This Social Justice Lawyer Is Running for California State Assembly

This article was originally published by Rift Magazine.

We spoke with Janani Ramachandran, candidate for California State Assembly District 18. Ramachandran has experience as a healthcare worker, attorney, and as a part of both the Oakland Public Ethics Commission and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs. She is running on a platform that includes issues of housing justice, Medicare for All, and a raise in the minimum wage to $22. Here, Janani highlights some of these policies, and reflects on the importance of running a progressive, corporate-free campaign for state office.  

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

RIFT Magazine: Tell us about yourself and what got you into this race for Assembly. 

Janani Ramachandran: Yeah, so I was born and raised in the East Bay. I was really inspired to do something to address so many of our basic social injustices that happen everywhere during my first job out of college as a home-visiting case manager. I worked a lot with immigrant mothers, teen moms, people experiencing domestic violence, homelessness, mental health issues. And basically, going into homes of people experiencing such deep crises energized me to do something, to try my best to learn about the system, which is why I went to law school so that I could one day change it. 

I went to Berkeley, engaged in social justice lawyering pretty much the entire time. I worked a lot on tenants’ rights issues, defended elderly tenants being evicted in Oakland. I continued to work with survivors of domestic violence during the pandemic, basically working with a lot of different individuals who don’t have a voice in our existing political system, who don’t have a seat at the table. 

And that’s why I decided to run for the seat! I think there is a big difference among democrats — there are a lot of democrats that pay lip service to issues and say things like “housing is a human right” and “healthcare is a human right” but aren’t doing the actual work, aren’t enacting the actual policies to get us there. I also think there is far too much power of corporations in Sacramento. You know, the power of corporate money really does buy our elections, prevents progressive policies from being passed. I’m proud to be a corporate-free candidate, and fight back against those issues. 

RIFT: So you recently advanced to the runoff election in August, as I understand it, so congratulations. 

JR: Thank you!

RIFT: And your opponent, Mia Bonta, is the wife of the California Attorney General Rob Bonta. I read in the Chronicle, I believe, that there is a bit of a fundraising disparity because Bonta is accepting corporate donations and your campaign is not. So can you describe the response that you’ve gotten from the community in District 18 so far, and also explain what the differencess are between you and your opponent. 

JR: Yeah, I mean the corporate contribution issue is really a part of it. There are a lot of voters that are sick of money in politics, whether it’s at the local level, at the state level, and certainly at the federal level. These are people across the political spectrum who are really distressed and upset at the power of corporate influence over our electoral politics. Certainly it’s those who consider themselves progressive, but it’s even those who don’t. There are Republicans who are mad at the influence of corporate power in Sacramento. There’s so many people who care about that, and being a corporate-free candidate really stands out to a lot of folks. And it matters, because the mailers, the TV ads, all the things people receive from Mia Bonta’s campaign, are because of the million-plus dollars that she is able to raise and spend on this election. Folks haven’t seen my face as much, but they’ve seen signs, they’ve heard from the volunteers, they get a phone call or a door-knock. That’s the big difference in the way we’ve been campaigning. 

But voters in the district really really resonate with my policies. I have very specific goals, and things I want to pursue. Like I mentioned before, I say housing is a human right and health care is a human right, and then I say specifically the types of things I want to do to make sure that these would pass. So, repealing Costa-Hawkins, extending our eviction moratorium…these are issues I worked on as a community advocate, during and before the pandemic, and will continue to do. 

And I know the specific policies, the laws that I want to change, to make sure that we have stronger statewide tenant protections. The same thing with healthcare, as a former community health worker — that was my first job, as a home-visiting case manager — I was working with largely uninsured populations, and you see the racial and economic disparities in healthcare, in life expectancy and maternal health outcomes. And that stems from needing to cover every single Californian with the ability to afford preventative care. That’s why Medicare for All is so important to me. And if you’re being funded by the very insurance companies that are trying to block this change, then you’re really not for the movement, for the issue. The same thing with the environment. A lot of democrats say “yes, we agree climate change is real”, but that doesn’t mean anything if you’re accepting contributions from the very organizations, including the oil and gas industry, that are trying to block these reforms. So voters definitely resonate with specificity. I’m not just saying “we should address income inequality”, I specifically want to say “we need to raise the minimum wage to $22 an hour, and build the coalition to pass it”. And I have the economic arguments to tell people why it’s a good idea, why it will ultimately benefit our economy, build our tax base, grow our middle class, things like that. I also have a platform. If you go to my website, the first thing you’ll see is my living wage petition, my Medicare for All petition, all these things that speak to the fact that I’m actually about the actual work and the policies, not just value statements about generally what I believe. And I think voters really resonate with that. 

