By Jeremy Walsh / Pleasanton Weekly
Rebecca Bauer-Kahan: A new voice in Sacramento
Assemblywoman reflects on first months in office, goals for year ahead
These early days of September represent a critical time for the State Legislature, with final deliberations on the floor in each house on pending bills ahead of the Sept. 13 deadline to pass legislation for the governor's consideration.
Local Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, in an interview ahead of the new floor session, said staying true to her constituents' priorities remains at the forefront of her decision-making in Sacramento.
"I think the district really wanted someone who would fight for the values that they hold, and I think that's why they elected me. And I've worked hard to do that," Bauer-Kahan told the Weekly during a sitdown over coffee outside Inklings in downtown Pleasanton on Aug. 19.
Some nine months into her first term, Bauer-Kahan continues to carve out political and legislative identities in the State Assembly.
The Orinda Democrat represents a relatively moderate district in the ultra-liberal Bay Area -- Assembly District 16, consisting of the Tri-Valley and Lamorinda communities as well as a majority of Walnut Creek.
An environmental attorney and community volunteer with collegiate teaching experience, Bauer-Kahan had never run for public office before successfully unseating two-term Republican Catharine Baker in a tight 2018 general election contest that saw the 40-year-old Democrat earn victory, 51% to 49% -- swept into office as part of the blue wave seen at polls across the state last November.
The turnaround from watching the voting tallies for days until her win was solidified nearly two weeks after Election Night to taking the oath of office in the State Capitol on Dec. 3 was both swift and energizing, according to Bauer-Kahan.
"It happens fast ... but spending a year or so talking about the things you want to do and then getting to do them is pretty fun," she said. "I got up to Sacramento, and I have some incredible staff working for me, which is great. And we got to work and created a legislative package that we've been very excited to carry forward throughout the year."
She later quipped, "I like doing the work more than I liked running for office."
The transition to full-time elected office, with a daily commute to Sacramento, brought some adjustments professionally and personally.
"It's always hard. Being a working mom in any field is hard, so this is no different," said Bauer-Kahan, a married mother of three school-aged children. "I mean, every life transition for me or the kids takes some getting used to."
"They've come up with me a couple times to see what I do and be a part of this, and that's really important to me that they see why I'm doing it ... why sharing me is important," she added. "Why when mom's home late because we were in session until 9 that it's because we're fighting for their future and for our community's future."
Bauer-Kahan said she spent much of the summer recess that ended Aug. 11 connecting with residents in her district.
"Really touching base with the constituents to make sure the work, the legislative package I'm carrying, the way I'm representing them in Sacramento is doing what we wanted to do, which is to represent their values," she added.
That included listening sessions such as a community coffee at Inklings earlier in the summer.
She said a variety of Pleasanton residents attended the event, including young parents and about 15 high-schoolers.
"There actually was a huge focus on education," Bauer-Kahan said of the coffee event in downtown. "Per-pupil funding is pretty darn low in this area."
"We have incredible communities and parents and teachers, but our funding continues to be an issue," she added. "So how do we push forward into a higher base grant, continue to get education funding to a place where we're able to get the programming that the teachers and the parents want to see in the schools."
Other hot topics at the session were the environment, health care, animal rights and transportation.
An issue top-of-mind for many, transportation is a concern throughout Bauer-Kahan's district, from oft-crowded interstates 680 or 580 in and around Pleasanton to the slog around the I-680/Highway 24 interchange near Walnut Creek to BART and transit reliability.
Bauer-Kahan said she continues to work with local elected officials and Assembly leaders on supporting and advancing Valley Link, the proposed commuter light rail system over the Altamont Pass to connect the San Joaquin Valley and Livermore to BART.
"People here, as you know, commute and our roads are far from free," she said, adding:
"So, working really hard on the Valley Link, making sure that project continues to move forward ... The funding is the part that we're working really hard to make sure that's in place, so when it's ready to move forward, it can."
Bauer-Kahan is also focused on helping local jurisdictions, like those in the Tri-Valley, obtain more competitive grant money from Senate Bill 1 funds.
"We didn't do so well in the last round and so we brought people in from the state transportation commission to talk about how do we apply for that competitive money ... how do we compete more effectively, bring more of that money to our cities," she said.
Preserving and enhancing the environment in the Tri-Valley is another high priority.
"We live in a beautiful place where people care deeply about the environment," she said. "It's an issue I have a vast experience in as a lawyer and that I care deeply about, and that's something that I saw resonated (during the campaign) and something that I've worked hard to work on in the legislation."
Bauer-Kahan pointed to collaborative efforts with State Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) to help protect the Tesla open space outside Livermore.
"Locally people love their open space, as do I," she said. "And we have this beautiful piece of land that connects into the Mount Diablo range that we have the ability to protect, so Senator Glazer and I have been working ... to push that through to the finish line and get that open space protected."
Asked to name her proudest accomplishment to date, Bauer-Kahan countered with a smile, "That's hard because they tell you not to fall in love with your bills, and I fall in love with all of them."
After a pause, she cited her first bill passed through the legislation, and ultimately signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom -- Assembly Bill 1292, which updates how guns are transferred in a will or trust to avoid firearms getting in the wrong hands.
