Four candidates are vying for California’s 35th District Assembly seat, each hoping to bring a fresh voice to the seat being vacated by termed-out Republican Katcho Achadjian.
Mostly political newcomers, the candidates span the political parties and come from a range of backgrounds.
Republican Jordan Cunningham, 38, owns Cunningham Law Group and sits on the Templeton Unified School District Board of Trustees; Democrat Dawn Ortiz-Legg, 56, is a San Luis Obispo-based public affairs and construction liaison with First Solar and NRG Energy; Republican Steve LeBard, 65, owns LeBard’s Computer Center in Santa Maria; and Libertarian Dominic Rubini, 27, of Shandon is a self-described farmer and entrepreneur.
They will face off in the June 7 primary, and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will move on to the Nov. 8 general election.
In interviews and written statements with The Tribune, the candidates discussed what issues they think the district faces, from streamlining state spending to relicensing Diablo Canyon.
All four candidates agreed the state wasn’t doing enough to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars, though their ideas for where that money was being misspent varied wildly.
Cunningham said Californians pay some of the highest taxes in the country, something he opposes as president of the Central Coast Taxpayers Association. Cunningham pointed to the $60 billion high-speed rail project as a prime example of taxpayers’ dollars going to waste.
“Rather than waste money on a bullet train to nowhere, our state should be focusing on matters that have an actual impact on our future: our schools, our water shortage and the long term liabilities of our state budget,” he said.
Ortiz-Legg also felt the state had a history of taking on major projects that are later over budget and behind schedule. Beyond that, she would review various boards and commissions to determine if they are “even necessary in this modern era.”
LeBard pointed to health care benefits and pensions as one of the state’s largest expenditures, and said he would like to look into increasing automation in the industry to bring costs down. “The health of small business — the backbone of the economy — must be a priority,” he said. “Health care costs are killing small businesses.”
Rubini said salaries at state-funded universities, especially administrative pay, need to be cut, and prison costs, particularly for incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders, need to be re-examined.
Water is, of course, a sensitive topic among state legislators, as most of California enters its fifth year of drought. All four candidates said work needs to be done to help ensure more water resources in the future.
Cunningham said the state needs to properly administer resources from the $7.1 billion Proposition 1 water bond from 2014 to increase storage capacity, upgrade water infrastructure and invest in desalination to increase supply — especially at Diablo Canyon Power Plant — while still focusing on conservation.
LeBard also said the state should look into desalination, saying he believes the high costs associated with the process will decrease as new desalination technologies emerge.
Ortiz-Legg said she is hesitant to support just desalination because of its energy and infrastructure costs. Instead, she said the state could first do more toward encouraging conservation and investing in new technologies and aquifer replenishment projects.
“We have known for some time that water in locations such as ours is the new liquid gold, requiring management to ensure a safe and reliable water supply,” she said. “Water is similar to energy and requires long-term planning for the conservation, storage and delivery of the resource. This is infrastructure investment, and to date there has not been enough leadership to mandate and incentivize, as was done with reduction of carbon-intensive energy.”
Rubini said “free markets and people with foresight will drive solutions to droughts in California just as they did in Israel.”
Paso Groundwater Basin
After voters in the Paso Robles groundwater basin soundly rejected the formation of a water management district in March, the fate of the basin has largely been up in the air.
Sometime in the next year, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors will have to consider whether to manage the basin or cede the responsibility to the state, though supervisors have said they are in no rush to schedule a hearing on the topic.
All four candidates had concerns with the state taking control of the groundwater basin, though some saw it as inevitable.
“I think it’s unfortunate the vote went the way that it did because we have competing interests in this county regarding water, so it is going to be incredibly difficult to come to solutions locally,” Ortiz-Legg said. “I think that what’s going to happen is the state is going to come in, and whether there are lawsuits or not, there are going to be costs impacted and there is going to be control outside the area, and I think that is unfortunate.”
Cunningham said he strongly supported the county managing the basin through its flood control district.
“The state should not take over management of the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin,” he said. “If it does, I foresee gross mismanagement by the state, override of local control and a lot of litigation.”
LeBard also said he was hesitant about the state taking control of the basin.
“Although I’m not in favor of water well meters, you have to have some means of determining water usage to determine who’s going to pay for the supplemental water needed to protect the health of the basin,” he said. “This is one of those unfortunate situations where the community has not been able to manage the use of the resource and the government has to step in.”
Rubini also opposed the state managing the basin.
Relicensing Diablo Canyon
Three of the candidates said they support relicensing Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Cunningham and Ortiz-Legg also said they think the state should start preparing a plan for how to assist the community should PG&E not pursue a license extension for the two reactors to operate after 2024 and 2025.
