Candidates Face Immigration, Education, Healthcare Questions

By Judith Scherr
Wednesday May 28, 2008 - 06:40:00 PM

The questions posed to Senate and Assembly candidates at Tuesday evening’s forum presented by the Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action came from real life.  

Tania Marin has lived with an asthmatic child and no health insurance and asked the candidates how they would solve the health problems of the poor and undocumented immigrants.  

The fear of immigration raids has pierced the community, said Procesa Gorristieta, who wanted to know what the candidates would do to bring justice to immigrants. Nancy Williams asked candidates for solutions to education cuts and violence among youth. 

Some 50 people attended the forum put on by the 18-congregation multi-racial, multi-issue organization. All candidates for the June 3 election for the 14th Assembly District attended—physician Dr. Phil Polakoff, East Bay Regional Parks Board member Nancy Skinner, Richmond City Councilmember Tony Thurmond and Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington. 

Vying for a seat in the state Senate, former Assemblymember Wilma Chan attended; Assemblymember Loni Hancock was represented by her campaign manager Terri Waller. 

All the candidates said they support a universal single-payer health care system that does not deny health care to undocumented immigrants, though Polakoff said it is unrealistic to hold out for such a system.  

Single-payer “is not going to happen today or tomorrow,” he said, arguing that he wants a system that would help children right away. He said he would “take on the insurance companies,” by stopping their practice of dumping patients with costly conditions and refusing to cover those with existing illnesses. 

“My number one priority is healthcare for all children, regardless of immigration status,” he said. Polakoff said he has treated poor patients pro bono and has served as advisor on medical issues in the state legislature and in Liberia.  

Worthington said he has worked for single-payer healthcare, organizing rallies in Sacramento and testifying before the legislature. As a councilmember, Worthington said, he helped identify funds for the Berkeley Health Department disparity study, which showed the large gap in health outcomes between wealthier Caucasians living in the hills and African Americans living in the flatlands. 

He said immigrants with or without documentation deserve services: “Most immigrants in California are paying taxes. They are paying for education and healthcare,” Worthington said, arguing that the governor needs a better understanding of immigrant contributions. 

Thurmond said he understands the importance of universal health care—he works with youth in foster care who lose health insurance the day they turn 18.  

He said he led the support for single-payer healthcare on the Richmond City Council. Support for single-payer is economical, Thurmond said, pointing to the 3 percent administrative costs for Medicare. It is “immoral” to predicate seeing a doctor on immigrant status, he said.  

Skinner touted her support from state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, author of the single-payer bill the governor refused to sign. She pointed out the economics of the situation, where families without health insurance take children to the more-costly emergency room, rather than getting less expensive preventative healthcare.  

“The governor is stupid economically—in the end this refusal is going to cost us more,” she said. Skinner noted she helped establish the teen health center at Berkeley High, as a city councilmember in the 1980s. 

Waller said Hancock supports single-payer and was one of two Democrats to oppose cuts in the governor’s health and human services budget. Hancock supports AB 32 and SB 1, legislation that provides healthcare for all children, Waller said, adding, “High quality affordable health care should be a right.”  

Chan said she had authored AB772 in 2005, under which all children, regardless of immigration status, would have access to health insurance. She said, if elected, she would reintroduce the bill and if the governor vetoed it again she would put it on the ballot as an initiative. 

Healthcare should not be pitted against education, Chan said. “All of us know if our children are sick, they can’t learn—we don’t need more prisons; we need health care and we need education.” Worthington, who supports Chan, had pointed out earlier in the evening that Hancock voted to build new prisons. 


Immigration rights 

All the candidates said they support for justice for immigrants. 

People have a right to come to the U.S. for political and economic reasons, Thurmond said, noting that he’s participated in rallies against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and supports Richmond’s position which affirms city officials will not help ICE officials in their raids. 

Education for all is key to creating a more equitable society, he said. “Because of my education I am standing before you,” he said.  

