Race for Assembly seat draws public debate between candidates

Jessica Gleason/Staff

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About 200 students and community members gathered Tuesday at Berkeley City College’s auditorium for the Assembly District 15 debate between Democratic candidates Elizabeth Echols and Tony Thurmond.

The debate comes weeks before the Nov. 4 general election in which a new candidate will be chosen to succeed current Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who is stepping down after a six-year term due to term limits. The district covers the northern coastal area of the East Bay, including parts of Berkeley, Richmond and parts of Oakland.

Helen Hutchison, president of the California League of Women Voters, moderated the debate and asked candidates questions that had been submitted by audience members prior to the event. Each candidate was given a minute to respond to questions that covered topics such as the environment, education, employment and campaign finance.

Echols, a Berkeley native, has never held public office but served in both president Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama’s administrations. She worked as the Internet and e-commerce advisor to vice president Al Gore during Clinton’s administration and as regional administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration under Obama.

Thurmond, a Richmond resident, served on Richmond City Council and the West Contra Costa Unified School District School Board. He is currently working on a Lincoln Child Center project called CEO Youth, which works to reduce truancy and dropout rates among high school students.

At the debate, higher education was one of the main topics discussed, and both candidates stated that there needs to be more investment into colleges and universities.

“As the budget in the state continues to improve, we need to invest more money into higher education so that our students are not graduating with heavy debt which will then limit their job options,” Echols said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

Thurmond —  a former UC Berkeley resident director in housing — is introducing legislation called “Pay it Forward,” which increases students’ access to public community and four-year colleges by allowing them to attend for free and pay back the funds over a period of 20 to 25 years.

“The legislature needs to invest more money directly into higher education to offset the cost of tuition and living on campus,” Thurmond said.

Bill Walzer, a UC Berkeley alumnus, attended the event to learn more about the candidates and where they stand on particular issues including public finance.

“I, as a progressive Democrat, actually have to make a choice, whereas in the past it was always decided in the primary,” Walzer said, referring to the fact that both candidates are Democrats. “And now we have a real election, which is exciting.”

To tackle the issue of job creation, Echols suggested investing in infrastructure, environmentally friendly jobs and job training programs. On the other hand, Thurmond recommended implementing entrepreneurship training programs and increasing the number of jobs in coding, biotechnology, and life sciences.

Echols’ endorsers include Skinner, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and the California Democratic Party. Thurmond is endorsed by California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Kamala Harris, the California Federation of Teachers and others.


Contact Jean Lee at [email protected].