Primed by a special election for state Senate driven by millions in outside spending and a barrage of negative mailers, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla of Concord and Orinda Mayor Steve Glazer tangled sharply Friday over high-speed rail, public pensions and their allegiance to government unions.
In their only scheduled televised debate, the two Democrats quickly fell into the business-vs.-labor arguments that have defined the East Bay race that had, as of Thursday, already drawn independent expenditures of more than $3 million. Labor is supporting Bonilla, while Glazer is backed by business interests and wealthy businessman Bill Bloomfield.
Glazer called the race a choice between “a centrist and a partisan” too closely tied to powerful unions. Pointing to a 100 percent rating by the California Labor Federation, Bonilla was asked to name one issue on which she disagreed with organized labor.
“I chuckle at that association,” Bonilla said, holding up her votes for Gov. Jerry Brown’s pension overhaul efforts in recent years. “The reason labor is supporting me is because I’m respectful of them and they can trust me to be honest about the numbers.”
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“She never really did cite an example of where she was on any divergent path with labor,” Glazer replied. “I see some of these answers as fig leaves. They’re just to cover up the real problem that’s still occurring in Sacramento.” He argued the Legislature has failed to address huge liabilities in unfunded retirement benefits.
Bonilla and Glazer found common ground on their support for controversial bills that would mandate vaccines for California schoolchildren and allow terminally ill patients access to lethal drugs.
But the tension resurfaced as discussion turned to high-speed rail. While Glazer wanted to shift the $68 billion project’s funding for local transportation needs, Bonilla argued the train would help the Central Valley overcome high unemployment and poor air quality.
“I’m more concerned about our communities here,” Glazer said. “Susan seems to be more concerned about the economic vitality of the Central Valley.”
“As a state senator, it’s actually important that you are concerned with the entire state of California,” Bonilla shot back. “We have to work together on all of our issues.”
“Last time I checked, they have a senator,” Glazer said.
The debate reached a fraught conclusion as the candidates, visibly annoyed and speaking over each other at times, discussed the BART strike that paralyzed the East Bay in the summer of 2013. While Glazer advocated a ban on future strikes, Bonilla said proposed changes to training and safety policies would make legislation unnecessary.
“If you implement these measures, there will not be another BART strike,” Bonilla said, “because they will be working together respectfully.”
“You’re making that up. You’re making that up,” Glazer said. He accused Bonilla of parroting the union line.
“You’ve heard my opponent’s criticism and attacks against me,” Bonilla finished. “We don’t need a candidate who will fight and divide.”
Call The Bee’s Alexei Koseff, (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.