CVIndependent

Fri11152019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Doctors, real estate agents and hairdressers can keep their independent contractor status—but not truckers, commercial janitors, nail-salon workers, physical therapists and, significantly, gig economy workers, who will gain the rights and benefits of employees in California under sweeping workplace legislation passed this week.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has committed to signing the bill, which cleared the Assembly 56-15 in a challenge both to the longstanding trend toward outsourcing labor and to the business model of companies such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash, who have threatened a $90 million fight at the ballot box.

Once signed, AB 5 would upend longstanding employment practices that have seeped into the Democratic presidential debate about how workers should be treated, particularly in today’s gig economy.

“With one clear test across our state labor laws, we will raise the standards for millions of workers and ensure they gain access to critical rights and benefits,” said Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, who presented the bill in the Senate on Tuesday night. “We can make California the global leader in protections for gig workers, janitors, construction workers and so many working people who can’t even pay their rent.”

Lyft spokesman Adrian Durbin said lawmakers missed an opportunity to find a flexible solution for rideshare drivers, and Uber announced it was ready to pour millions more into the ballot fight. “We are fully prepared to take this issue to the voters of California to preserve the freedom and access drivers and riders want and need,” Durbin said.

From the beginning, the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a labor organizer and a Democrat from San Diego, made it clear her goal was to improve wages and workplace standards, and expand the right to collective bargaining at a time of growing income inequality.

She acknowledged more work remains but insisted the legislation is needed to establish a state standard after the California Supreme Court, in a landmark 2018 decision, created a strict test for certifying independent contractors, with the highest hurdle being that the work performed must be outside of the core of the company’s business. It’s commonly referred to as the Dynamex decision.

In advance of the vote, she shared a picture of a sentence plastered to the top of a wall in her office: “The Most Amount of Good for the Most Amount of People.”

California’s pushback against the gig economy intensifies pressure on Silicon Valley flagships such as Lyft and Uber, which were already trading below their IPO share prices amid investor concerns about the difficulty they’ve had turning a profit, despite many millions of users. Uber cut 400 people from its marketing team in July, reported a quarterly loss of $5.2 billion in August and sent layoff notices to another 400-plus workers this week.

On Wednesday, Uber chief legal officer Tony West said in a press call that the company plans to fight the tougher employment test once AB 5 takes effect next year. “We still may pass the test,” he said. “We believe we can pass the harder test.”

But concerns around basic worker protections also have become pressing in California, where one worker in three earns less than $15 an hour; also, the 18.2 percent poverty rate, when the cost of living is taken into account, is rivaled only by that of Washington, D.C. As lawmakers were debating AB 5, in fact, a commission on the future of work, appointed by Newsom, was convening not far away in Sacramento to address such issues as the proliferation of low-wage jobs, automation, artificial intelligence and the gig economy.

Aside from the philosophical questions around AB 5, the state estimates it loses about $7 billion a year in payroll taxes due to worker misclassification that could be supporting schools, roads and other public services. Supporters of the bill argue that by avoiding unemployment insurance taxes and workers’ compensation premiums, businesses shift the burden to the state—and its taxpayers—when workers get laid off, get sick or get injured on the job.

Opponents warned the bill will invite trial lawyers to file frivolous lawsuits against thousands of California businesses and called the bill a blatant power grab by big labor.

“This bill is the union caucus’ main event of the year,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Stone, who held up an exemption request form, obtained by CalMatters, that labor groups had been presenting to industry advocates seeking a carve-out.

Industries as varied as trucking and health care also pushed back, arguing that the legislation would rewrite the rules for independent workers whose status has worked for them for decades.

“AB 5 does not take into account the more than 70,000 California truckers who have built their business around the independent owner-operator model, invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their trucks and have made the decision to run their own businesses,” said Shawn Yadon, CEO of the California Trucking Association, before the bill passed.

Hospitals, too, are worried the bill will not only cause confusion, but may have the unintended consequence of delaying patient services. Gail Blanchard-Saiger, vice president of labor and employment at the California Hospital Association, said although doctors, psychologists and podiatrists are exempt from AB 5, and hospitals employ more than 90 percent of their workforce, many medical professionals such as physical therapists and certified registered nurse anesthetists are contracted at small and rural hospitals where volume is low.

“The impact on the hospital for these health professionals is probably a delay in services, and in particular rural communities, maybe a reduction in services,” said Blanchard-Saiger.

Among the other health professionals not exempt under AB 5: occupational therapist, speech therapist, optometrist, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, radiation therapist, licensed professional clinical counselor, marriage and family therapist, licensed clinical social workers, respiratory therapists and audiology.

In the final weeks of the legislative session, gig companies unsuccessfully campaigned heavily for a new, first-in-the-nation framework that would allow their workers to remain independent while offering a wage floor and some kind of bargaining tool. And on Tuesday, Newsom told The Wall Street Journal that he is still talking to Lyft and Uber, “and regardless of what happens with AB 5, I am committed, at least, to continuing those negotiations.”

The San Francisco Chronicle reported potential legislation calling for a new category of workers—to be known as “network drivers”—to cover rideshare and delivery service drivers, guaranteeing at least 1.27 times minimum wage, reimbursement of 30 cents a mile and contributing 4 percent to a Drivers Benefits Fund to purchase workers compensation insurance and other benefits.

Uber and Lyft say the codification of the Dynamex decision—that established a three-part test for certifying contractors—will force them to fundamentally change their hiring practices. It likely means the rideshare industry will take on fewer drivers and assign shifts, giving drivers less flexibility.