Part of her focus on "sensible gun violence prevention."
"It's something my constituents care deeply about; it's something I care deeply about as a mom," she said. "And so, to have my first bill signed into law be something that will make our communities safer, and a law that got through with bipartisan support."
Other original legislation she saw approved were:
* AB 1532, to require all food handlers to receive certification on safe practices for major food allergens and add organized camps to the list of facilities triggering food-handling training. Dubbed the "Natalie Giorgi Sunshine Act," the bill was inspired by the 13-year-old Danville girl's death after a severe peanut allergen reaction at summer camp in 2013.
* AB 1421, to prevent people on probation -- who are otherwise meeting the terms of their release -- from being incarcerated again solely for failure to pay court-ordered fines, fees or restitution.
* AB 1735, signed just last week, to provide new protections to human trafficking victims such as confidentiality privileges between a survivor and their caseworker.
As for disappointments, Bauer-Kahan referred to two original legislative efforts that were ultimately classified as two-year bills instead of a 2019 bill.
"One focused on clean water: It was an initiative to help small farmers move to more sustainable farming practices, which would maintain clean water and conserve water," she said, continuing:
"And another was a bill that would help trucking move to electrical trucking, from diesel ... It's affecting our air quality and that was really something that would help us, and help the state get to our greenhouse gas goals.
"We'll continue to fight for them (but) they're not going to get signed this year."
Women's reproductive health
Another achievement for Bauer-Kahan was spearheading the state's first-ever Select Committee on Women's Reproductive Health, which she chairs.
"As a mom and a woman, it's just something that's really important to me. It's not something I ever thought in my lifetime would be under threat, to be frank with you," she said.
"When I got to the legislature, I really wanted to ask the question: How do we, as a state, continue to lead? ... Given what's happening at the federal level, how do we continue to lead? How do we provide services where other states are falling down?" she added.
To that end, Bauer-Kahan was wearing a pink suit jacket on the morning of the Weekly interview to join Democrat colleagues that day in a show of support for Planned Parenthood amid the federal Title X funding dispute.
The Select Committee on Women's Reproductive Health held its first hearing in June, focusing on funding for reproductive health and unmet needs in California, with some key conversation over the hot-button issue of abortion and choice but also less recognizable topics such as security challenges, culturally cognizant care and preparation for public health crises.
"We also want to be focused more holistically. We know that African-American women are more likely to die when they walk in to give birth than I am. Why is that? What can we do to stop that? How do we get equity in women's health?" Bauer-Kahan said.
Bauer-Kahan said she continues to prioritize housing solutions -- while realizing well that the so-called "one size fits all" approach pushed by some California Democrats has not been popular among elected officials and many residents, liberal and conservative, in her district.
"Our constituents acknowledge the housing crisis. It's real," she said. "They want this to be an affordable place to settle, and so we all want solutions."
"And that's a really important thing that I've been pushing my colleagues to understand," she added. "Our district has a bad reputation when it comes to housing, but we want to find solutions too. The problem is we don't think solutions are one-size-fits-all."
"What works in San Francisco or Berkeley doesn't necessarily work here ... It's OK to have a city and a suburb; they don't all have to be cities," Bauer-Kahan said with a chuckle.
She recalled her initial reaction to seeing Senate Bill 50, proposed earlier this year by State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) that aimed to spur rapid housing development by relaxing standards for some residential projects and overriding local zoning regulations near transit corridors and hubs.
"The first thing when I spoke to Senator Wiener about that bill is, after I read it, is what about the high fire zones? In my district, we have so many high fire zones right next to transit that would make a bill like that dangerous ... and small roads ... To put a high-rise building on that is not safe," Bauer-Kahan said.
She added, "(Our cities) work hard to make sure that we build cities that make sense -- that are safe for our residents, that our services can match."
As for solutions, Bauer-Kahan said, "What I hear most, from the Tri-Valley mayors -- who are great, they work together, they come to us with solutions -- is that there are things in the pipeline, in the production. So they've got all this stuff on their plan, and it's not getting built. They're approving things, and it's not getting built. And so how do we get that friction out of the pipeline so that what works for these communities actually gets built."
She cited potential solutions such as more funding for affordable housing projects and fee reductions for new accessory dwelling units (colloquially, granny units).
The year ahead
"For this year, my goal is to move as many of the bills as we've been pushing forward (and) to continue all the bills that we've had signed by the governor," Bauer-Kahan said.
"In the next session, make sure that these environmental bills that are really, really important to our district move forward and that we continue to push forward the priorities and the values of the district in our second legislative package," she added.
Specific district goals include efforts to preserve the Tesla open space and legislation to improve the contractor procurement process for off-highway transportation projects in local communities -- to create a more cost-effective process, inspired by the Iron Horse Regional Trail overcrossing project in San Ramon.
And with the primary election just six months away (bumped up to March for the first time), Bauer-Kahan confirmed to the Weekly that she will be seeking re-election to a second term next year.
Her message to voters ahead of the 2020 campaign cycle?
"I think it will be the same, making sure that we as a district continue to have representation -- hopefully at every level of government -- that represents our values. And that I work every day to do that and will continue to do so."