2 democratic candidates compete for Assembly seat in general election

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Though the two candidates at the forefront of the race for the state Assembly District 15 are Democrats, each carries distinct personal and professional experiences to distinguish themselves from his or her opponent.

The candidates — Elizabeth Echols and Tony Thurmond — are competing to succeed Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, whose district includes Berkeley, Richmond and parts of Oakland. Stepping down from a six-year term in the Assembly, Skinner will be termed out. She was first elected to the Assembly in 2008, and became the Assemblymember to represent District 15 in 2012. Her achievements include working on issues in higher education, environmental conservation and public safety.

Skinner’s involvement with the city and UC Berkeley go beyond just her time on the Assembly; she was both an undergraduate and graduate student at UC Berkeley. In 1984, during her graduate education, she became the first and only student to be elected to Berkeley City Council.

Both Echols and Thurmond have experience working with education and in nonprofits yet differ in approaches to solving certain issues such as how to increase funding for higher education. Thus far, the total expenditures made for Echols’ campaign from Jan. 1 to Oct. 18 equal about $580,000, while Thurmond’s total expenditures for the same period are at about $514,000.

Echols, a Berkeley native endorsed by Skinner, has never held public office but has had public sector experience having served under both President Barack Obama and the Clinton Administration. Tony Thurmond, a Richmond resident, has served on Richmond City Council and on the West Contra Costa County Unified School District School Board.

Echols, who grew up going to Berkeley public schools, said her dream is to have all students graduate from high school. She said she hopes to roll back college tuition fees and encourage the public to invest more in higher education so students at UC Berkeley and other higher education institutions — such as community colleges and state universities — can afford to attend them.

“I have a feel for UC Berkeley and how important and how critically important the institution is in terms of educating young adults for their futures,” Echols said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

Thurmond, who formerly worked as a resident director in housing at UC Berkeley, said the chance to go to college “made all the difference” in his life. He, along with Echols, also stressed the importance of higher education in his campaign and said the state needs to change its structural deficit and the way the budget stands. He said implementing a split-roll tax would be a way to create revenue to make sure California has enough money to properly fund education.

He also noted how a big difference between him and Echols is that he proposed the program Pay it Forward, which would potentially increase student access to community and public four-year colleges by allowing them to attend for free and repay the funds over 20 to 25 years at a lower cost than loans.

“California would be investing in California,” Thurmond said. “We would be investing in our students and make our state stronger.”
Both Echols and Thurmond cited former secretary of labor and UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich’s comment about the city of Berkeley having the highest income inequality in the nation.

In response, Echols said she would want to work on creating economic opportunity for low-income people and raising the minimum wage to make it a “living wage.” She also noted high housing costs in Berkeley and said a housing trust fund at the state level could provide money for affordable living.

“The Berkeley I grew up in was a very different place; it was much more diverse in terms of income, ethnicity, race,” Echols said.

Thurmond said he would like to launch a five-year plan to improve education, jobs and healthcare across the district. One of the issues he said he hopes to tackle in local school districts is chronic truancy, which he would address by introducing a piece of legislation to provide money that would allow school districts to hire outreach workers to help students get back in school.

Attention has been drawn to big money within the race, as both Echols and Thurmond have received large donations from independent organizations. Some of the organizations that have donated to Echols are the Professional Engineers in CA Government PAC and the California Dental Association PAC. Thurmond’s campaign has received donations from the Alliance for California’s Tomorrow, A California Business Coalition — which has money from oil and tobacco companies.

Thurmond affirmed that he was “completely surprised” by some of the expenditure committees supporting him, noting that tobacco and oil are interests he’s voted against. He said he also pledged to not take any tobacco money for the campaign.

Both candidates said they are against independent expenditures and special interest funding.

Polls open Tuesday.


Elizabeth Echols:

  • Roll back fees and reinvest in Higher Education
  • Employment – raise minimum wage
  • Environmental protection


Tony Thurmond:

  • Pay it Forward – Higher Education
  • Employment – entrepreneurship training programs
  • Environmental protection



Jean Lee covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @missjeanlee.