Labor representatives called it a scare tactic and said nothing prevents companies from maintaining flexibility for workers.

In shifting to employee status, companies would have to offer basic worker protections such as guaranteed minimum wage, overtime pay, contributions to Social Security and Medicare, unemployment insurance and disability insurance, as well as workers’ compensation, sick leave and family leave. Workers could also get reimbursed for mileage and maintenance of their vehicles, which doesn’t happen now.

The bill triggered several rounds of protest at the Capitol with Uber and Lyft drivers circling downtown Sacramento one day, followed by truckers honking their heavy-duty trucks the next day.

Under the final version of the bill, doctors, dentists, lawyers, architects, engineers, accountants, insurance agents, real estate agents, hair stylists and barbers received exemptions. Travel agents, graphics designers and grant writers will continue to offer their professional services without disruption. Licensed cosmetologists and barbers that set their own rates and schedules won’t change. Commercial fisherman are exempt until 2023. Tow-truck drivers affiliated with the American Automobile Association got a carveout. And freelance writers and photographers can continue, provided they don’t submit more than 35 submissions to an outlet a year.

On the other end, AB 5 captured the industries targeted by labor: gig workers; big-rig, Amazon and other truck drivers; and low-wage services ranging from janitors to home health aides. Unlicensed nail technicians, language interpreters, musicians, strippers and even rabbis could be impacted.

If approved, the bill will take effect in January and gives the state attorney general and large cities the right to sue companies that don’t comply. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer both say they would ensure workers are treated fairly.

“The city attorney welcomes the new authority, and if enforcement action is needed under the new law, he will exercise it,” said Feuer’s spokesman, Rob Wilcox.

During debate before the Senate vote, Republicans sought to include hostile amendments aimed at expanding exemptions for newspapers, physical therapists, the timber industry and more. Each was tabled by Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature.

Gonzalez, however, did agree to exempt the newspaper industry from converting carriers for one year.

“While I personally disagree with this delay, I’m willing to allow the newspaper industry the additional year to comply if it means those delivery drivers and nearly a million other misclassified workers are provided the minimum wage, benefits and workplace rights of Assembly Bill 5,” she said.

A few industries did get the exemption they sought, such as builders and contractors. Peter Tateishi, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of California, said his organization ended up backing the bill after being allowed to contract with other contractors under a business-to-business carve-out.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Antisemitism and other forms of racial hatred are on the rise—and Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs is taking a stand with the Interfaith Service to Stop Hate, taking place at 6:30 p.m., Friday, March 29.

During a recent phone interview, organizer Bob Weinstein explained the goal of the service.

“There’s been a tremendous spike in the hate of minorities, with Jews being shot dead in their houses of worship, and African Americans being persecuted in the streets,” Weinstein said. “Even in Palm Springs, we had an incident with the Black History Parade … where someone from the parade was attacked by a racist.

“The LGBT community is systematically being attacked. We have a very polarizing situation today where minorities are being viciously persecuted across the country and around the world. A Jewish person can’t walk down the streets of Paris without being attacked. What I wanted to do to combat this hate before it gets worse is partner up with local churches once a month … and have more of a brotherly service and try to get the pastors, temples and Baptist churches across the country to (tell) their congregations that hate and bigotry are not acceptable. We’d like to start this trend across the country.”

Weinstein said religious congregations are in a position to speak out against racial hatred.

“The base of the community is the community that goes to church or goes to a mosque,” he said. “Unless the leaders of these communities talk and teach their congregants that hate is not acceptable in our society, things could get worse. During the Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe during World War II, most of the churches remained silent, even though the church leaders were aware that Jews were being persecuted and murdered. You can’t have that today. You need to have the leaders of the community talk to their congregants and tell them, ‘This has to stop, and it’s not acceptable.’ We have to make a change for the better, and we have a capacity to do better.”

In 2018, the FBI reported that there were 7,175 hate crimes in the United States in 2017—1,054 more than the previous year, or a 17 percent increase.

“The problem is it’s becoming more acceptable,” Weinstein said. “Antisemitism is out in the open. Attacking African Americans in the street has become more acceptable. These things cannot be acceptable in our society; otherwise, we’re going to end up in a civil war. That’s the bottom line. We have to stop it, and we have to deescalate the situation before it gets worse.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are at least 30 hate groups in Southern California.

“There have been a number of Nazi organizations and hate groups living in the Coachella Valley, and in the surrounding areas as well,” Weinstein said. “It’s always been a very conservative jurisdiction. Small pockets like Palm Springs are subject to periodic attacks like we had with George Zander a few years ago. We have to be on guard, and we have to fight back.”

The service at Temple Isaiah will include speakers including Congressman Raul Ruiz, Mayor Robert Moon, Palm Springs Councilmember Lisa Middleton, Palm Springs Councilmember Geoff Kors, and State Senator Jeff Stone.

“We’ll have speakers before the service from 6:30 to 7:30, and then at 7:30, we’ll have the service where our congregation will join the Baptist congregation in Palm Springs, Ajalon Baptist Church, an African American congregation, and their choir will join our cantor onstage, singing and praying together. We’ll be praying for peace and to stop the hate.”

Weinstein said Temple Isaiah has an important role to play in fighting for social justice in the Coachella Valley.

“Temple Isaiah has always been at the forefront of trying to seek justice not only for the Jewish community, but for minorities in general,” he said. “Many years ago, we had interfaith services with the African-American community and other communities throughout the Coachella Valley. We’re always trying to reach out. I think that not only should we reach out in this instance; we should try to set a trend for the rest of the country.”