RIFT: I want to ask you about those policies which you highlight. First of all, calling for a $22 minimum wage. That is a number that I haven’t seen with a lot of people so far. Can you explain in a little more depth, your support of that policy?

JR: Yeah. So if wages, since the 1960s, had increased with the rate of productivity, we would be at a national $25 an hour. Not even California, national. But the reason they haven’t is because of the industries and organizations that want to keep wages flat for workers. 

1 in 3 Californians live at or near the poverty line, and half of them work a full-time job. That’s a real flaw in our system that needs to be addressed. And I do believe, yes, we need to support the small business owners who can right now, coming out of the pandemic, barely pay $16, let alone $22. The majority of people who employ minimum wage workers are actually large corporations. 

It’s interesting, you do see support in polling, from people who are not necessarily progressive in their goal to raise the minimum wage. There is actually quite broad support. The numbers might vary, but raising the minimum wage is something a lot of people care about. 

RIFT: And on Medicare for All…I’m sure you’re aware of AB 1400, the proposal for CalCare that was kind of pushed down the road earlier this year, I think in March. Can you talk about the feasibility of having a state health care system in California, and what you would be doing in office to try and bring that about? 

JR: Yeah, I would be voting on AB 1400, hopefully when elected later this year. It’s going to be really key to make sure we have the coalition that we need to pass it. 70% of Californians believe in the Medicare for All system, and we still haven’t got it passed. We have broad-based  popular support, but I think the first thing that needs to happen is working on getting a federal Medicare waiver. That’s kind of an initial step. One of many reasons it was taken off the table was of course politics, and not wanting to upset the more moderate democrats while facing the recall this year, but we also need to make sure we have the funding sources for the program. They didn’t have the Medicare waiver yet, which was gonna significantly improve the ability to pay for Medicare for All, which will save us over $10 billion in the first decade of implementation. But there are of course up-front costs that we need to deal with. 

RIFT: And what about housing. I talk to candidates like yourself all the time, and housing is kind of the issue that people are really concerned about. Can you explain what the need is for some kind of housing reform in your district, and again what you would be pushing for in the Assembly to alleviate that burden. 

JR: There are three prongs to it. The one I’ve done the most work on is tenant protections. We only have two tenants out of 120 lawmakers, yet 40% of our lawmakers are landlords. So regardless of party affiliation, there’s a reason that we don’t have the statewide protections that tenants need and deserve. So that’s a huge focus of mine because it’s a huge gap right now. Second, we need to address our homelessness crisis. Not that we don’t spend enough money, it’s that we’re not spending money in the right places. We spend over $13 billion on extremely unnecessarily expensive housing programs that serve a very small portion of our 160,000 people that are unhoused. We need to start using more evidence-based models and thinking about the issue comprehensively, because we’re not right now. Third, of course, is affordable housing. Part of that includes housing production. We need to build not more market-rate housing necessarily, but more housing that is actually affordable. There are parts of California where yes, you really do need to build more housing period, of every income level. There are a lot of legislators that care about that kind of production, and though that’s important too, it’s not the gap that I see that needs a lot of attention that the building of affordable housing certainly is. 

RIFT: Your race is a special election. The runoff is coming up on August 31st. Special elections are kind of notorious for being difficult to break out into; there’s lots of candidates, there’s tight deadlines. As you’re approaching the runoff election later this summer, what is your feeling going into this last stretch of campaigning. Are you optimistic about your chances? 

JR: Absolutely. I mean, people were shocked that we got this far. And the benefit with my candidacy is that only more and more people will get to know my name. Yes, Mia Bonta started out with some name recognition at the start, but a lot of people that I have canvassed since have just been like “well, I voted for the name I knew, I didn’t really look into either policies, but you sound really great, I think I’ll vote for you now”. My base only expands. Two out of the three main candidates have already endorsed me, and I’m hopefully going to get all of their supporters, as well as a significant portion from another one of the candidates that is certainly more progressive than Mia Bonta. We had a really strong field campaign up until this point, and we’re only doing better, with more volunteers. We have over 500 people who are signed up to volunteer, either to phone bank or text bank. And no, unlike my opponent, we don’t have the money to hire paid canvassers every day to do things. But we have so much people-power, and that’s amazing. 

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