In 2008, then-Yolo County Supervisor Mariko Yamada faced long odds in the battle for the open Assembly Seat against West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon. No one gave her much of a chance, and yet, at the end of a hotly contested and contentious battle, she prevailed in a vote that was not even particularly close.
Ms. Yamada has often described herself as almost the accidental candidate. She had taken a position as Chief Deputy Supervisor to Dave Rosenberg, and when Mr. Rosenberg was appointed by recalled Governor Gray Davis to be a Yolo County Superior Court judge on October 3, 2003, Ms. Yamada was appointed to be his successor as Supervisor. She then almost immediately had to be elected in her own right in the spring of 2004.
Four years later, in 2008, it was the seat vacated by Assemblymember Lois Wolk that Mariko Yamada won. Now she will have to face sitting Assemblymember Bill Dodd and probably others for the Senate seat that the same Lois Wolk is vacating. As was the case in 2008, Ms. Wolk is endorsing Ms. Yamada’s opponent.
Last week, Mariko Yamada sat down with the Vanguard, at the Vanguard Offices in Pollinate Davis to talk about her candidacy. Keep in mind that, at the time of the interview, Bill Dodd had not formally announced.
She told the Vanguard that, when she entered the Assembly, “the district and our country were pretty much at the brink of collapse.” She described the first three years of her term as “really an emergency situation. The last year or two that I was privileged to serve when things had gotten a little better, but there was so much unfinished business that I felt the need to continue and that’s why we’ve decided to run,” she said.
Mariko Yamada said that between the old 8th Assembly District and the current 4th Assembly District, she has represented and worked on behalf of about 80-85 percent of the current Senate District. “While six years is a brief period of time to represent the Assembly, the relationship and the work that I tried to accomplish are going to serve us well as we go forward and try present our case to the voters,” she said.
Ms. Yamada was actually termed out at the beginning of December, when her opponent, Bill Dodd, took over the Assembly seat.
Mariko Yamada does not believe that the two years off she will have taken will harm her with the voters. “We have been very transparent about running. We announced March 14 and we have had discussions even in the last year of my Assembly term that this was the direction we were going,” Ms. Yamada told the Vanguard.
She added, “We are confidant that the so-called gap years can be used to an advantage. There are a lot of pressing issues that when you are in office that is the primary responsibility.” Now, she has “the opportunity to really engage the citizens on the ground,” attending meetings and activities that she wouldn’t have been able to while in office.
Senate District 3, like the two Assembly Districts, is a large geographic area, all or parts of six different counties. Mariko Yamada said it was a bit more urbanized than the current Senate District. It is more compact, and therefore somewhat more manageable in terms of driving distances and time.
“I don’t see it as too different from the issues we’ve tried to work on in my 20 years here in Yolo County,” she said. “That is a focus on our ag and natural resources. Water is certainly our issue du jour for our entire state. The pressures of the drought on our agricultural industry as well as the need to balance that with housing.”
“There is always going to be a dynamic tension between the need to provide affordable housing for example with the need to preserve our natural resources,” Mariko Yamada explained.
The long-term issue area that she has focused on has been “addressing the needs of aging and long term care in our state.” This is a growing population, so “even if you’re not at that age cohort, it’s going to affect all of the other systems and age groups in our state.”
Mariko Yamada has taken advantage of some of her extra time by taking a trip – recreating the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Two days after the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, she took a trip to four states in the south – Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.
“I think to have this opportunity to recreate the struggles of the 60s in a 21st Century context still is as real today as it was 50 years ago,” she said. “It’s no secret I’m a social worker by profession, and it’s part of ethos to seek social and economic justice.”
The bigger picture is that when she entered the Assembly, the state was in emergency cut mode. “We had to make cuts that were heartbreaking and that you had to lose sleep over if you looked at the effects,” she said.
Revenues have improved, but Prop. 30 will expire in the sales tax portion at the end of 2016, with the higher income tax expiring at the end of 2018. “Anyone who is running or planning to assume office at the state level has to keep that in mind that the revenues, that the voters agreed to extend to the state, are scheduled to lapse,” she warned.
She is hopeful the economy can continue to improve so that the voters do not have to be asked to renew the tax.
For social services, the state remains in a restoration mode, “rather than an increase mode,” Ms. Yamada explained. “I don’t see any great appetite especially on the part of Governor Brown to expand or increase many of the programs that I think are essential.”
California has seen, through LCAP (Local Control and Accountability Plan) and the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), an increase in funding for education for some districts, but places like Davis have received less. Ms. Yamada noted that the governor has been successful at implementing his desired changes to funding formulas.
“I think in principle, especially communities like Davis that are very giving and very generous do understand the issue of putting resources where they’re needed the most,” she said. “At the same time we don’t want to lose sight that we do have children here in need and it takes an organized and collaborative set of voices… to communicate that we shouldn’t be hurt by the budget decisions that are made to benefit the rest of the state.”
Overall, she said, as a 21-year resident of Davis, given the level of generosity of the community, “I think we’ll make it through these periods of time.”
On higher education, Mariko Yamada noted that “it was some time in the last year to year and a half that student debt actually exceeded home mortgage debt.”
“There is federal complicity in all of this, but also it’s something that I know the legislature, when we did enact middle class scholar, was a step in the right direction,” she said. But that doesn’t relieve the burden people have who are trying to raise their families.
Mariko Yamada has some strong support already. She lists among her supporters Congressman John Garamendi, Controller Betty Yee, Treasurer John Chiang, Insurance Commissioner Dave Joes, former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Former Senator Noreen Evans, and other statewide officials.
Locally she has support from Supervisor Jim Provenza, former Supervisor Betsy Marchand, Sheriff Ed Prieto, County Clerk Freddie Oakley, Superintendent of School Jesse Ortiz and former Woodland Mayor Artemio Pimentel.
Earlier this week, she announced the support of Senator Holley Mitchell, along with Former State Superintendent Delaine Eastin, a Davis resident.
State Senator Holly Mitchell said Monday, “Mariko Yamada is an experienced leader informed by her progressive values, one whom I can always trust to speak calmly but deliberately on the issues of the day. Her commitment to inclusion and her ability to work with diverse communities has earned her widespread respect among her colleagues. I am very much looking forward to her joining me in the California State Senate.”
Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said, “Nothing is more important to our posterity than education. For the children it means they will have choices about what they do in life. For the society, it means we will have economic development and prosperity. Education is a win-win-win for our state and its destiny, as well as for our children and their future. Thank you, Mariko, for being a warrior for children and for their education, from preschool to grad school. You have my full support.”
“I am honored to have Holly Mitchell’s and Delaine Eastin’s early support. The work they have done – and continue to do – in moving our state forward is the kind of bold leadership California needs,” Mariko Yamada said of the endorsements.
She continued, “As a member of the State Senate, I look forward to working with my colleagues on real solutions and taking on the tough fights on behalf of all Californians. Progress has been made – but we’ve got more work to do!”
—David M. Greenwald reporting