The Interfaith Service to Stop Hate will take place at 6:30 p.m., Friday, March 29, at Temple Isaiah, 332 W. Alejo Road, in Palm Springs. Admission is free. For more information, call 760-325-2281, or visit www.templeisaiahps.com.

Published in Local Issues

Before responsible Riverside County voters go to the polls on Nov. 6, not only will they need to determine which candidates are the most qualified; they’ll need to examine candidates’ statements and positions to determine what is based on fact—and what is not.

This brings us to the race for California’s 28th Senate District—which includes the entire Coachella Valley—where incumbent Republican State Sen. Jeff Stone is running for a second term against Democratic challenger Joy Silver.

Silver is an underdog in the race. In the June primary election, Stone received 56 percent of the vote, compared to 34.7 percent for Silver—a margin of more than 34,000 votes. (A third candidate, Anna Nevenic, a Democrat, received 9.3 percent.)

We asked each candidate why he or she thought constituents should vote for them.

“Probably because I have a proven track record of being an elected official,” said Stone during a recent phone interview. “I’m completing my 26th year (of holding elected office). You never really forget who your boss is, and that’s your constituents, so you have to make sure that you’re always doing things in their best interests.

“Whether I was on the city council (of Temecula), or the board of supervisors (of Riverside County) or now in the California state government, whenever I meet with a governing body, I always feel like I’ve got my constituents sitting on my shoulder, and I ask myself, ‘Is this something they would like or not like?’ Certainly, coming to the state Senate has been a much more challenging experience, because you have a third dimension, which is not one that we had at a local level too much, and that’s partisanship. The partisanship is something you can cut with a knife.”

Silver is a small-business owner who built a successful career as a health clinic executive, senior housing developer and business consultant.

“I think it’s important for people to know that I’m not a career politician,” Silver said. “I’m an outsider who will bring real change to Sacramento, and that will include standing up to those policies coming out of Washington when they hurt all Californians. I want to bring my experience to work on our local priorities, and to fight for the values of our Riverside County constituents … all of us.”

The Independent asked what their priorities would be if elected to the four-year term.

“I carry some very basic fundamentals with me in being an elected official,” Stone said. “One is that government has limited responsibilities, mostly ensuring that our citizens are safe and healthy; and for those who don’t have financial resources, we need to make sure that we help them, especially those who want to help themselves.

“We’ve seen public safety deteriorate with all these terrible initiatives like Prop 47 (which reduced penalties for some crimes, passed in 2014), Prop 57 (passed in 2016, it incentivizes prison inmates to take responsibility for their own rehabilitation, among other things) and AB 109 (passed in 2011 in response to a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce California prison populations, it transferred certain nonviolent offenders from the state prison system to county-level supervision). These public-safety experiments have come at the cost of a lot of lives and the demise of many businesses.”

Statistics, however, don’t support Stone’s claims. A June 21 report from the Public Policy Institute of California indicates that property-crime rates have decreased slightly since 2011, when the first of these laws was enacted. While violent-crime rates have increased slightly in that time frame, they are still about 50 percent less than year 2000 levels.

Silver said her priorities would include job creation, universal healthcare for all California residents, developing a clean energy economy, career/vocational training, the expansion of affordable housing, and advocacy for immigrant communities.

We asked if universal health care was a realistic goal.

“I do think it is an achievable goal, and with my expertise in the provision of healthcare services, I think I can help move that concept into a place (where) it can work,” she said. “We do have a large economy. Certainly, there are smaller economies in the world that are providing health care for their people, and I think that with the right plan, we can make it happen here for Californians.”

The ever-increasing cost of many prescription drugs is another concern she hopes to address.

“I feel that there needs to be a particular focus on the ability to do group purchases,” Silver said. “Certainly, I’m not the first one to come up with that. When I did work in the health-care business, and we did provide service to a mostly Medicaid patient population, the key there was for independent ambulatory surgical centers to participate in group purchases of items, and that helped us turn around and provide needed goods to the population that we were serving. I think that would be one of the ways to contain costs in a larger venue like our state.”

Stone—who ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Dr. Raul Ruiz in 2016—said the business climate is a top concern.

“I’ve been an active opponent to taxation since I started my political endeavors in 1992, and I’ve never voted for a tax,” Stone said. “We need to do a better job of keeping jobs in California. We’re seeing a flight of the middle class out of the state. We see the price of homes out of the reach of middle-class Californians. Look at the flight out of San Francisco—the liberal experiment that goes on (there) where you have ‘shooting galleries,’ which are places to shoot heroin. And you see the homeless population exponentially increasing there with people bagging feces on the street, and hypodermic needles all over the place. … Even the property values here in Sacramento have been climbing like crazy. Why? Because the people in the Bay Area are trying to escape all this horrific policy that has reduced the quality of life of the people living in those areas.”

The Independent asked both candidates what solutions they would propose to combat the proliferation of wildfires in our state.

“We have to take into consideration that the dryness is part of that issue,” Silver said. “I know that in Idyllwild, they’ve had a plan, and because that plan was in place with various stop-gap measures and ways to coordinate with local fire departments at different points in time, they were able to contain the smaller fires that were initiated by embers. I think that Northern California (communities) could benefit from a plan such as the one in Idyllwild, because they knew how to control and contain. Aside from that, we’re going to have to look at climate and environmental issues to see how we can bring down the heat factor. We have to look at how we can work with a clean-energy economy to do that.”

Stone pointed out that he’s on a committee of lawmakers looking into the spate of fires.