Worthington ticked off a number of pieces of legislation he sponsored in the Berkeley City Council, while admitting that it is easier to get items passed there than through the legislature: support for drivers’ licenses for people without documentation; support for legislation to allow people without documentation to get financial aid for college; support for funding to end immigration backlogs; opposition to English-only efforts; support for city sanctuary policies, and support to end deportation of people with misdomeaners. 

To get these policies through the legislature, Worthington said he’ll go beyond fighting the governor, “I’ll fight with the Democrats to get them to actually have a backbone and to stand up for us and all the people of the state of California,” he said. 

Skinner decried the raids: “Immigrants are the backbone of our community; the ICE raids are terrorizing our school children,” she said, arguing that immigrants are used as a smokescreen so that the real issues of education and healthcare are not addressed. 

She said she supported the sanctuary movement in the churches as a councilmember and supports California as a sanctuary state. She also supports drivers’ licenses for people without documentation. 

Skinner said to fund education it is necessary to tax corporations. She said that she would also work with the business community to get measures through the legislature. 

Noting that he is a child of immigrants, Polakoff said the ICE raids have caused post traumatic stress. He spoke about his travels that include Siberia and said the repression of immigrants is a world-wide issue. 

Waller noted that Hancock was arrested for civil disobedience at the Emeryville Woodfin Suites Hotel in solidarity with cleaning staff under fire from immigration officials and hotel management. 

Having a drivers’ license is important in a practical way—for safety on the road, Waller said, adding that Hancock supports access for immigrants to financial aid for college. 

Chan said she supports undocumented persons getting drivers’ licenses and said she fought against the English-only movement. She said she supports fair immigration reform that allows people to become citizens. 

She opposes the ICE raids and asked, “Why don’t they go after the employers? Why go after workers?” 



Skinner talked about the need to keep youth in school as part of the answer to address youth violence. To do that, there needs to be good vocational education as well as art, music and sports in schools, she said. 

“People feel desperate, without hope,” she said, arguing that there’s too much focus on college. “Not everyone wants to go to college,” she said. “The vast majority of people in prisons are high school dropouts.” 

Skinner pointed out that, as a Berkeley councilmember, she supported the East Bay Safety Corridor, a regional approach to fighting crime from Richmond to Oakland.  

Skinner said she supports new taxes. In Sacramento, there’s an “irrational refusal to raise revenue,” she said. 

It costs money to provide programs for education and to stop violence, Worthington said, noting that when he was on the City Council, he combed the budget and found funding for youth programs, affordable housing and more.  

In Sacramento, “I want to tax the rich, with a corporate real estate tax,” he said. If all else failed, he would reinstate the vehicle license tax that affects the middle class.  

Like Skinner, Thurmond said vocational education is important. He said he has supported jobs programs in Richmond, including a training program for solar panel installation. 

Thurmond said taxing the wealthy is important. He wants the vehicle license tax restored and wants to the state to subsidize teachers who live in the cities where they teach. 

Polakoff said society is in decline: “We’ve lived so long on greed.” As for funding education programs, Polakoff said the state should go after uncollected taxes as well as getting corporations to pay their fair share. 

Waller said Hancock was alone in the Assembly to stand up to the cuts in education and pointed to her work with PTAs in the district. Like Skinner, Hancock takes credit for the East Bay public safety corridor, implemented when she was Berkeley mayor and Skinner was a councilmember in the 1980s.  

Hancock wants to tax the rich and to support a tax on the production of oil. 

Chan said she supports universal preschool and while she was unable to accomplish that, she was able to increase slots available for low-income children in preschool. “You have to start when the kids are young,” she said. 

Today the governor and legislature are wringing their hands around budget issues, but they knew the problems that lie ahead, she said. They could have put a tax measure on the ballot in February to alleviate this, she said.  

“Teachers are leaving the state because of the budget,” she said. “We need high quality teachers.”