campaign, Achadjian said he welcomes the opportunity for debate. “I ran unopposed (for supervisor) and it was the most boring election I went through,” he said. “We need to give people a choice.”