“This has been the worst fire season that we’ve had, and it’s attributable, in some sense, to climate change, but it’s also due to our radical environmental policies that don’t allow us to go in and thin forests and get rid of the 129 million dead or dying trees in the state of California, all in the name of ‘environmental stewardship,’” he said.

The estimate on the dead-tree population came from the U.S. Forest Service in December 2017.

“But at the same time as environmentalists have prohibited us from going in to clear brush and trees, look at how many acres now have been completely erased from California’s landscape,” Stone continued. “How many endangered species and animals have perished in all of these fires that maybe we could have prevented? Certainly we couldn’t have prevented those involving arson, which includes two (recent) fires in my district, the Cranston Fire and the Holy Fire. But in other areas of the state, we could have prevented some of these fires potentially, or at least (lessened) the magnitude of the fires had we cleared the brush.”

The facts don’t necessarily support Stone’s position—particularly his placement of blame on environmentalists for the fires. According to an article from Aug. 7 in The Sacramento Bee, “As of 2015, through the national forests, national parks, Bureau of Land Management, and others, the federal government manages more than 40 percent of California’s total (forest) acreage. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, by comparison, manages a little more than 30 percent. The Trump administration’s own budget request for the current fiscal year and the coming one proposed slashing tens of millions of dollars from the Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service budgets dedicated to the kind of tree clearing and other forest management work experts say is needed.”

Published in Politics

Rep. Raul Ruiz upset Mary Bono Mack four years ago to become the California District 36 congressman.

This year, state Sen. Jeff Stone hopes to pull off an upset of his own.

The Democratic Party has high hopes this year. Party leaders think it’s possible to retain the presidency, regain control of the Senate, and increase the number of Democrats in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.

Given this electoral outlook, incumbent Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz is in what seems like a fairly favorable position. He garnered 58.5 percent of June’s primary vote and had raised close to $2.5 million through June.

District 36 is a former Republican stronghold that includes all of the Coachella Valley, yet Ruiz’s challenger, State Sen. Jeff Stone, attracted only 31.6 percent of primary voters in June. (Another Republican received 9.9 percent of the vote.) He had raised only about a tenth of Ruiz’s haul through June—around $250,000.

What a difference four years makes.

Stone is measured when asked about his chances for an upset this year. “I’m not presumptuous to tell you that I will be elected—but I hope to be elected,” he said during a recent interview with the Independent.

When asked about the major differences between him and Ruiz, Stone mentioned last year’s nuclear deal with Iran. “It’s my belief that the (Iran nuclear) deal, that Congressman Ruiz supported, has aided and abetted a rogue country like Iran, the largest sponsor of terrorism on the globe, to continue their sponsorship of terrorism. But more importantly, it allows them a pathway to get to a nuclear bomb.”

Of course, Ruiz views his vote differently. “I voted for the Iran nuclear agreement,” he told the Independent, “because its purpose is for Iran to never, ever, ever—not now, not in 10, not in 15, not in 20, not in 50 years, not ever, ever—get a nuclear bomb. And already, we are seeing results.”

Stone also takes issue with the way that he said Ruiz arrived at his stance on the controversial deal.

“I was in the room (in Washington, D.C.) with members of the Coachella Valley contingent when Raul Ruiz made it very clear that he was not going to support any deal with Iran that allowed them to continue with their nuclear program. He flip-flopped for reasons I’ll never understand,” Stone said. “(Ruiz) said in a subsequent Desert Sun editorial that (paraphrasing), ‘It is with great humility that I am supporting this deal with Iran.’ Well, that humility could translate into future generations of Americans being the beneficiaries of a nuclear bomb on our soil.”

Ruiz said keeping his constituents safe is a major priority.

“We’ve got to keep the pressure on (Iran),” Ruiz said. “We will continue to conduct aggressive inspections which will give us intelligence that gives us the upper hand, now and in the future, to always maintain strict vigilance and ensure that they never get a nuclear bomb.”

Each candidate shared their views on other issues of concern. Ruiz mentioned the economy.

“We have to make sure that life is more affordable,” Ruiz said. “A lot of the American people and a lot of my constituents are struggling, working hard and still finding it hard to make ends meet. We need to make sure we expand the middle class by empowering our consumers and giving them a raise in the minimum wage.

“Locally, I’ve worked very closely and aggressively in promoting and helping our small businesses. I’ve successfully brought the first and only Small Business Administration office in the entire Inland Empire right here to the Coachella Valley so that our businesses have the tools, the equipment, the information and the capital they need to expand and create more jobs.”

Stone sees border security as a major challenge.

“I believe we need to secure our border—and I’m not for doing it the way that Donald Trump has been stereotyped,” Stone said. “We need to secure our borders in the name of national security. I am so worried that we are going to have a person from the Mideast who is going to transport radioactive material that is smuggled into Mexico and then smuggled into the United States and used as a dirty bomb.

“In addition, the scourge of narcotics that is claiming the lives of so many youngsters in our country … all of it is coming from Mexico because of our porous borders,” Stone said. “I’m not an advocate of building a big wall. I believe that with technology and allowing our Border Patrol agents to do their jobs, we can accomplish these tasks.”

Ruiz weighed in on the topic as well.

“I’ve got to make sure that we secure America and that we keep my constituents safe,” he said. “We need to make sure that our military and law enforcement have the tools that they need. That’s why I have voted repeatedly and consistently to give them those tools.”

Ruiz touted his achievements in supporting U.S. veterans.

