Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointment of Rob Bonta as California attorney general has set off a special-election scramble to replace him in the state Assembly.
East Bay native Janani Ramachandran is one of eight candidates vying in a special June 29 primary election to replace Rob Bonta in the state Assembly. (Photo courtesy of Janani Ramachandran)
For eight years, Bonta, D-Alameda, had represented an Alameda County district that stretches from West Oakland to San Leandro. Term limits would have forced him out in 2024, but his appointment to statewide office has moved up the battle for his successor, starting with a special primary election June 29.
While the number of candidates for the 18th Assembly District seat is plentiful, the depth is disappointing. The field of eight includes four local elected officials, two candidates who have previously run unsuccessfully for public office and two political newcomers.
The standout is Janani Ramachandran, a Democrat from Oakland and social justice attorney who hasn’t run for office before but, unlike most of the other candidates, provides a clearly articulated set of priorities and demonstrates an understanding of the complexity of making public policy.
An East Bay native, Ramachandran, 28, studied international relations at Stanford University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. She then worked as a case manager for low-income immigrant mothers and founded a domestic violence advocacy program across five community health clinics.
It was that work that led her to Berkeley Law School, from which she graduated last year. She serves on the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs and was a member of the Oakland Public Ethics Commission until she stepped down to run for Assembly.
Her progressive political priorities align with a district where party registration is 66% Democrats, 6% Republicans and 23% without party affiliation: Raising the minimum wage, criminal justice reform, increasing the housing supply, elimination of restrictions on rent control, Medicare for All and combating climate change. While we don’t always agree with her, she displays a sharp understanding of many of the policy details.
In contrast, Mia Bonta, an Alameda Unified School District trustee and wife of the attorney general, was frustratingly vague on any issues that extended beyond education. And when it came to schools, she resisted the idea of more transparency to ensure state funds that are supposed to help educate needy children are properly spent.
The other Alameda elected official in the race is City Councilwoman Melia Vella. It’s unfortunate that Alameda voters last fall re-elected her after the county grand jury said that she committed malfeasance and violated the city charter by improperly pressuring the city manager to hire a union-backed applicant for fire chief.
Vella continues to seek city reimbursement of $115,000 for her legal bills stemming from her own misbehavior. She didn’t deserve another council term — and she certainly doesn’t deserve a seat in the state Assembly. Vella declined our interview invitation.
San Leandro City Councilman Victor Aguilar struggled to articulate a clear set of policy goals. San Leandro Unified School District Trustee James Aguilar declined an interview request. And Eugene Canson, a public health consultant, seemed out of his element when the policy discussion moved beyond health care.
Then there are the only two candidates in the race who are not Democrats.
Stephen Slauson, a Republican active with the Alameda County Taxpayers’ Association, is a semi-retired electrical contractor who is running for the Assembly seat for the third time. In 2018 and 2000, he failed to garner more than 12% of the vote.
Joel Britton is listed with no party preference only because his Socialist Workers Party doesn’t have enough members to qualify for party designation on a California ballot. Having previously worked in oil refineries and hog slaughterhouses, Britton is now a Walmart cashier. He finished 90th among the 135 candidates in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election with 751 votes, or 0.008% of the total cast.
While Slauson and Britton are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, they’re both sharply critical of Newsom’s pandemic response, arguing that the governor should have been looser with restrictions. If anything, Newsom’s restrictions weren’t tough enough, as best demonstrated by the state’s deadly winter surge.
The list of candidates in this race is long, but only one has a clear and well-articulated policy vision. That’s Ramachandran. Voters should elect her to the state Assembly.