Interview with Ben Allen, candidate for State Senate District 26 by Ryan Gierach, West Hollywood, California
RG: Hello Ben Allen. Somehow you got into a race with a darling of the national press and women’s groups. How goes the battle?
Ben Allen: It’s funny. Yeah, so… yeah so it’s a good race and I think– you know I think a lot of the people who have been involved with me for a while they value local experience, government experience.
RG: There are a lot of Assembly members who you know had their sights on something like this. What makes you think from the school board you can ascend to the State Senate?
Ben Allen: I mean I think it’s a leap for both of us but I think it’s– but I do think that I have– personally known the assembly member– know the City and Assembly members (unintelligible).
And actually we’re probably going to see less and less of some members running for Senate as time goes on because now–
RG: New term limits will also make politicians choose between Assembly and Senate because they cannot do both.
Ben Allen: So there’ll be lots of people going straight into the Senate from the various local positions. You know I’ve worked– I’ve (unintelligible), I’m from (unintelligible). I’ve spent time– I’ve done of all the sort of social justice advocacy stuff that I’m sure you talked about with Sandra, but I’ve also got experience in the private sector, got experience in– substantial experience in government both– staffer on Capitol Hill in Washington.
So I’ve seen the political and legislative process from that perspective. I’ve spent two years serving at the State level as a voting member of the University of the California Board of Regents working on policy matters there.
I’ve got a couple years as a Santa Monica College Bond Oversight Committee, 2007-2008. And then two terms on the school board locally and also a number of local positions, such as chair of the L.A. County Los Angeles County Office of Education Committee on School Board Organization and I served on the Los Angeles County School Trustees Association Board of Directors Association. I’ve been teaching at UCLA Law School on policy issues, state– relating to education in particular.
Nothing in life can fully prepare you for a jump into State Legislature, but I certainly do have experience at the local, State and National level working on legislation. And not only a school board member.
On the school board, you’re part of a coalition trying to come up with solutions dealing with the budget crisis and the major financial issues there. You know the constituents, work with parents, balance budgets. I have the experience of balancing seven consecutive budgets and all the challenges associated with that.
RG: In your experience in the School Board what can you really say that you could do in the State Senate in 12 years on the education system in California that would really turn it around, really make a difference? What would you say you could do?
Ben Allen: I’m very– well first of all on school finance questions. So much of my life on the School Board has been dominated by trying to address the implications of the downturn and all the negative results of it for my school district. So, coming up with creative solutions to our financing challenges.
We spend about half on our pupils per student compared to New York and Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, New Jersey, all those northeastern states that we tend to compete with.
You know you can pay teachers better, you can lower class sizes, you can put the money into special programs, you can provide more class offerings. You can have a more robust program for early childhood education, more after school programming, you know libraries, and arts, and PE and music and all those kind of critical programs that we’ve cut back so dramatically in the state that really do make a difference – particularly for those students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
But it also very difficult. That money could go a long way and we are grotesquely underfunding the system right now.
RG: You know the State of California… we’re like every other state although more so in battling with income inequality. Where do you see your role in the State Senate relating to fostering economic activity benefitting those on the lowest end of the financial totem pole?
Ben Allen: We need to support efforts to– you know, support the minimum wage efforts in a way. You look at job creation – you want to look at creating jobs that are sound and have job security and get the support they need to live a good life in California.
But you’re right there’s been an enormous drop off in job growth, much worse than it was before.
You know there were times when we had better income equality but also tremendous economic growth. And I think that this argument that a minimum wage would hurt our chances to grow economically, it’s not only false it’s just not backed up by historical record.
RG: On the environment, what’s left in California to add to the wide array of protections in place?
Ben Allen: That’s a really important issue, and there’s still a lot of wilderness left to protect. I mean, I grew up back in the mountains around Runyan Canyon. And I think if L.A. continues to grow really those mountains are so important for qualify of life. Certainly my sense of quality of life. You know I know in my own life it’s been a wonderful refuge, a respite, a place to go to get a little solitude, spirituality. And, great family bonding that sort of thing.
So that’s one thing. I mean certainly the whole debate about climate change affects California coastal waters and our valuable seashore businesses and homes. And we can, and should, continue to play an important role in, a leadership role, in that.
RG: But can a state senator have an impact on a worldwide debate?
Ben Allen: That’s one of the reasons why I’m running for the California legislature first. It’s exciting, because Washington is so cautious, and so partisan, and so… deadlocked I don’t think climate change will ever get addressed.
But in Sacramento, who’d ever thought anyone would say this, is a greater consensus. The party leadership has also made some rule changes that actually make the place function better.
And the thing about it, if California were a country we’d be the eighth largest economy in the world. And when you make policy changes here, they actually have global ramifications
RG: Well, speaking of those kinds of things, where are you on the bullet train? I mean it’s not exactly a partisan issue. Quite a few Democrats are wondering what in the world we’ve gotten into. Is this a boondoggle of epic proportions? Where are you?
Ben Allen: On the conception very supportive, but as the costs continue to grow I’m getting more and more– it’s harder and harder to justify it. So the question is– we’ve each seen that sort of project, that sort of technology, work really well in other countries.
I’ve ridden the bullet train in France and I think it could do a lot for our economy and a lot for mobility, pollution, and transportation and all that sort of thing.
But, you know it seemed a lot more attractive at $20 billion rather than $75 or $80 billion.
RG: So it’s… it just doesn’t seem to me that they can charge enough to make back that $60 billion, the $90 billion that it’s going to end up.
Ben Allen: Well that’s sort of the question, like what else could we do with that money? I know we could (unintelligible) transform L.A.’s transportation system.
I mean you’re from West Hollywood; it’s the fourth most densely populated city west of the Mississippi and so desperately needs help with its transportation system.
RG: What would you say are the issues most of interest to the people of West Hollywood, the residents and businesses of West Hollywood?
Ben Allen: I really think transportation and access. You know, obviously jobs and the economy continue to be a problem for everybody.
Obviously West Hollywood has a strong reputation for progressive thinking — I mean WeHo turns that population concentration into its advantage because they’re a really strong LGBT community and face a lot of issues that continue to be at the social justice forefront, such as civil rights and animal rights.
Development issues, obviously, continue to be really controversial.
RG: Well, where can you help the city there?
Ben Allen: Well I think part of it has to do with the affordable housing funding stream, and it’s actually being changed as we speak.
But you know, providing for– making sure that it doesn’t end up being used as a way to actually reduce affordable housing options for people. And also, you know make sure that we continue to find ways for local autonomy and municipal decision-making.
I still continue to believe cities really should be the ones making planning decisions for our communities because they’re the ones who are most accountable to folks on the ground.