Politics & Government

Assembly candidate Steve Cohn talks issues, alliances and Kings

After decades on the Sacramento City Council, Steve Cohn aspires to vault into an open Assembly seat. He stopped by The Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau on Tuesday to answer questions about his record, his vision for state office and the ever-present debate over a new Kings arena.

Tell us why you’re running and what you’d like to do with the position.

“I think 20 years is a good amount of time to spend at the local level. I’m sure I could accomplish more were I to stay but I think it’s time for someone else with some other ideas to come in and take over my seat. I don’t think I would have run (for Assembly) under the old primary system or the way the districts were configured because I’m more of a problem solver, a consensus builder. I’m not as partisan or ideological and I’d probably have a harder time getting through a Democratic priority.”

So what are the issues you think would have been problematic?

“I’m just not as automatic a vote on every single liberal Democratic issue, which traditionally the primaries here were really all about.”

The financial structure that supports the moderate (Democratic) caucus is supporting you. Would you see yourself in the Legislature aligning with those members or with the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party?

“I would say I’m more independent and don’t look to be part of one caucus or another.”

What do you think the biggest difference is between you and our opponent?

“One is our approach. My approach to governance is one more of consensus building, problem-solving, less ideological, less partisan. Second area is I tend to focus more on infrastructure, transportation, flood control, utilities – the tangible things government can do to create a platform for the private sector to build on. I think I’m a little more focused on jobs, particularly for our region.”

Any thought to specific bills you’d like to carry?

“The first bill I’d like to carry would be to try do something to modernize the Capitol Corridor and other (passenger rail) corridors, just because that’s something I’ve spent a lot of time on. It still takes two hours 15 minutes to get from Sacramento to San Francisco because we’re sharing antiquated rail lines with freight. We need to modernize that, and even without high-speed rail, just modernizing the system, you could get from Sacramento to San Francisco in one hour.”

Are you in favor of high-speed rail?

“In concept, yes. I’m not in favor of the plan that’s been adopted. The Central Valley is the poorest and most in need of jobs and certainly the construction jobs and the economic benefits from having high-speed rail go through the Valley would be very strong positives for the Central Valley. Having said that, that’s not the most economical route to start with. If you really focus on Sacramento, Bay Area, L.A., San Diego, that’s where you can have tremendous growth because there’s no way to get in between those places in less than an hour by any alternative means.”

You mentioned Tesla. So if you had been in the Legislature how would you have positioned (yourself) with the tax breaks on the table?

“It’s clear to me that we’re not nimble enough, and what’s also clear to me is we have a larger problem than just Tesla. Tesla got a lot of publicity but there are a lot of other industries that aren’t as notable but that are also leaving or are not coming to our state.”

How much of that needs to be a rethinking of the (California Environmental Quality Act) process? Should there be a more widely available expedited process of the type that was available for the Kings arena?

“It’s not just CEQA ... Some of it is the amount of time, and that’s I think a key aspect of what you were talking about with the arena: having more time certainty, not just CEQA but also on other permits and the litigation aspects, having some limit on how long that’s going to take. So trying to reduce some of the risk and delay makes a big difference when someone’s trying to make an investment.”

Obviously the Kings arena has been a big factor in the background of your race: the fact that you supported a public subsidy for it, your opponent was a vocal skeptic. Back in the ’90s you sort of took the opposite position. You were an opponent of a public subsidy to keep the Kings in town. What changed?

“Back in the ’90s that was truly a subsidy to operate the team. They basically wanted a $70 million loan, not to build anything, but just because they had an operating deficit. To me that was wrong. You contrast that with what we have now where basically we’re putting in half the money, they’re putting in half the money in terms of capital, they take all the building risk ... and they’re rebuilding Downtown Plaza, and they’re going to build a hotel, and we’re getting all other kinds of development already generated, interest has been generated throughout downtown – to me this is a great investment. This is the kind of thing that cities should be doing.”

If you win, you’ll be representing the Board of Equalization building. (Assemblyman) Roger Dickinson has carried legislation about that. What do you think?

“My gut level is that it just might be better at this point for the state to get rid of that building and let the private sector come in and take over and do whatever the developer wants to with that building and just find other places for these people to go.”

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