“I’m very proud that we started the first-ever Veterans University that brought in over 500 veterans, their family members and community members who care about veterans in order to give them the tools necessary to improve their access to the benefits that they’ve earned,” Ruiz explained. “We help them navigate the health-care system so that they can get the mental-health services they need to prevent suicides and reduce the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder. In terms of legislation, last cycle, one of my bills … made it into the CHOICE Act that became law.

“Locally, I’ve been working hard to expand the VA Palm Desert clinic to bring in more mental-health specialists. We just successfully brought in a mobile veterans’ center that will be making stops in Hemet, Palm Springs and Indio. But you know, I miss seeing patients in the emergency room, so I’m doctoring by seeing my constituents on the case work when they come into my office. We’ve been very successful in bringing in over $2 million in benefits owed to our veterans and cutting through the red tape to make sure they get the health care that they need, when they need it.”

Stone shared his thoughts on how to improve veterans’ services.

“To me, it’s very tragic when you have 22 veterans (nationwide) who are committing suicide every single day,” Stone said. “Now I appreciate that he (Ruiz) has got this van that’s going to provide for some mobile services. … I commend him. But my plan is completely different. It will allow people not to wait for a van in a district as large as our 36th Congressional District. If I am elected, one of my first bills is going to be to completely privatize the VA—to sell off the Veterans Administration hospitals to private-sector hospitals and to enroll every veteran into the Medicare program or a Medicare-like program that allows them the freedom of choice to get the physician they want and go to the hospital that they choose. This will eliminate the backlog of people who are falling prey to a monstrous bureaucracy within the Veterans Administration.”

We asked the candidates about the failure of Congress to approve any funding thus far to combat the increasing presence of the Zika virus.

“I think that it’s an example of the partisan gridlock that puts partisanship against the best interests of the citizens of the United States of America,” Stone said. “I strongly support funding for the development of a vaccine quickly, because we’re seeing the horrific birth defects caused as a result of the virus. I think that something needs to be done in the next 30 days. They need to sit down like adults and come up with the appropriate funding, and let’s get that Zika vaccine out there before we see an epidemic of the Zika virus … infecting a lot of pregnant women who will have severely disabled children on their hands.”

Ruiz said he’s also concerned about the virus and its possible effects on families.

“I’m concerned not only about potential stressful and emotional experiences tied to giving birth to infants with microcephaly, because that means they’ll have to cope with the burdens and emotional stress of caring for a developmentally challenged loved one for the rest of their lives, but also about the struggle with a $10 million or more financial burden for the lifetime of that loved one,” he said. “That is why I’m advocating for the full funding that the scientists and public-health experts and health-care providers have said they need.

“I am thoroughly disappointed that the House Republicans introduced a bill that only had a third of the funding necessary. Still, there are things that I can do locally. I’m holding town halls, and educating my constituents through social media and PSAs so that they know how to keep themselves safe from the Zika virus. I’ve visited the Coachella Valley (Mosquito and Vector Control District) and discussed ways that we can collaborate so that they have the resources and information that they need to move forward. I’ll encourage (Speaker Paul Ryan) not to play politics and put riders into a bill. … There is no ‘wait and see’ here, because once a child has microcephaly, they will always have microcephaly in their lifetime.”

Stone said he supports a bipartisan approach to tackling problems.

“You know, it shouldn’t depend on whether you have a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ after your name. If you come up with a good solution to a problem, it should be embraced in the best interests of the state of California, or if you go to Congress, in the best interest of the 339 million people living in this country,” he said. “It shouldn’t be based on just partisanship. Those are areas that I think the public is frustrated with, and I think that’s why you’re seeing the popularity of Donald Trump. I think that’s why you saw the popularity of Bernie Sanders, because people are tired of politically correct speech and people just toeing party lines and not getting things done. This is going to be a very unique election.”

Ruiz expressed optimism about his chances in November.

“I’m very excited for the opportunity to represent my constituents in my home area for another two years,” he said.

Rep. Raul Ruiz and state Sen. Jeff Stone will take part in a debate at 6 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 16. The debate will air live on News Channel 3 and CBS Local 2, and will be streamed live at KESQ.com and Desertsun.com.

Published in Politics

On June 7, Coachella Valley voters will go to the polls to cast their votes in the California primary—and the Republican Party is going all-out to reclaim the 36th Congressional District seat, currently held by Dr. Raul Ruiz, a Democrat.

So far, two Republicans have declared their intentions to take on Ruiz (who did not return repeated requests for comment for this story).

“When I entered the field, there was no Republican who had thrown their hat into this race and stayed in the race,” novice candidate Dwight Kealy told Independent. “We’re looking at a district where a strong Republican should have a good showing. Historically, it’s been a Republican district.”

That historical advantage was altered dramatically in 2012, when Ruiz, then a novice candidate himself, upset heavily favored Republican incumbent Mary Bono Mack in a tight race. In 2014, Ruiz won re-election, handily beating Brian Nestande.

“Right now, there’s a pretty likable Democrat in office, quite frankly,” Kealy admitted. “He’s from the district, and he obviously appeals to the Latino vote as well.

“(The Republicans) needed someone with a good story, so I was encouraged to explore this opportunity. I talked to a bunch of people throughout the district and introduced myself, and they were excited about it. I talked to the state leadership and at the national level to the Republican Party. They all seemed really excited.”

But not long after Kealy had committed, 24-year political veteran Jeff Stone, currently serving in the state Senate, made public his intention to challenge Dr. Ruiz as well. (Shortly after this story was published, Kealy announced he was dropping out of the race.)

