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After Single-Payer Battles, is the Assembly Ready for a Nurse?

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El Cerrito councilwoman and nurse Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto, in front of the former Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo.  (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

This story is part of a weekly series of profiles of candidates running for the 15th Assembly District. You can see all the profiles and news about this race here.

Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto, dressed in her grey and pink nurses uniform, stands in front the building that used to be Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo.

After years of struggling to balance its budget, Doctors Medical Center closed in 2015. The large numbers of low-income residents the hospital served were paying with Medi-Cal or Medicare, which reimburse the hospital at a lower rate than private insurers.

Now, construction crews roam the property, preparing the building for its next life as a casino parking lot.

When she’s not serving on El Cerrito’s city council, Pardue-Okimoto works as a nurse in the newborn intensive care unit at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley. Alta Bates is facing a similar fate to Doctors Medical Center: Sutter Health says it will close the facility in the next dozen years, rather than take on expensive earthquake retrofits.


Pardue-Okimoto says the closures endanger the lives of nearby residents needing emergency care. It’s one of the issues she’s emphasizing in her campaign for state Assembly in the fifteenth district.

“Until we have a system that treats everybody the same we’re going to continue to see these types of closures and increase tragedies occurring along with them,” she said.

For Pardue-Okimoto, the solution is single-payer health care.

It’s no surprise to hear that from a nurse. The California Nurses Association was the driving force behind the single-payer health care proposal that passed the state Senate last year, before being held in the Assembly.

But in this liberal district, support for single-payer isn’t much of a lightning rod: all eleven Democrats running are for it.

“You can say that you believe in it, but I have 17 years of frontline health care experience,” Pardue-Okimoto said. “There’s no nurses right now serving in the legislature.”

It’s hard to see a red carpet being rolled out over the Assembly’s green floor for the chosen candidate of the CNA. The organization  skewered Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon when he halted the single-payer bill, going so far as to threaten a recall campaign.

Pardue-Okimoto said she doesn’t think the nurses have poisoned the well for her in the Assembly.

“I believe that it will be my job to go there and to work with people in the legislature and that’s going to be all of the leadership as well,” she said. “As much as I do love the nurses and the Nurses Association, I’m going to be elected as the assembly member from district 15 and I’m there to represent the interests of my constituents.”

That’s not to say Pardue-Okimoto isn’t benefiting from the help of the California Nurses Association in the meantime. The CNA has been her largest donor, and with less than a month before ballots are mailed out in the district, the nurses are providing an organizing boost.

“The nurses are out there, they’re walking and knocking for me, they’re making phone calls for me because they believe in me,” she adds.

Pardue-Okimoto said she’ll sometimes have nurses approach her during her shift, hoping to lend a hand.

“Just last night when I was at work, one of my colleagues said ‘When can we walk and knock for you?’ And I said ‘how about next weekend?'”

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