“The state has benefited from folks on the Central Coast having that plant, and I think it would be perfectly appropriate — as far as exactly how I can’t tell you sitting here today — but I think it would be perfectly appropriate for whoever is representing us in Sacramento to be advocating for some mitigation,” Cunningham said. “I don’t know what form that would take. My preferred option would be we get one of these companies coming in to build a massive desalination plant on that site.”
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission would relicense the plant, but state agencies play a role in the plant’s future, too. The State Lands Commission will decide in the next year or so whether to renew agreements with PG&E to continue to operate ocean intake and outfall pipes so seawater can be used in the reactor cooling systems. And the state Water Resources Control Board will decide whether the plant must ultimately replace its water-cooling system because of damage to the marine habitat.
Ortiz-Legg added that she is focused on the State Lands Commission permit renewal at this time.
“Before we discuss relicensing, we have to get through the State Lands Commission permit, which expires six years before the plant permit,” she said. “This is truly the most important issue facing our district, because if the California State Lands Commission does not approve an extension on the permit to do once-through cooling, then we won’t have a housing crisis anymore. We will have plenty of empty houses in this district.”
LeBard said he had safety concerns with the plant, though he would support relicensing it if all of the safety and seismic concerns were addressed. Rubini said he was opposed to the nuclear plant because of safety concerns, but would reconsider his stance if PG&E switched to molten salt reactors.
Additional issues facing the district
For Cunningham, job growth and employment opportunities are critical issues for the district.
“There is no doubt that life has gotten tougher for small business in California,” he said. “We need to pare back overregulation from the state and protect Proposition 13, which gives our small businesses the crucial stability they need to plan and grow.”
Ortiz-Legg said her most pressing issue is “the inability to work together to find solutions.”
“This is becoming a crisis — we have failing infrastructure, lack of water storage, a lack of workforce and farmworker housing,” she said. “We have rising rates of crime and gang-related activity. Blaming the other or government in general does not help.”
LeBard said he is most concerned with illegal immigration.
“We are footing the bill for their health care, education, law enforcement, social and government services,” he said. “We must embrace the immigrants that want to become patriotic Americans and design a system that monitors the migrant labor force, keeping it safe and accountable. It is our duty to elevate immigrants to American standards, not lower ourselves to Third-World conditions.”
Rubini said his biggest concern is government regulation.
“We have some issues which need to be re-evaluated, such as militarized police, land use, water districts and an economy that has become far too dependent on state jobs. But if we can tackle larger issues like our consistent overregulation of everything, we could have an amazing economy here that could shine like no other place in California.”
Meet the candidates
Political party: Republican
Education: Bachelor of Arts in Physics from Point Loma Nazarene University; Doctor of Law from UC Berkeley School of Law
Family: Wife, Shauna Cunningham, and four children
Current occupation: Small business owner, Cunningham Law Group
Previous employment: SLO County District Attorney’s Office
Previous public offices: Trustee, Templeton Unified School District Board
Why he is running: “We need real leadership for the Central Coast. We need to put the taxpayer first, support small business and encourage job growth, make our schools excellent again, protect our communities and increase our water supply. While it’s impossible for one legislator to accomplish this alone, I want to be part of restoring California’s past greatness. We need leaders that will bring common sense to Sacramento and solve problems.”
Political party: Democrat
Education: Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Communication from Pepperdine University; Masters of International Public Policy from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
Family: Husband, Dan Blandford, three adult children and five grandchildren
Current occupation: Aurora Communication Strategies, public affairs and construction liaison to First Solar and NRG for their energy projects and facilities
Previous employment: Self-employed, under The Export Group, more than 25 years providing regulatory and sales support to various manufacturers and companies that export products
Previous public offices: None
Why she is running: “To provide a choice and to ask voters how they would like to be represented in Sacramento. My experience in energy, trade and technology, along with my ability to work down the aisle, can solve challenges we face. We must be financially prudent, however. Rather than delivering platitudes, I want to deliver real opportunities, brought forth from thoughtful policy and hard work.”
Political party: Republican
Education: Marine Corps; classes at Allan Hancock College and Cal Poly
Family: Wife, Debbie LeBard, three adult children and eight grandchildren
Current occupation: LeBard’s Computer Center
Previous employment: United State Marine Corps and IBM
Previous public offices: None
Why he is running: “I volunteered to go to Vietnam to fight for our country, and now I am volunteering to go to Sacramento to fight for our district — to make it a better place for everyone to live, work and play. I will bring fresh ideas and common sense with me. I am running a self-funded campaign, not beholden to anyone.”
Political party: Libertarian
Education: Bachelor of Science in Construction Management from Cal Poly
Current occupation: Farmer, entrepreneur
Previous employment: Construction Project Control
Previous public offices: None
Why he is running: “I am running because I believe in freedom and prosperity from it. Most people don’t even realize we are not free and can’t fathom the differences it would make. Even if I lose I can say that I tried.”