“When the paperwork becomes available, we’ll expeditiously acquire the general-nomination papers and get them filled out,” Stone said. “We’ll get 40 registered voters in the district to sign those, which should not require much of an effort, and we’ll get them filed, and we will be officially in the race.”

Stone said he has been working hard to gather endorsements and raise funds for his likely battle against Ruiz, who already has $1.5 million in the bank for his campaign.

Is Stone concerned how voters will react to his decision to run for national office less than halfway into his four-year term as a state senator?

“I have to balance my responsibilities as a state senator, which are going to come first,” he said. “I’ll use what spare time I have to get into the district and talk to constituents—and, of course, you’ve got to be able to raise money to get your message out. So we have roughly 10 fundraisers that are planned between now and June at various areas of the district, in the state of California, and some that will actually be outside of California.”

Stone said his decision to jump into the congressional race resulted from a string of unexpected occurrences, beginning last March, when he made a trip to Washington, D.C.

“I went there to hear Benjamin Netanyahu and to show that there were a number of us in the country who did not believe the Iran deal was a good deal,” said Stone, “and also to lobby members of Congress to not support that deal the president was proposing with Iran. I walked the halls of Congress and met with our state delegation, including Dr. Raul Ruiz. While we were sitting with Dr. Ruiz, he made it very clear he was going to stand with Israel. I walked away from that meeting, just as many people did, thinking he was not going to support this horrific deal.”

But according to Stone, Ruiz broke his word when he ultimately voted to support the deal.

“He got a message from (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi that he had to support the president of the United States, and he was pretty much told what to do, and he flip-flopped on the vote. I was so disappointed, because that rarely has happened in the 24 years I’ve been an elected official, that somebody would make such a major policy shift on such an important issue, namely national security.”

Stone wrote a “Valley Voice” piece for The Desert Sun, voicing his opposition to the nuclear deal, last September.

“After that, I was getting phone calls and emails from people saying, ‘Senator Stone, where do we sign up? And where do send funds?’ And I said, ‘Well, what are you talking about?’ And they said, ‘Aren’t you running for Congress?’ I said, ‘I’m not running for Congress.’”

In November, Stone said, he returned to Washington, D.C., to lobby for federal assistance for his California district, and encountered two longtime Republican congressmen from California, Darrell Issa and Ken Calvert.

“‘You know Jeff, we really need you to get into this race,’” Stone recalled them telling him. “‘This is a race that’s about 50-50 Democrat-Republican. And frankly, Dr. Ruiz has been in Congress now long enough that he has a record that can be scrutinized. … So we’re asking you to step up to the plate.”

Although Stone has been in his state Senate seat for less than two years, he also has a voting record that is scrutinized by some groups. For instance, the California League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club California and the California Teachers Association all gave Stone unfavorable ratings for the votes he cast in 2015 on legislative matters affecting their interests.

On the other hand, the National Rifle Association gave him high marks for the votes he cast.

“There are many things that will show a dramatic difference between Dr. Ruiz and myself,” Stone said. “People will have a clear choice on one ideology and vision for our country or another. I look forward to challenging Dr. Ruiz to a series of debates. I’m hoping we can get five debates in before the primary (June 7) so that the wonderful constituents of the Coachella Valley and the Hemet Valley and the Idyllwild area will have an opportunity to vet both of us.”

How did first-in candidate Dwight Kealy responding to Stone’s candidacy before dropping out?

“The goal has been to have the best Republican candidate. So if every one in the Republican Party and all the groups get together and say, ‘Hey, Dwight, Stone’s better than you, and we’re not giving you any money or any votes,’ then this would be a horrible hobby to spend my next six months doing.”

Published in Politics

I take elections seriously. I read the election booklet, prefer to go into the polling booth on Election Day, and have not yet gotten so cynical that I think it doesn’t matter.

I’ve voted in every election since I was able to register to vote at 21. (The legal age, thankfully, is now 18.) I think of the right to vote as something sacred.

The one time I ran for office, I knew going in that I had no chance of winning, yet I still remember the feeling on election night of seeing the number of voters who trusted me to represent them. I was overwhelmed.

I’ve written before about my frustration with the open primary process here in California, which has led to the State Senate’s District 28 seat—representing everyone from west of Temecula through almost all of the Coachella Valley, and going all the way to Blythe at the Arizona border—having only two Republican candidates on the ballot. Recent statistics indicate that about 33 percent of registered voters in the district are Democrats; 42 percent are Republican; and almost 20 percent indicate no party preference. Suffice it to say, the 58 percent of registered voters who are Democrats, members of other parties or independents may decide they have nobody for whom to vote. The two Republicans who were the top vote-getters on the primary ballot are the only choices—we can’t even write in anyone else.

To figure out who I could support on Nov. 4, I attended one of the debates between the two Republican candidates: former Assemblymember Bonnie Garcia, and Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone. The debate was moderated by the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization that encourages informed and active participation in government. I already knew that I did not agree with either candidate on many issues, but I wanted to get a sense of who they are as individuals and politicians.

Political candidate debates can be substantial and informative, or they can be petty and nasty. This one, for me, was illuminating: It came down to character.

Garcia gave her opening statement first, and she was impressive. She came across as capable and highly articulate. Her basic message was that her goal is to build a better California. Stone’s opening statement came across as: “I’m a good guy. Really, I’m a good guy.” His overriding message was that California is in trouble. Frankly, I prefer hopeful messages.

Throughout the debate, Garcia referred to her opponent as “Mr. Stone.” Stone varied in his referrals to Garcia, usually calling her “Bonnie,” and sometimes “Miss Garcia” or “Mrs. Garcia.” In 2014, for him, women are still apparently defined by their marital status. Seriously?

