An Asian power couple, one of the nation’s first female African American nuclear scientist, a Latino policy wonk, a pot-club tolerant former police chief and a Republican are trying to pull off something that’s never been done in the South-East Bay’s 25th Assembly District: not be Bob Wieckowski.
For the first time since the state legislature redistricted in 2010—combining pieces of San Jose, Santa Clara and Milpitas with Fremont and Newark—AD25 is headed for an election without its incumbent, giving voters a chance to redefine their representation. The race to succeed Wieckowski, who’s terming out of the State Assembly at the end of the year and running for a seat in the State Senate, has a melting-pot cast of characters, but the constituents themselves appear to reflect a bit of that diversity.
“Each candidate has a part of the district where they’re not very well known, a part where they really have to win over a demographic, a bloc of voters still unfamiliar with them,” says Wieckowski, who declined to endorse anyone in the race because he’s friends with a few of the five. “It’s really unpredictable—there’s no clear frontrunner, which makes this a really interesting race to watch.”
Financially, Kansen Chu, a labor-endorsed Democrat who went from IBM engineer and restaurateur with his wife, Daisy, to sitting on the San Jose City Council in 2007, has staked himself as the frontrunner. The Chus have become fixtures in the South Bay political scene, almost never passing up a meet-and-greet or dinner function to rub elbows, and their campaign coffer (Daisy is treasurer) brims fullest among all AD25 candidates with more than $286,000 raised.
“I knew early on that I wanted to continue to serve in some capacity,” says Chu, who moved to San Jose from Taiwan in 1976 and became the first Chinese American councilmember in city history. “I enjoy what I do and we need more Asian American representation, especially in [AD25], the second-most Asian legislative district in the state.”
A fiery contrast to Chu’s staid demeanor is Teresa Cox, the daughter of a union activist and, according to the Chicago Tribune, the first African American woman in the nation to earn a degree in nuclear engineering, a distinction that garnered national attention.* The Fremont resident and 24-Hour Fitness executive has served on the board of trustees for the Ohlone Community College District for six years—her first foray into elected office. But as a White House appointee under both the Clinton and Obama administrations, this race is far from her first brush with politics.
“I’ve always loved working for the public,” says Cox, who grew up in a family of civil rights activists. “It never felt like a job. I felt like I was making a difference in the world and working with all kinds of people to bring consensus and to bring awareness about what the president was doing.”
Cox’s mother raised her and her two brothers alone on a public school teacher’s salary and fought tirelessly for pay parity for female teachers, who would lose seniority if they took time off to raise a family.
“As a woman—as an African American woman—I am used to being told, ‘No,’” she says. “It made me a fighter.”
Though well connected, particularly in the northern part of the district, Cox’s fundraising got off to a rocky start. She loaned herself $58,000 at the outset and finally cleared $120,000 as of the latest filing period, which ended last week.
“Money isn’t everything,” Cox notes. “This isn’t about who’s the most funded. It’s about who’s better equipped to serve this diverse of a region.”
One candidate who this past quarter has been able to match Chu’s fundraising advantage—and institutional support—is Armando Gomez, a budget advisor to San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed by day and a herder of cats on the Milpitas City Council by night. Of the first four candidates to declare, no one got a later start last year in rallying support, but Gomez has pulled in roughly $286,000 by mining a network of community members and business owners he built up over the past 12 years working in local government. He actually ended the last filing deadline with more cash on hand than Chu.
“It’s really encouraging,” says Gomez, 40, the youngest candidate and the only one born and raised in the district. “I feel honored that so many people have shown their support.”
He’s fielded criticism for supporting Reed’s controversial pension reforms, but as a byproduct he’s secured multiple chamber endorsements, including from the San Jose/Silicon Valley and Santa Clara chambers of commerce. He represents one of the more conservative shades of Democrat in the race, almost the antithesis to the Kansen-Daisy Democrat.
“As a policy maker, I want to create an environment that makes a business want to be here,” Gomez says. “I want the state to pass a budget that gives local control to cities and districts, because every time the state balances the budget to take away from cities, it comes at the expense of firefighters and police and other core public services.”
Though one of two white candidates in a predominantly minority district, Craig Steckler made diversity a focal point in his past career, which included serving as Fremont’s chief of police. The retired cop and ex-head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police raised the profile of his 300-employee department by rolling out forward-thinking diversity policies that set an example for law enforcement agencies across the country.
“I wanted the department to reflect the demographics of the community,” Steckler says. “It worked. We built a lot of trust with the public.”
Retiring in 2012 after 45 years of service, the law enforcement veteran is packing some unusually progressive values. Steckler is pro-gun control and marriage equality, and he even has an open-minded approach to regulating medical marijuana.
He also serves on the board of a domestic violence prevention network and says that, if elected, he will donate the bulk of his salary to anti-domestic violence charities and shelters. “As an officer who’s responded to thousands of domestic violence calls, that’s always been an important issue to me,” Steckler says.
Steckler trails Chu and Gomez in fundraising, but his public safety background and progressive values actually gave him a leg up in the state Democratic Party endorsement process, winning enough votes to lead all candidates but not gain official support. That vote meant Chu has surprisingly had to settle for labor council backing. Steckler’s also managed to raise more than $152,000.
Republican Bob Brunton, who joined the race relatively late and mustered up a few thousand dollars in donations, provides a slim measure of partisanship to the race. A former trustee on the same Ohlone school board as Cox, Brunton says he joined primarily to offer an alternative for conservatives.
“I decided to run because I saw there were four people running who didn’t really offer that different of an outlook from each other,” says Brunton, who runs an electronics manufacturing business out of Fremont. “I’ve watched my industry being decimated by these horribly bad decisions in Sacramento, these short-sighted views that tax the wrong people and impose regulations that are onerous and duplicative that cost people their livelihoods.”
Assembly District 25 has never had so many options, in part because there’s never really been another option. In 2012, Wieckowski won the general election walking away with more than 70 percent of the vote.
“What’s happening now is all eyes are now looking at the candidates,” Wieckowski says. “It’s show time.”
*Editor’s note: A reader tip has led San Jose Inside to believe the first African American female to graduate with a degree in nuclear engineering occurred in 1979 at Georgia Tech. We will update if we come across more information.