Neither is afraid of confrontation or defending against attacks—and each gave as good as they got. However, one distinguishing difference was that Garcia answered most questions by focusing on the issue in question, while Stone rarely missed an opportunity to throw into each answer some snide or insinuating criticism of Garcia. His use of props was impressive, particularly his own short page of major donors, compared with the ve-e-e-ery long page of her donors that he unrolled onstage, to appropriate laughter from the audience.

When asked about how, in a predominantly Democratic legislature, each would get things done across party lines, Garcia talked about her experience doing just that when she last served in Sacramento, while Stone said that since he had been elected primarily in nonpartisan offices, like county supervisor, we should therefore assume he was able to work across party lines. That logic struck me as a bit twisted.

In her closing statement, Garcia stuck to her vision of what is possible for California, and what she wants to accomplish if elected. Stone, on the other hand, did not miss the chance to hit at Garcia yet again.

After the debate was over, I introduced myself to each, and then asked Stone if he would mind some unsolicited campaign advice. Somewhat nonplussed, he said, “Sure.” I said, “You should stop referring to your opponent as ‘Bonnie’ or ‘Miss Garcia.’ It’s disrespectful.”

Some might think I am leaning toward a vote for Garcia as perhaps the least-objectionable candidate. A Democratic friend recently gave me another, albeit political, spin on the race. “You realize,” he said, “that if we support Stone, and he is elected, we will lose him from another two years sitting on the Board of Supervisors to the abyss that is Republican influence in Sacramento. If Garcia loses this election, she will probably never run again—two birds with one vote.”

I still believe in the sanctity of my vote. I’m not yet sure how I will cast that vote in the State Senate District 28 race, but I believe any system that denies a proper choice to more than 50 percent of the voters in a district is wrong-headed. No matter how you sort it all out, just remember to vote. It matters!

Published in Know Your Neighbors

We’re supposed to have multiple points of view, or parties, on the ballot—and then the candidate who gets the most votes wins. That’s what we call democracy.

But what if only those candidates who represent the majority of registered voters in a district were allowed on the ballot? Anyone representing a minority point of view would have no reason to even run. That’s not what we would call democracy. But that’s what we have now, since California instituted a new primary system. In essence, it means that if you’re not a member of the majority party in a district, your point of view regarding important issues may never even be up for discussion.

No room for Green candidates. No Peace and Freedom party. In some cases, no Democrats or Republicans.

That’s what has happened in the race for the 28th District California Senate seat. Based on the law passed by California voters in 2010, the top two vote-getters in a primary, regardless of party, are the only candidates placed on the ballot in the general election. Thus, in a heavily Republican district, like the 28th, Democrats, independents and third-party voters have no way of expressing their feelings through their votes on the issues or policies they feel are important. And what is worse: Those elected have no incentive whatsoever to represent those voters’ concerns.

In the 28th Senate race, our ballot will now feature a “choice” between either former Assemblymember Bonnie Garcia or Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone, both Republicans. Registration in the district favors Republicans over Democrats by about 10 points, yet more than 19 percent indicate no party preference. The three top vote-getters in the primary were all Republicans, although the two Democratic candidates garnered more than 33 percent of the votes. The result is that the election in November will now be about how one Republican can beat another Republican, while more than 50 percent of the voters—Democrats and “other”—have no real choice at all. Instead of an election about key issues of concern to our area, and policy approaches to address those issues, we may have the spectacle of a personality conflict even worse than the primary, which was pretty ugly.

Luckily, in another local race, voters in the 42nd Assembly District will have a real choice. The lone Democrat in the primary, Karalee Hargrove, a member of the Morongo School Board, prevailed as the top vote-getter in the primary election in a district that is even more heavily skewed Republican than the 28th Senate district.

I had the privilege of interviewing Hargrove. A native Californian born in Lakewood, Hargrove was a high school dropout who married at 18. Divorced at 24, “I found myself the single mother of three sons living outside the Air Force Base in Fayetteville, N.C., and without a high school diploma. Bleak as it might appear to many, I came up with a plan. Within a few months, I had my diploma and was campaigning for a seat on Fayetteville’s City Council.”

Hargrove returned to California in 2007 to care for her grandmother; got reacquainted with and eventually married her “best friend”; ran for the Morongo School Board in 2010 and lost; then ran again and won in 2012.

“I registered to vote the day I turned 18,” she says. “While in Fayetteville, I helped to pass a law regarding police confidentiality, (and) I realized you can be just one person, but you can get things done.”

As a Democrat in a largely Republican district, Hargrove has built her reputation on trying to reach out to constituents of all political philosophies. “I don’t change my message for any individual group,” says Hargrove. “When you involve all the stakeholders, it’s always a better result. I always remember I’m not there just to tell them want they want to hear. Keeping it real—that’s what people are ready for!”

While it is daunting to campaign for the 42nd Assembly seat (the area covers a large part of the Coachella Valley from La Quinta through Banning and Beaumont, as well as Hemet, Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms), at least the voters of that district have the chance to make an informed choice about who should represent them.

Is it better to have someone of the majority party representing you, so your issues are more likely to be heard? Or is it better to have someone of the minority party willing to stand up for what you think is right but wield no real influence? Isn’t it much better to at least have a choice?

The best thing to me would be to have a completely open primary ballot, so that everybody gets the chance to vote for everybody. However, the top vote-getter in each party would appear on the final election ballot. Voters would have the broadest possible choices, and candidates would have to appeal to voters beyond just their own party.

While we’re at it, we should demand that those elected serve the entire electorate, not just those who voted for them, no matter how big the margin. If we don’t start holding our elected officials to that standard, shame on us.

Elections should be about choosing among candidates based on each’s ability to best represent all the constituencies in a district, not just the majority. At least in the 42nd State Assembly District race, the voters have a choice.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Unless you’re one of those people targeted to receive vitriolic mailers from candidates blasting other candidates, you may not even know there’s a primary election taking place in California on Tuesday, June 3.

Even if you do know about the election: Are you one of those who doesn’t think it really matters—and might blow off voting?

Midterm elections are notorious for low turnouts, largely because the hype isn’t as great. They’re the elections in which nasty low blows and last-minute revelations dominate, yet they are often the elections which affect us most: city council members, judges, county supervisors, sheriffs and school board members are chosen. These are the offices closest to our everyday lives, and yet only the most ardent citizens follow these elections.

In the Coachella Valley, we have a couple of really interesting races, especially in light of the new open primary that means all candidates are in the same race, and the top two finishers, regardless of party affiliation, go into a final runoff election in November. California voters approved this by ballot initiative in 2010, another midterm lower-turnout election, apparently hoping it would end political gridlock. So much for that notion. If you don’t like this system, you should have voted against it.

As I recall, Republicans pushed for this open primary, because they felt they were getting completely shut out of California politics in this largely Democratic state. Its supporters claimed to want all parties to have an equal chance. That’s why you’ll see Democrats, Republicans, Peace and Freedom, and Green party candidates all running on this ballot, as well as some candidates who don’t identify with any party.

One of the offices up this election is Riverside County supervisor. We have the chance to fill this one seat with what would be the only non-Republican on that panel—and the first Hispanic, V. Manuel Perez. He was recently appointed as majority floor leader of the California Assembly, but he is termed out and cannot run again for that seat. Perez is running against present County Supervisor John Benoit. These are the people who decide how county funds are spent, and oversee programs that cater to populations and nonprofit efforts at the local level. How often have you heard complaints that the supervisors don’t take enough interest in our end of the county? This is a chance to impact who sits in that seat.

In the newly designated State Senate District 28—formed through redistricting and covering the desert communities, southwest Riverside County and Corona—the open primary is taking center stage. Drawn to be a Republican district (fair or not, that’s the way these things get done), the 28th has an active campaign that’s not always pleasant to watch, especially because it’s an “open” seat, meaning there is no incumbent with a presumed advantage up for re-election.

Four Republicans are running alongside two Democrats. Philip Drucker, a local attorney and educator, is a first-time candidate; he’s a lifelong Democrat, though he’s not well-known in local Democratic politics. The other is Anna Nevenic, who has run for various offices in the past, and is considered by local Democrats as something of a political gadfly.

On the Republican side, four candidates are vying for votes. Bill Carns is a business owner who is seen as having little chance to pull many votes. The other three Republican candidates are all political veterans who are running very hard campaigns.

Bonnie Garcia previously served in Sacramento, and was known for a while as the woman who wouldn’t “kick (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) out of my bed”; she has responded strongly to attacks on her integrity and family issues by her opponents.

Jeff Stone is a county supervisor who touts that he knows firsthand as a medical professional (owner of a compounding pharmacy) that Obamacare is a disaster. Of course, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is already law, is not on the ballot, and is not administered by county supervisors.

The Riverside County Young Republicans and Coachella Valley Young Republicans endorsed Garcia. The Southwest Young Republicans of Riverside County are going with Stone.

Also on the ballot for this Senate seat is Republican Glenn Miller, City Councilmember and former mayor of Indio. Miller describes himself as a fiscal conservative with progressive views on “social issues,” saying he supports abortion rights and gay marriage. He has recently been endorsed by no less than Equality California, a gay-marriage activist organization, and by some local Democrats (although these endorsements do not yet appear on his website).

These endorsements have caused no end of dissent among local Democrats, who ask: Why endorse a primary vote for a Republican, when there is a credible Democrat on the ballot? Wouldn’t that mean there is less likelihood that the Democrat might be one of the top two vote-getters? Or are they willing to bet on a friendly Republican, assuming any Democratic candidate will lose in the final election, anyway?

Some Republicans ask whether they can support a candidate who has gotten support from Democrats, especially pro-gay-marriage activists. Doesn’t that mean he’s a RINO—a Republican in Name Only? Are they saying not to vote for Miller because he might actually get elected? Is ideology more important than winning?

Since the district is presumed to be majority Republican, and since it’s not a bad bet that the primary will result in two Republicans being the highest vote-getters, why shouldn’t the Democrats hedge their bets and support the moderate Republican who could be a friendly ear in the State Senate? Remember the Rush Limbaugh “Vote for Hillary” campaign to hurt the Obama campaign, assuming Hillary could be beaten by John McCain?

I thought this kind of crap was what the open primary system was supposed to eliminate. What happened to caring about why they’re running, and how they plan to address issues and policies that matter to us?

Are you willing to let these decisions be made by political hacks playing games, or will you fulfill your responsibility as an American citizen, do some homework (the links are all here) and show up to vote for the best candidate?

The primary election is Tuesday, June 3. You don’t have to vote for everything on the ballot for your vote to count. But if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain about the results.

Full disclosure: I have interviewed Philip Drucker and Glenn Miller on my radio show. I have not publicly endorsed anyone. Podcasts are available at www.KNewsRadio.com.

Published in Know Your Neighbors